Environmental Ethics and Spiritual Consciousness
When God created the world, He was able to say, “It is very good”
(Gen. 1:31). Everything was in harmony as God had planned, the waters were clean,
and the air was pure. But what must God think about the world today?
What must God think when the rain He provided to nourish our crops is often
acid rain, due to the many chemicals emitted into the air by industries and
automobiles; when the ozone layer He provided to separate the heavens from the
earth to protect all life on earth from the sun’s radiation is being depleted;
when the abundance of species of plants and animals that He created are becoming
extinct at such an alarming rate in tropical rain forests and other threatened
habitats, before we have even been able to study and catalog many of them; when
the abundant fertile soil He provided is quickly being eroded; when the climatic
conditions that He designed to meet our needs are threatened by global warming?
CURRENT ENVIRONMENTAL THREATS
Current environmental threats bring to mind the biblical ten plagues that
appear in the Torah portions that are read in synagogues in the weeks before
the ecological holiday of Tu Bi-Shevat:
· When we consider the threats to our land, waters, and air due to
pesticides and other chemical pollutants, resource scarcities, acid rain, threats
to our climate, etc., we can easily enumerate ten modern “plagues.”
· The Egyptians were subjected to one plague at a time, while the modern
plagues threaten us all at once.
· The Jews in Goshen were spared most of the biblical plagues, while
every person on earth is imperiled by the modern plagues.
· Instead of an ancient Pharaoh’s heart being hardened, our hearts
today have been hardened by the greed, materialism, and waste that are at the
root of current environmental threats.
· God provided the biblical plagues to free the Israelites, while today
we must apply God’s teachings in order to save ourselves and our precious
but endangered planet from modern plagues.
A midrash aptly summarizes the situation today. It states that when
God created the world, He took the first human being, Adam, to see the wonders
of creation and He said to Adam, “Do not corrupt or destroy this world.
For if you do, there will be nobody after you to restore it” (Eccles.
Rabbah 7:28). Throughout history, people may have wondered what this
midrash meant, but it is very relevant today.
There is a need for major changes if the world is to avoid increasingly severe
environmental threats. In 1992, over 1,670 scientists, including 104 Nobel laureates
— a majority of the living recipients of the Prizes in the sciences —
signed a “World Scientists’ Warning To Humanity.” Their introduction
Human beings and the natural world are on a collision course. Human activities
inflict harsh and often irreversible damage on the environment and on critical
resources. If not checked, many of our current practices put at serious risk
the future that we wish for human society and the plant and animal kingdoms,
and may so alter the living world that it will be unable to sustain life in
the manner that we know.
Their warning: “A great change in our stewardship of the earth and the
life on it is required, if vast human misery is to be avoided and our global
home on this planet is not to be irretrievably mutilated.”
Global climate change may be the most critical problem the world will face
in the next few decades. There is a growing scientific consensus that we are
already experiencing the effects of global warming, and that human actions are
playing a significant role. Global average temperatures have increased about
one degree Fahrenheit since 1900. This doesn’t sound like much, but it
is causing major changes in our weather patterns. The warmest decade in recorded
history was the 1990s. The ten warmest years on record have all occurred since
1983, with seven of them since 1990. The global temperature in 1998 was the
warmest in recorded history.
In the year 2000, in its Third Assessment Report, the Intergovernmental Panel
on Climate Change (IPCC), a U.N.-sponsored group of leading climate scientists
from over 100 nations estimated that by 2100, the average world temperature
could rise between 2.5 and 10.4 degrees Fahrenheit. The IPCC report, which runs
to over 1,000 pages, was written by 123 lead authors from many countries, drawing
on 516 contributing experts, and is one of the most comprehensive studies produced
on global warming. Hence, the conclusions of the report represent an unprecedented
consensus among hundreds of climate scientists from all over the world. This
makes their summary statement that “Projected climate changes during the
21st century have the potential to lead to future large-scale and possible irreversible
changes in Earth systems,’’ with “continental and global consequences,’’
In 1999, seven environmental groups, including the Union of Concerned Scientists,
produced a world map showing 89 “Global Warming Early Warning Signs.”
