Uniting Power of Environmentalism
by Rabbi Larry Troster
The Earth is the Lord's, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it (Psalms 24:1)
As a rabbi and theologian who has long been involved with religious environmentalism both in the Jewish environmental community and in the interfaith environmental community, I have met and spoken with people of all faiths, clergy and laity, scientists and scholars, who are deeply concerned about the growing environmental crisis. And so the question must be asked: Even as we live in a world where religious divisions often lead to conflict and violence, why is there this constructive and congenial dialogue between Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and other religions of all kinds on the environment?
First of all, because the degradation of the environment crosses all national boundaries and affects people with no regard for religious distinctions. It is a universal human crisis, which demands a universal human response. But more deeply than that, environmentalism is a worldview or philosophy, which transcends all previous political, economic or religious categories. Environmentalism is at once both traditional and radical.
Environmentalism is traditional in that it upholds the ancient values of humility, moderation and frugality. For example: the Abrahamic religions all believe that God is the sole Creator and owner of the world (Psalm 24:1). Human beings were created by God to be the stewards of the world, using the world moderately and frugally for our benefit but only in a way that will not destroy Creation. There is, in the Jewish tradition, a commandment that tells us that we are not to wantonly destroy any aspect of God's creation.
We do not own Creation. We are part of it. Greed and the unthinking waste of Creation will lead to our own detriment as well as the decline of all life.
Another value that various traditions can join together on is environmental justice. This is the term used to describe both the connection between degradation of the environment and its impact on the poor and also the unequal distribution of resources between the developed and underdeveloped world.
Judaism responds to these inequities with the concept of tzedek, usually translated as righteousness but which can also mean equity. Tzedek is the practical attempt to return the world to a more equal balance of power. One example of Tzedek law is Sabbatical year, which mandate that the land lie fallow every seven years and that all debts are released (Exodus 23:11, Leviticus 25:2-5, Deuteronomy 15:1-4). There is in the Torah a whole program of tzedek, which tries to preserve a just distribution of resources across the community.
Environmentalism can thus draw upon some of the best ethical values of all the world's religions. While we may speak in different terms there are many points of contact by which we can bring our traditions to deal with this universal human crisis. But we must also recognise that environmentalism is also radical in that it challenges the fundamental way we are now living, working, producing and consuming. While humans have been changing their physical environment for thousands of years, these changes had only local or at most regional effects.
In the modern era, with large-scale industrialisation and a growing global economy, environmental change has also increased proportionally with the result that we now have a host of global environmental problems such as climate change, shortage of fresh water, loss of biodiversity and toxicity of the soil, that demand our response. Even as we draw upon our traditions to bring wisdom to this crisis we also recognise that we are in a situation that none of our traditions could have imagined.
Environmentalism unites us in another way. In part, environmentalism is based on modern sciences where new perspectives have emerged that reveal the unity of humanity and indeed of all life. From astronomy we learn that every atom that makes up our bodies originated in the Big Bang. From biology we learn that there are virtually no significant genetic differences between all humans, and that the genetic differences between all living organisms is relatively minor. From ecology we learn of the subtle interconnections within ecosystems. By becoming aware of these connections we gain what is called environmental consciousness or environmental identity. Mitchell Thomashow has described this identity as getting people to “perceive themselves in reference to nature, as living breathing beings connected to the rhythms of the earth, the biogeochemical cycles, the grand and complex diversity of ecological systems.” Having a common environmental identity is another way we create a foundation for dialogue between civilisations.
Even Eisenberg in his book The Ecology of Eden, created a typology of two different worldviews: the mountain and the river valleys. The mountain worldview cultures, “made their living from small-scale mixed husbandry…the peoples of the great rivers were more ambitious. They practiced large-scale, irrigated agriculture that was not so different, at heart, from what large corporations do in California today.” These two ways of living on the land produced different economies, social structures and political forms. These worldviews were concretised in the symbols of the Mountain and the Tower. The mountain is a symbol of wilderness, a sacred place in which heaven and earth meet. In ecological fact, mountains are critical to many ecosystems: sources of water, biodiversity and the earliest farming. Those who farm on a mountain must be ecologically aware of the presence and necessity of the wilderness of the mountain.
The valleys produced the first cities with their man made towers. In the floodplain of the valleys large-scale irrigation projects could be produced that allowed people to ignore wilderness and even to think that they had transcended it. This was not sustainable agriculture and many ancient valley cultures declined when their land became salinised. Nonetheless, the valley cultures produced the great technological achievements of human civilisation. Eisenberg believes that our modern agriculture and civilisation has exclusively followed the Valley model to our peril.
Eisenberg's typology of the mountain can be used as a powerful symbol to create a common foundation of dialogue, bridging the differences between civilisations and coming to a common understanding of what unites us.
ALL OF OUR sacred texts are filled with references to the natural world and Creation is the common source of all of our spiritual traditions. The spiritual dimension of humanity maybe as intrinsic to Homo sapiens' evolution as is speech, tool making or consciousness. Anthropologist Mircea Eliade once asserted that the contemplation of the sky might be the original impetus for religious experience. He wrote:
For the sky, by its own mode of being, reveals transcendence, force, eternity. It exists absolutely because it is high, infinite, eternal, powerful.
Scientist James Lovelock, the creator of the Gaia theory once asked,
How can we revere the living world if we can no longer hear the bird song through the noise of traffic, or smell the sweetness of fresh air? How can we wonder about God and the universe if we never see the stars because of the city lights?
In the end, the environmental crisis is a spiritual crisis, which requires a spiritual solution that cannot be confined to a single tradition. Environmentalism can bring us together to find our common spirit.
Bio: Lawrence Troster is the Rabbinic Fellow of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL), the Jewish Chaplain and Associate of the Institute for Advanced Theology at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York and Rabbinic Scholar-in-Residence at Greenfaith an interfaith environmental coalition in New Jersey. Rabbi Troster also serves on the Interfaith Partnership for the Environment of UNEP (United Nations Environment Program). He has published numerous articles and has lectured widely on theology, environmentalism, liturgy and bio-ethics.