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Environmentalism and Ethics

Kol Nidrei, 5771/2010
David Fisher

    The Peace of Wild Things

    When despair for the world grows in me
    and I wake in the night at the least sound

    in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,

    I go and lie down where the wood drake

    rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
    I come into the peace of wild things 

    who do not tax their lives with forethought

    of grief. I come into the presence of still water.

    And I feel above me the day-blind stars

    waiting with their light. For a time

    I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Wendell Berry’s The Peace of Wild Things is a comfort and inspiration for me today, amidst a world that is not always encouraging hope. When I say that we are in the midst of an unprecedented ecological crisis, my words feel hollow. I struggle to articulate the magnitude of the dilemma that scientists agree we are facing.

Attempting to mend that hollowness of words tonight, I hope that together we can come to a deeper understanding of 3 points:

  1. The ecological crisis we face is a deeply humanitarian crisis.
  2. We each have a role to play in bringing about a world fixes this ecological and humanitarian crisis.
  3. This crisis involves everyone on the planet, and so we must bridge our religious and cultural divides in order to solve it together.

Leaning on the wisdom of other traditions, and meditating on the lessons that Judaism has to offer, I find myself coming closer to a fitting description of where we stand today. Where we stand, as we pray for inscription in the book of life.

Wendell Berry’s poetry sheds light on where we might begin today. He is a life-long Baptist, and renowned environmentalist. His simple words remind me that some despair is healthy. According to scientific consensus, there have been six mass extinctions in Earth’s history. The fifth was 65 million years ago, and wiped out remaining dinosaurs. As our species perpetrates the sixth mass extinction since the dawn of life on Earth, largely through wholesale habitat destruction, sadness is not only healthy but required. Personally, I must accept the catastrophes of the world that I am growing up into. This recognition leaves me no other option but striving to change how the world is taking shape. And my personal lifestyle has to be part of that change.

In Reconstructionism, with no supernatural in the universe, we must come to terms with the reality that the Unetanah Tokef of our day is by human hands on almost every count:

Who by rising seas, and who by the harshness of draught.
B’Rosh Hashanah yika tey-vun, uv’yom tzom Kippur yey-ha tey-mun.
On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed
Who shall live, and who shall die. 

The environmental crisis is a central dilemma, at the crux of the world community’s shared past, present and future. Netanyahu and Abbas could draw the borders of a peaceful two state solution today, but climate change will rewrite their coastlines tomorrow, if we remain instransigent.

There is no avoiding the centrality of the environmental crisis to the Planet’s future, and we are shaping that future now. Until I accept that this, I will not be able to answer to the children I raise - at some point down the road.

As the world faces an inconceivably dire challenge, working together is not a political perspective, it is a logical necessity. The fierce debate over religious freedom for Muslims in lower Manhattan is not saddening just because of the intolerance demonstrated. Al Gore has explained that, on our current course, the Atlantic Ocean will cover the site of the World Trade Center towers within 50 years – and the community center being built would suffer the same fate. Two sides are arguing over their rights to space, space that will become uninhabitable if our society remains thus divided and distracted. Will protestors take to canoes? What would they have to protect?

We must embrace Muslim leaders as our Abrahamic brothers, our partners in bringing forth a world that is not only more tolerant, but more spiritually connected and ecologically sustainable.

The environmental crisis we face, it is increasingly clear, is a humanitarian crisis, and a social justice crisis. In the words of C.S. Lewis: “Man’s power over nature is really man’s power over one another, with nature as his instrument.” Accepting this universal reality, encompassing all life on earth as it involves our global environment, it is clear that the world is in the midst of a multi-faith emergency. Logic demands that we turn to an interfaith response, if we are to protect our world and the children to whom we will hand it down.

Confessing my sins, in Al Chet, I feel torn apart by my imperfections, but held together by the holy pursuit of bettering my ways. While the future can feel bleak, almost devoid of hope, one of my favorite poems lifts me out of despair. Rumi, the 13th century mystic and most respected poet of the Muslim world, once wrote:

Sadness to me is the happiest time,
When a shining city rises from the ruins of my drunken mind.
Those times when I am silent and still as the earth,
And the thunder of my roar is heard across the universe

With the approach of Al Chet, of confessing that I have not led a lifestyle as sustainable as I must, I confront a deep sadness yet feel drawn to a sense of clarity of how to move forward. This understanding begins to break apart my confusion, giving direction to my grief – grief that is healthy given the state of the world, but that must lead to action as well. As a devout Reconstructionist, disavowing the supernatural yet devoted to spirituality, prayer is central to my life. As Rabbi Audrey has said, prayer is a link to accountability beyond the self.

These are times that may bring our world closer together, but only if we choose such a path. We can choose to shun evangelicals, to shun certain Muslims, whoever we dislike. Or, we can choose to embrace one another in the solemn request that we face our common perils together. We must change our ways so that we have legitimacy in demanding that our politicians change the ways of our nation.