The groups conclude, “the earth is heating up.” Their ten categories
of “early warning signs” include: heat waves and periods of unusually
warm weather, spreading disease, the earlier arrival of spring, sea level rise
and coastal flooding, coral reef bleaching, melting of glaciers, Arctic and
Antarctic warming, severe storms, and droughts and fires.
JEWISH TEACHINGS ON THE ENVIRONMENT
Judaism has very strong teachings on responding to environmental problems.
Perhaps most important is, “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness
thereof.” (Ps. 24: 1) The Jewish tradition teaches us that we are to be
co-workers and partners with God in preserving the earth. One of the big problems
facing the world today is the frequent and unfortunate clash between Jewish
environmental values on one hand and the realities of the world. Certainly,
the world doesn’t put the idea of the Earth as the Lord’s first,
but rather, emphasizes what is most profitable.
Since “the Earth is the Lord’s,” the Torah mandates bal
tashhit: that we are not to waste or unnecessarily destroy anything of value
(Deut. 20:19,20). God has given us enough for our needs. We are, of course,
to use things properly, but this is not generally the case today. The United
States, with less than 5% of the world’s people, uses at least a quarter
of the world’s resources, causes about a quarter of the global warming,
and produces a third to a half of the industrial pollution.
APPLYING JEWISH VALUES
I will briefly relate Jewish values to two issues, consistent with Rabbi Saul
Berman’s statement in his keynote talk earlier, about introducing qedushah
(holiness) in all aspects of our lives. One is a broad, general public
policy issue, energy policies. The second is a very personal issue, related
to our diets.
As long ago as the 1970s, energy expert Amory Lovins argued that there were
two primary approaches to obtaining adequate energy: the “hard”
path and the “soft” path. The hard path assumes that we need to
obtain energy from coal, oil, uranium, and synthetic sources to continue our
historic increase in energy use and that, in fact, such increased energy consumption
is necessary for our country to prosper. Advocates of the soft energy path assert
that energy efficiency and conservation are the primary answers to current problems,
and that renewable energy sources based on sun, wind, flowing water, and biomass
should be used to provide much of our energy, without the dangers associated
with hard energy fuels.
What criteria should Jews use to select a proper energy path? They should
include such Jewish values as bal tashhit, “the earth is the Lord’s,”
the sanctity of human life, concern for the needs and circumstances of future
generations, the dignity of labor, and proper use of the cycles of sun, water,
and wind which God has provided for us. Let us consider future energy choices
in light of each of these considerations:
*BAL TASHHIT: Consistent with the Torah mandate not to waste or unnecessarily
destroy anything of value, supporters of the soft energy path advocate a strong
reliance on conservation.
The United States is extremely wasteful of energy. With about 4.5% of the
world’s people, we are responsible for about 24% of its energy use (the
highest per capita consumption in the world). Europe and Japan use about half
the energy relative to Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as the United States. Yet
European and Japanese people have comfortable standards of living. Partly because
of wasteful energy use, United States electrical energy demand doubled about
every ten years for much of the twentieth century. Energy made available through
conservation is cheaper, safer, more reliable, less polluting, and more job-creating
than energy obtained from any other source. Several studies have shown that
we can continue to grow economically and to maintain, even improve, our way
of life while reducing our use of energy.
“THE EARTH IS THE LORD’S AND THE FULLNESS THEREOF”
Soft energy methods based on renewable resources and conservation have relatively
minor impacts on the environment. The hard energy path, on the other hand, contributes
to many threats to already fragile ecosystems:
* THE SANCTITY OF HUMAN LIFE: Soft energy methods involve minimal or no danger
to human life. The hard energy path, in contrast, endangers life in several
ways. Among other things, underground coal mining is still the most dangerous
job, despite numerous health and safety advances in the last ten years; and
air pollution from fossil-fuel power plants causes disease and death.
