By Rabbi Fred Dobb
Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation, Bethesda, Maryland
There will always be hungry people in our midst (per Deut. 15) – unless and until, anyway, we tackle its root causes, and prevent the feedback mechanisms which exacerbate the problem. So far our Omer study has addressed many of these reasons why so many still go hungry, and these explorations are valuable, but incomplete. We still need to more thoroughly investigate the linkage between environmental destruction and human hunger, poverty, and suffering.
That linkage goes way back. The first sixth of the Talmud is Seder Z’ra’im, the Order of Seeds, pointing toward sustainable agriculture and tzedakah alike. Sustainable agriculture, where the land is respected enough to keep feeding people generation after generation, resonates from Leviticus to Tractate Peah to Israeli innovation in drip irrigation. That environment-hunger linkage is also important to consider precisely so we can learn how to feed people and spare ecosystems. The connection between human hunger and environmental devastation is a fact of history, a challenge for today, and a key to our survival tomorrow.
In the Past: Societies that don’t plan for the long-term, and don’t fastidiously protect their environment, collapse, with often disastrous results. Easter Island cut down forests to build up cities and monuments, and once treeless and soil-less, imploded. Ancient Mesopotamia supported a huge population through irrigation, but the growing salinity of the soil led millions to starve. Rome’s downfall may well have involved heavy metal contamination in the populace. How different are we?!
In the Present: Poor and hungry people, understandably, denude their local environment. What good is a wildlife preserve next door when your own family is malnourished? When residents need subsistence firewood to stay warm and heat food, what chance do the last nearby trees have? No environmental solution can work without also meeting the basic needs of the human population -- true in the savannah or in Savannah, in Tell Afar or Tel Aviv, locally and globally. And the reverse is true too: stripping vegetation creates new drier microclimates, leading to lower crop yields. Deforestation leads to soil erosion and loss of farmland. Toxins spewed into the air bioaccumulate in the plants and animals we eat. Polluted water sources compromise agriculture across the board. The environment must be protected in order to feed people; people must be fed in order to protect the environment.
In the Future: The impact of environmental destruction is always felt heaviest those already poorest and hungriest. “Environmental justice” advocates, including religious environmentalists, have long noted the undue environmental burden of the poor (the field began in a sense with a United Church of Christ study in 1985; the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, has in recent years been a key player in this movement). The worst however is yet to come: the rising sea levels and adverse weather changes that global warming are bringing will first and most seriously affect poor hungry people in developing nations, clustered along coastlines, already experiencing horrific food insecurity. Indigenous knowledge of agriculture and nature will be lost as the same crops no longer grow where they have for millennia. To keep people fed, global climate change and other environmental catastrophes must be mitigated.
What can we do for environmental justice? Three examples from Adat Shalom in Bethesda, MD. We designed our own synagogue building to be as energy efficient and as possible, using alternative materials (like cork instead of vinyl flooring) to be conscious of human health impacts. We sponsored a drive to replace potentially toxic mercury thermometers with digital ones, safely disposing of the hazardous older models. And we partnered with our local “Interfaith Power and Light” group (http://www.theregenerationproject.org) to buy a good percentage of the energy our synagogue uses from wind and other renewable sources, to do something to lessen the global warming now upon us.
In each of our communities there are so many things we can do. One of the texts above, from Rabbi Howard Cohen in Vermont, lists a host of possible actions. A number of our JRF affiliates are now designing synagogue buildings and expansions with environmental concerns in mind, led by JRC in Evanston Illinois which is breaking new ground by striving for high LEED certification (see www.usgbc.org for more on LEED green building).
Through Hazon (www.hazon.org) and on their own, numerous synagogues are starting organic gardens on their grounds, stewarding the land and feeding people at the same time.
And as individuals, acting on our most deeply held Jewish values, there is no limit to what we can accomplish. But first we must realize that we cannot choose either to feed the hungry or to protect Creation. As Jews and as people, we simply must do both.
Questions for Thought and Discussion:
Too many people having too many babies
Got to love them babies, but there’s
too many people having too many babies
Got to love them babies, but it’s out of control.
Adam and Eve, time on their hands,
hyperactive glands, room to expand –
when they began begetting, they begatted to excess,
eschewing tactics prophylactic: now we’re in a mess…
Some say no, no no, it’s not the population,
it’s consumption, pollution, unequal distribution –
I say that’s so, but it’s a simple equation:
population times pollution, equals no solution
when there’s too many people having too many babies…
At the risk of supporting Malthus, I wonder if the current and often passionate discussions and suggestions may be glossing over something essential to the conversation. Population growth and the environment.
Raising minimum wages, working for and with the homeless often seems to me to be akin to putting our fingers in a diminishing dike. Not that taking measures such as these ought be avoided, but maybe taking another look at population growth may provide an expanded context.
When people and their environments are under stress they will reach for all kinds of notions that support, justify, and rationalize their point of view, support their chosen or inherited traditional ways of being. Sometimes it looks like religion, sometimes it looks like an ideology…
In my view so long as the Palestinians, Israelis, Hindus, Muslims, Chinese... (one can substitute any other group) keep on making more and more children who will need more and more "stuff" supported by more and more demands for water, power, roads, buildings, bridges - a lasting peace with ____ (Israel, India, Pakistan, Iraq) will pretty much remain a dream.
Hungry, deprived peoples do not dance well together.
I do not believe that goodwill towards one another is sufficient. We need to work to reduce the pressures on our societies that inevitably will shove us into conflict, produce poverty, and hunger.P Zohav, in 2006 JRF Omer Study