Tu B’shevat Feature (2): Explaining to Grandchildren Jewish Environmental Action

I can imagine that 50 years from now, while enjoying our annual community Tu B’Shevat celebration, my teen-age grandchild might ask: “What did the Jewish community do at the end of the last century when you learned that the burning of fossil fuels was probably causing global warming?”

“You have to understand,” I will tell her, “that environmental issues were quite new to us then. Today, many Jews are moved by Jewish teachings to actively pursue environmental sustainability and justice.

“Back in the 1990s, however, Jewish institutions did not connect the historic Jewish commitment to pursue social justice with concerns about the environment. We were, like most moderns, ecologically illiterate.”

“Illiterate Jews!” my granddaughter will exclaim. “How could that be? Ecological literacy is as fundamental to survival as understanding law, science, medicine or history. Weren’t Jews back then among the most well- educated citizens of the United States as we are today?”

“We were well educated in many fields, but not ecology,” I will recall. “Like most Americans, we were ignorant of the consequences of our actions to future generations. That is, until thousands of young Jews took up leadership positions in the environmental movement. And they mobilized the Jewish community to get educated and take action.

“By the 1990s, industrialized countries had filled up the atmosphere with so much pollution from burning oil and coal that we had increased the natural greenhouse effect that keeps our planet habitable.

“Even though the expected warming was just a few degrees averaged across the globe, scientists agreed that such warming might lead to a dramatic rise in sea level, the disruption of agriculture, increasing floods, droughts and forest fires — and the disruption of ecosystems. All of this was likely to cause a lot of human suffering and the extinction of many species.”

“So the earth began to — how do you say it, zayda — shvitz?”

“You could say that,” I will say with a chuckle. “The earth began to shvitz. Then, in late 1997, the nations of the world gathered in Kyoto, Japan, to write a treaty committing the industrialized nations to substantially reducing their greenhouse gas emissions.

“Though some protested — including the U.S. Senate — that the treaty was unfair and should have included all countries from the outset, the rich nations were responsible for most of the pollution.”

“God’s creation was in danger! It must have been frightening. What did the Jewish community do?” my granddaughter will ask.

“First, we had to help people understand how the quality of human life in the future, of your life, depended on their action or inaction. Some people argued that efforts to address global warming would detract energy from other pressing Jewish public affairs issues. You know, even a people with as much historical perspective as ours has trouble considering the effects of our daily actions on future generations.

“Big industries spent millions of dollars opposing the treaty. They tried to convince people that the scientists were wrong. And they told people that creating a clean economy would put millions of people out of work.”

“But without the Kyoto agreement, millions more people might have suffered, and even more of the forests we celebrate on Tu B’Shevat might have been destroyed. It is so clear now. Did people really believe the treaty would hurt them?” my granddaughter will ask.

“Many people did. But history has proven them wrong. Now that we are applying ecological intelligence to our economy, we have created many solutions that are good for the environment, save money, and create new jobs, such as solar and wind power, mass transit and ecological architecture.

“But back to your question about the Jewish community’s response. We began to realize that — behind all of the rhetoric and economic arguments — profoundly Jewish values were at stake. We had a choice: To act prudently to ensure our descendants’ security by creating a cleaner economy, or to continue to pollute the planet at the peril of God’s children and creatures.

“Once we understood the choice, we began to speak out for action. We recognized it was a matter of justice — justice for future generations, justice for poor people who would be most vulnerable to climatic changes, and justice for nonhuman creatures. And we recognized that we in the industrialized nations who generated most of the pollution had to be the first to reduce our emissions.

“We organized educational events in our synagogues and schools. We wrote letters and made phone calls to all of our elected representatives. And we held the U.S. Senate, which had to ratify the treaty, accountable for the common good. The coalition of Jews and Christians, of farsighted businesspeople and conservation advocates, of farmers and factory workers, who joined together for the common good won the debate.

“We also had to clean up our own houses. We involved Jewish homes and institutions in reducing their energy consumption. In those days, buildings were responsible for one-third of greenhouse gas emissions, and vehicles were responsible for another third.”

“It is an inspiring story, Grandpa. It sounds like the Jewish community really made a difference.”

“We never know how much a difference we are going to make. The most important thing is to do the right thing. After much work, a great change has occurred in the Jewish community in these past 50 years,” I hope to be able to tell my granddaughter.

“It is now instinctive for us to consider the effects of our individual and collective technological and economic choices on other people, future generations, and the earth. What is now considered a basic Jewish practice once seemed like a radical act.”

“Zayda, it makes me so proud to be Jewish,” my granddaughter might smile and say, “so very proud.”

So may it be.

Mark X. Jacobs is director of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life.

NEXT STORY