*CONSIDERATION FOR FUTURE GENERATIONS: Judaism teaches us to consider the
effects of our actions on future generations. A Talmudic sage posed the question
“Who is the wise person?” His response: “The person who foresees
the future consequences of his or her actions.”
Soft energy methods do not endanger future generations. Conservation is actually
an investment in the future, since saved energy and resources can help meet
the needs of future generations. Use of renewable sources such as sun, wind,
and water avoids future scarcities, which could result in inflation and conflicts.
* THE DIGNITY OF LABOR: Unlike many ancient societies, such as those of Greece
and Rome, in which manual labor was done by slaves, Judaism recognizes the dignity
of creative labor. Work is considered a character-developing process that gives
an individual self-respect and respect from others.
Many soft energy methods are labor-intensive. Jobs are created through such
endeavors as weatherization of homes to make them more energy efficient, recycling
of products, and construction of equipment for the production and distribution
of renewable energy. By contrast, hard energy paths are generally capital intensive.
They require sophisticated, expensive equipment, but relatively few workers.
* PROPER USE OF GOD’S CYCLES OF SUN, WIND, AND WATER: A major cause
of pollution and resource shortages in recent years is our inattention to God’s
cycles of sun, wind, and water. According to energy expert Denis Hayes, the
U.S. could reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 80% in our lifetime by converting
to the most efficient technologies currently available, and switching as much
as practical to solar energy, wind power, bio-fuels, and other renewable sources
of energy. Hence, in partnership with good conservation practices, the second
major element of the soft energy path is use of sun, wind, and water, as well
as renewable fuels.
There are many “hidden” benefits of renewable energy sources:
they are generally pollution-free, undepletable, dependable, abundant, decentralized,
safe, job-creating, and inflation-resistant.
In summary, our nation and the world can best be served by an energy policy
based on Jewish values embodied in the acronym CARE (Conservation and Renewable
Energy). Such a policy would involve turning away from sources of energy that
have become environmentally destructive and extremely costly; adopting simpler
technology instead of reliance on inefficient central electrical generating
plants; decreasing dependence on large energy companies and foreign governments,
which can cut off supplies or sharply raise prices. This could help create a
simpler, healthier world, with more conservation of energy and resources; a
safer world, with less competition for scarce fuels and other commodities; a
more stable economy; less unemployment; and more money available for education,
health, housing, transportation, nutrition, and social services. For all these
profoundly Jewish reasons, the Jewish community must take a leading role in
advocating energy policies that will help usher in this safer, saner future.
The other issue I wanted to briefly discuss is dietary connections to the
environment and other issues. There is a widely accepted aspect of modern life
that contradicts many Jewish teachings and harms people, communities, and the
planet — the mass production and widespread consumption of meat. High
meat consumption and the ways in which meat is produced today conflict with
Judaism in at least six important areas:
1. While Judaism mandates that people should be very careful about preserving
their health and their lives, numerous scientific studies have linked animal-based
diets directly to heart disease, stroke, many forms of cancer, and other chronic
2. While Judaism forbids tsa’ar ba’alei hayyim,
inflicting unnecessary pain on animals, most farm animals — including
those raised for kosher consumers — are raised on “factory farms”
where they live in cramped, confined spaces, and are often drugged, mutilated,
and denied fresh air, sunlight, exercise, and any enjoyment of life, before
they are slaughtered and eaten.
3. While Judaism teaches that “the Earth is the Lord’s”
(Ps. 24:1) and that we are to be God’s partners and co-workers in preserving
the world, modern intensive livestock agriculture contributes substantially
to soil erosion and depletion, air and water pollution, overuse of chemical
fertilizers and pesticides, the destruction of tropical rain forests and other
habitats, global warming, and other environmental damage. While recent increased
concern about global warming is very welcome, the many connections between typical
American (and other Western) diets and global warming have generally been overlooked.
Current modern intensive livestock agriculture and the consumption of meat contribute
greatly to the four major gases associated with the greenhouse effect: carbon
dioxide, methane, nitrous oxides, and chlorofluorocarbons.
