Why God Must Be Part of Our Environmental Discussion
“Environmental protection,” “environmentalism,” and “green” have won the hearts and minds of the world. Countries across the globe — even rogue North Korea — have claimed to join the movement. Indeed, environmental marketing has become so successful that no company or country, person or politician wants to be characterized as “anti-environment” today. The only dispute is not the “whether” but the “how” — how to be environmental on particular issues, or the priority of the environment versus other goals like economic development.
But despite public support, environmentalism is losing the war. The environment is not cleaner on a global scale, the Earth is not cooler, the rate of degradation is faster rather than slower, the global risks ever greater, and rates of species extinction, toxicity, production of greenhouse gases, and radioactivity are increasing.
How is it possible for environmental protection to win the marketing battle while at the same time losing the broader war to protect the Earth?
There is a temptation to answer this question in a glib and facile way by advocating for more technical fixes: Eat less meat, go vegetarian, go organic, manage forests, bicycle more, go deeply green, stop fracking, stop nuclear power, go solar, etc. But these slogans and technical fixes have been around now for decades and have not produced a sea-change in the broader trend of environmental harm. Technical fixes fail to create harmony between human beings and the planet.
Let us take clean energy as an example. As it turns out, each new and promising technology eventually has shown its negative trade-off effects: Hydraulic fracking pollutes groundwater and land; nuclear power produces radioactive waste and meltdowns; and even wind-power, hydro-power, and solar-power are land-use and building-intensive. The planet is a highly intricate, highly complex interrelated whole, and trying to adjust one tiny aspect while ignoring the holistic nature of the Earth leads to disappointing results.
The ancient wisdom of the Torah suggests an alternative and more relevant approach.
It calls on all human beings to recognize, acknowledge, reconnect, and enlist: To Recognize the limited abilities and understanding of the human being; to acknowledge the incredible complexity and infinitely intricate nature of the planet; to attempt to reconnect to the spiritual source that created and maintains the Earth; and by so doing, ultimately to enlist the only power that can provide a genuinely holistic solution to that complex reality.
This approach is described in the Torah when human beings existed harmoniously with God in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:9): “And God caused to blossom from the earth every tree that was pleasant to the sight and good for nourishment.” Nearly a millennium ago, Rabbeinu Bachya in Duties of the Heart, Gate of Examination, and recently a modern ethicist Rabbi Avigdor Miller in Shaarei Orah vol. 1, explain that the task of the first human beings in the Garden of Eden was to recognize and connect with the Creator through the complexity and beauty of those same trees — to experience the kindness and power of God through nature itself.
This, then, is the divine spiritual message we are being sent by Creator via the Earth itself: ”Connect to Me.” By so doing, according to the Torah, we can heal the world by reconnecting to it, and enlisting in an intimate partnership, the only power omnipotent and complex enough and, thus, capable enough to accomplish that colossal task.
This spiritual approach can be applied to environmental problems like global warming.
Instead of pursuing technological remedies alone, we would look first to the spiritual causes of global warming. Rabbi Shimon the Righteous, Jewish High Priest during the time of the Second Temple, explained that life on Earth exists by virtue of three spiritual pillars: (1) Torah, defined as the profound study of God’s ways in the world (2) service of God, and (3) acts of kindness. The Maharal of Prague elaborated on Rabbi Shimon’s statement. He said that heat corresponds spiritually to divine retributive judgment, which is tied to Ribbi Shimon’s second pillar, service of God. Cooling, symbolized by water, corresponds spiritually to the third pillar on which the world stands, acts of kindness. Finally, the element of the air or atmosphere corresponds spiritually to the pure will of God, which corresponds to the Torah, the first pillar on which the world stands.
God is sending us a coded message, and it is our job to decipher that message.
Taking the above spiritual “code key” as a guide, the spiritual malady to which global warming corresponds would seem to be rooted in the second element of service of God, corresponding to divine retributive judgment represented by heat. This element is out of balance, leading to a spiritual overheating. In other words, the root cause is a turning away from the divine. At the same time, the lack of acts of loving kindness that have the power to “cool” divine judgment are simply too inadequate to reverse the divine judgment expressed via heat. The medium in which this divine judgment is working is in the atmosphere itself, which corresponds to the pure will of God (the first pillar of Torah), a pillar which is too often ignored.
Because these three pillars on which the world stands are so essential and correspond to vital spiritual elements of reality, it is crucial for those seeking to change the physical environment of global warming to first change the spiritual foundation. That spiritual change is threefold: Acquisition of knowledge of the pure will of God for this world, redoubling our efforts in His service, and engaging in acts of loving kindness toward our fellow human beings and fellow creatures. This spiritual approach and Torah perspective is also useful for the more general effort to restore the beauty and harmony of the Earth.
To paraphrase Rabbi Hillel the Elder, All the rest is commentary.
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