The environment is a hot topic these days. One can scarcely read the news magazines without finding mention of the risks that climate change presents. Beyond the threat of climate change, we face enormous resource depletion, from overfishing to deforestation to desertification. Our planet is threatening to crack under the enormous strain we have been putting on it.
We all must work to address the serious threat of climate change. Yet the true problem is not with the fact that we drive SUVs or use the wrong kind of light bulb. The more fundamental problem is with the way Western society uses the environment: our short-sighted, selfish, utilitarian way of facing the planet, and our inability to see our own devastating impacts which affect not only the planet, but the futures of our own children.
The environmental movement itself is not immune to the limitations of Western society. By working for short-term technological and political solutions without helping people change the way they think about our environment and our responsibility for it, the environmental movement has failed to create the kind of mindset shift that is truly needed for social change.
The environmental movement tends to work on a “problem to solution” paradigm: find a problem, find a solution, get people engaged in that solution, get everyone taking action, (whew!) problem solved. While this approach has worked with numerous environmental problems, the limitation is that when the problem is solved, people do not want to hear about the next environmental problem. People want the “environmental problem” handled.
Yet the environment does not work that way. The nature of our advancing technology is that it requires constant vigilance to ensure that new technology does not present a new environmental problem. (We would do well to have this vigilance so that we can act before that environmental problem has been proven to hurt hundreds of thousands of people.) Because of our rapidly changing world, we cannot expect to solve the environmental problem, only to manage our resources wisely and correct mistakes as soon as they are discovered.
What is needed is a shift in values that helps us recognize that protecting our resources and using them wisely is a logical thing for human beings to do. When an environmental risk shows up, we need to take an honest look to see if this is a real problem, and then look to see what can be done. Perhaps a values-based approach would help us avoid the squabbling among industry, activists, scientists, and politicians that obscures and confuses so much of the environmental conversation today.
Values-based wisdom can be found in today’s religious-environmental organizations, which tend to work — rather than on a problem/solution paradigm — in the paradigm of “environmental ethics.” This approach helps people think about their responsibility to their children and to other people and creatures on the planet – and then to act based on these responsibilities. Here we have the capacity for real culture change: finding new ways to enjoy the resources that we have, while saving enough for future generations.
In the Jewish tradition we have numerous sources which teach us to avoid waste, mandate responsibility for our neighbors and the impacts we have on them, and require that we use our resources wisely and protect them for future generations. By learning the wisdom of our own tradition, we can not only alter the course of one environmental problem, but learn how to build a wiser, stronger, and healthier world.
Today is Tu b’Shevat, the Jewish New Year of the Trees, an excellent time to learn what our tradition can teach about the environmental challenges we are facing.
Local Tu b’Shevat programs abound; if your community is not hosting an event, Jewish-environmental websites such as Canfei Nesharim provide resources for learning and planning your own.
May this year’s celebration of Tu b’Shevat help us not only solve today’s environmental problems, but also begin to shift our way of thinking and valuing our world: to learn what our tradition teaches about the importance of our precious resources, and our responsibility to protect and preserve them for our children and future generations.
Evonne Marzouk is the director of Canfei Nesharim, an organization which provides Torah-based resources about the importance of protecting the environment.