The burning of tropical forests releases tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere
and eliminates the ability of these trees to absorb carbon dioxide. Also,
the highly mechanized agricultural sector uses an enormous amount of fossil
fuel to produce pesticides, chemical fertilizer, and other agricultural resources,
and this also contributes to carbon dioxide emissions. Cattle emit methane
as part of their digestive process, as do termites who feast on the charred
remains of trees that were burned to create grazing land and land to grow feed
crops for farmed animals. The large amounts of petrochemical fertilizers used
to produce feed crops create significant quantities of nitrous oxides. Likewise,
the increased refrigeration necessary to prevent animal products from spoiling
adds chlorofluorocarbons to the atmosphere.
4. While Judaism mandates bal tashhit,— not wasting or
unnecessarily destroying anything of value, and not using more than
is needed to accomplish a purpose— animal agriculture requires the wasteful
use of food, land, water, energy, and other resources.
5. While Judaism stresses that we are to assist the poor and share our bread
with hungry people, over 70% of the grain grown in the United States is fed
to animals destined for slaughter (it takes about 9 pounds of grain to produce
one pound of edible beef), while an estimated 20 million people worldwide die
because of hunger and its effects each year.
6. While Judaism stresses that we must seek and pursue peace and that violence
results from unjust conditions, animal-centered diets, by wasting valuable resources,
help to perpetuate the widespread hunger and poverty that eventually lead to
instability and war.
In view of these important Jewish mandates to preserve human health, attend
to the welfare of animals, protect the environment, conserve resources, help
feed hungry people, and pursue peace, contrasted with the harm that animal-centered
diets do in each of these areas, I believe that committed Jews (and others)
should sharply reduce or eliminate their consumption of animal products.
One could say “dayyeinu (it would be enough)” after
any of the arguments above, because each one constitutes by itself a serious
conflict between Jewish values and current practice that should impel Jews to
seriously consider a plant-based diet. Combined, they make an urgent and compelling
case for the Jewish community to address these issues.
This conference should be the beginning of applying Jewish values and teachings
current environmental threats. Former Vice-President Al Gore stated in his book,
Earth in the Balance, “The saving of the global environment should
be the central organizing principle for civilization today.” In everything
we do, we should consider the effects on the environment. As Jews with “the
courage to be modern and Orthodox,” I believe that we should make tiqun
olam (the mandate to heal and repair the world) a central organizing
principle for moving the world from its present perilous path to a more sustainable
SOURCES FOR FURTHER INFORMATION:
Bernstein, Ellen, editor. Ecology and the Jewish Spirit: Where Nature and
the Spirit Meet. Woodstock, Vermont: Jewish Lights Publishing, 1998. A wide
variety of Jewish perspectives on environmental issues.
Rose, Aubrey (editor). Judaism and Ecology. New York/ London: Cassell,
1992. Collection of very readable essays on environmental issues from Jewish
Schwartz, Richard H. Judaism and Vegetarianism. New York: Lantern, 2001.
Argues that Jewish mandates to show compassion to animals, preserve health,
help feed the hungry, preserve the earth, conserve resources, and pursue peace
point to vegetarianism as the ideal diet.
Schwartz, Richard H. Judaism and Global Survival. New York: Lantern,
2002. Applies Jewish teachings to many current critical issues, including hunger,
ecological threats, global climate change, rapid population growth, and energy.
Waskow, Arthur I. (ed.). Torah of the Earth: Exploring 4,000 Years of Ecology
in Jewish Thought. Woodstock, Vermont: Jewish Lights, 2000 (two volumes).
Wide variety of essays on various environmental issues.
*Adam Teva V’Din: The Israel Union for Environmental Defense
at http: //www.iued.org/il
*Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL) at http://www.coejl.org
*Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel at http://www.spni.org.il
*Judaism and Vegetarianism at http://www.jewishveg.com
Richard H. Schwartz, Dr. Richard H. Schwartz is Professor Emeritus of Mathematics
at the College of Staten Island, and author of Judaism and Vegetarianism,
Judaism and Global Survival, and Mathematics and Global Survival.
He speaks and writes scholarly articles frequently on environmental and health