I like to joke that Amtrak has a monopoly on terrible service. And although they do, I have no choice but to remain a faithful client. In the words of the Bishop of London:

“Making selfish choices such as flying on holiday or buying a large car are a symptom of sin. Sin is not just a restricted list of moral mistakes. It is living a life turned in on itself where people ignore the consequences of their actions.”

And the Archbishop of Canterbury agrees:
"Flying is a sin against G-d."

These are not easy changes, but deep steps struggling forward into a brighter new year. The father of one of my best friends at Oberlin is practically working a second job so that he can afford to make financially challenging changes. He hopes to bankroll a windmill for his neighborhood, and points out that there is nothing better to do with his money – and his time – than to use it protecting the people he loves most – to protect their future.

As I confirmed plans to study abroad in Israel next semester, the consequences of flight hit me hard. The paradox could not be more acute – going to Israel for environmental studies in a way that severely damages Israel and the world at large. I would be returning to my homeland in a way that displaces future generations from theirs. At first, I viewed the distance to Israel as obstacle to overcome. Now, I see it as an opportunity to learn.

Beginning as one of less than 10 passengers aboard a 300 meter freight ship, I will spend ten days crossing the Atlantic – which is much more energy-efficient than flying. I am doing the most I can to reduce my emissions, and offsetting what is unavoidable. As my plans stand now, my trip will reduce carbon in the atmosphere – through planting and carbon credits – rather than pollute. I will volunteer in Europe, rather than contribute to worsening humanitarian crises that will result from climate change. I will visit sites relevant to Jewish history and my family’s roots, rather than flying over them. It is not the most convenient, or budget-friendly travel, and I will probably need to fly home. However, it is the best that I can do. I am not here to offer easy answers, but to share the questions that I am asking myself: what are the consequences of my actions? What are the costs of my choices? I begin my own answers reflecting on a quotation from photojournalist Jon Lowenstein: “It’s curious how often stories about the planet are removed from stories about the human beings who occupy it”.

Of purpose beyond the self, Heschel wrote: “What we do as individuals is a trivial episode; what we attain as Israel becomes part of eternity.” (132) I would add, what the Jewish people choose to do in the next decade will permanently shape our place in eternity. When all of creation cried out, how did we answer? Our communities, our families, and we all individually, are accountable to–and capable of–effecting change. Indeed, we have already begun. Looking inward at my own sadness, doing my best to take off my blinders, my life would crumble to pieces if I did not see my world, my nation, my community, my congregation, my family, and myself reaching higher. Recycling has become the norm, local foods are on the rise, and climate activist Bill McKibben is negotiating the installation of solar panels on the white house. The European Union has ended all economic subsidies for coal companies, and Obama has proposed similar measures in America.

There is no argument that the Jewish people cannot overcome the difficulties of sustainability. Stepping onto trains instead of airplanes, riding on bicycles instead of in cars, and eating vegetables instead of meat is a small task compared to surviving the many perils of Jewish history. We were slaves in Egypt. We spent 4 decades under the hot desert sun before finding Israel. We established our home there and the Babylonians destroyed our holy temple. After we rebuilt it, the Romans destroyed it. When we rebelled against the Romans 50 years after that, they brutally crushed our society and cast us out into Diaspora. Then we survived an inquisition, pogroms, and ultimately the Holocaust. Anyone who says that Jews cannot become a sustainable people, that it is too hard, requires to much sacrifice, has not read our history. This transition is not going to be overnight, but let’s try to do it, slowly, one step at a time, in the next year. If we hope to change the course of our society, we must begin with ourselves.

As Martin Luther King Junior once said: “The arc of a moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Civil rights, against so many odds, climbed mountains. And it took a lot of people. Including Jewish and other interfaith leaders like Abraham Joshua Heschel.

On Yom Kippur I tie together the disparate experiences of my past year. With ten days of intense introspection–of Awe–I strive to distill my growth and my setbacks, to determine whether I achieved my hopes from the past year, and to set new goals for the coming year. With frustration that I am only human, only capable of doing so much, possibility for progress moves me forward. Prayer connects me with my deepest fears and strongest hopes. When I translate the Sh’ma, I recognize the meaning of “Israel” – “Hear, o’ wrestlers.”

While this crisis of humanity is universal, I experience it Jewishly because of who I am. And so, I turn to the liturgy to bring me forward. I experience prayer, as in the words of Paul Simon:

    I'm trying to tap into some wisdom,
    Even a little drop will do.
    I want to rid my heart of envy
    And cleanse my soul of rage
    Before I'm through.

    Well, you cry and try to muscle through
    Try to rearrange your stuff
    But when the wounds are deep enough,
    It's all that we can bear,
    We wrap ourselves in prayer.