Changing More Than a Light Bulb

The environment is a hot topic these days. One can scarcely read the news magazines without finding mention of the … Continued

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.

Written by

  • Chris

    Absolutely. The issue at hand is not something that will simply “go away” after we have devised one particular technology. But it is an issue that requires continuous care to create a new way of seeing things and a new way of seeing ourselves. Every thing in our lives requires resources and energy and what is taken in its original form is almost always more valuable than the end result. Yet, we in the West have “perfected” our capitalist system and in the process, established an empire built upon toasters, cars, and warheads. It is not enough to simply say that we should buy differently – while purchasing local, sustainable, and fair trade is better, our world is not prepared to give us what we need according to these principles; not with our current ethos and rate of consumption. We need to think differently and act differently and live differently if we have any desire to pass on the world to future generations. That is where my hope is – it is in creating something entirely new where everything we have is valued for what it is and everything we don’t have is not really necessary. We need simplicity as much as we need an ecological transformation of our economy – but both require a long-sighted commitment from the global community.

  • Chris Everett

    I agree that a “problem to solution” paradigm isn’t the answer – it addresses the symptoms but provides no cure. However, although it’s good that religious organizations are promoting environmentalism, they cannot be trusted to have a reasonable agenda. As a case in point when a religious person learns that, for ethical reasons, I don’t eat animals, the response is often, “But that’s what they’re FOR.”Instead, the problem is ultimately political, and a new political ethos is called for. I propose a stance of LIBERTARIAN SOCIALISM!!! This philosophy is rooted in a view of man’s relationship to the physical world that has two poles. On one end is INDIVIDUAL OWNERSHIP, where a man has a right to the products of his own labor. That’s the Libertarian part. On the other end is COMMUNAL STEWARDSHIP, in which the environment is fundamentally un-ownable – it is a legacy that we, as a community, are responsible for sharing justly and leaving undiminished to posterity. That’s the Socialist part.As an example of the implications of this philosophy, consider taxes. We currently tax income. But what right does the government have to take a big slice of the fruits of OUR labor? LITTLE OR NONE!!! However, what if our income didn’t come directly from labor, but came from selling off a natural resource like gold or oil? The resource didn’t exist as the result of anyone’s efforts – it was there all along as part of our shared inheritance. As the steward of that shared inheritance, the person developing the resource should effectively have to “buy” the resource from the government, but pay little to no taxes on the value his efforts have added. Thus my utopian taxation fantasy is this: TAX THE DEPLETION OF NATURAL RESOURCES. This would naturally stimulate conservation. Environmental degradation is a form of depletion, so it would stimulate green technology too. It might even help curb corporate corruption, since there’s nothing more tempting than “found money”, and if there’s one thing that’s “found”, it’s the environment.

  • Lawton Cooper

    Excellent article, though I am admittedly biased as an observant Jew and active member of Canfei Nesharim. Ultimately there can be no contradiction between Torah-based values and protecting the environment, if only for the sake of mankind’s present and future welfare. To the extent that religious Jews display indifference or even animosity towards environmental causes, it is because they have not learned what our tradition has to say on the subject, and because they are turned off by what they perceive to be radical left-wing politics and environmental messianism. Hence the important role that organizations like Canfei Nesharim can play. I dare say that many religious Christians would have similar comments regarding Christian faith-based enviornmental groups.One more point. If a person supports environmental causes for reasons of personal ethics rather than a religious mandate, she is less likely to make the sacrifices in personal comforts that may be called for.

  • John Stephens

    Well written, good concept.I say we round up all the Indians we locked away in concentration camps and have them teach us how to be one with nature. I will happily go back to the teepee if it means saving this big, blue beautiful planet.

  • Anonymous

    We do not need to back to Jewish traditions to set our priorities. The ancient Jews did not have the same pollution and waste problems we have. The Jews were and are humans and as humans they tried to find solutions to the social problems of their times, some of which were to write them into scriptures and put words into the mouth of an idol they called Yahweh. After the scriptures were completed the idol Yahweh speaks no more as the scriptures have silenced him. The scriptures cannot be revised or another scripture written to address the problems of our times. It is a blessing that the idol yahweh has been rendered mute. Now we can look to our own solution without looking over our shoulders wondering what our idol may be thinking.

  • Anonymous

    Oooooopppsssa. Correction on that Mass Hamas-ian EXODUS: This is a blessing, so to speaketh! This is your opportunity iSRAEL. Let them leave , do not ever let them Multitudal Mass Murdering Terroristin! Keep them out of All Gaza! Do not live on that G-d forsaken hell hole. Justly Make it the biggest parking lot on Earth! And for 2000 years if need be! So PUSH PUSH in da BUSH! Ya Ya!”… YOUR “Hashem [G-D]” is hintinting you. And Their “Allah” [G-D] too!