A Critique of Eco Judaism

One of the latest trends in the Jewish world is Eco Judaism. Eco Judaism is an effort to connect environmentalism with Judaism. Aspects of the movement are disturbing. There is a bias against capitalism and development in their materials.

Rabbi Arthur Waskow of the Shalom Center writes:

The President of the United States has acknowledged that America is addicted to oil. His solution? More Oil – Drill offshore, drill in the Alaska reserve, But that is a lethal solution. It’s like saying, "Yes, I’m addicted to nicotine. Pack a day. Gives me the shakes. Sell me a couple more packs to get me through the night, will ya?"

Like any addiction, oil is convenient. Comforting. Delicious. And it kills. It is choking children – in an epidemic of asthma. It is choking the planet — through "global scorching."

Like any addictive substance, Oil has drug pushers. And drug lords. Just as the cigarette companies claimed that nicotine wasn’t addictive, and if it was it didn’t do any harm, and if it did you could always stop — so it’s your own fault if you get sick.

So now Big Oil claims there isn’t any global scorching, and if there is human beings don’t cause it, and if they do, oil is too important to give up. They push the lethal drug. It brings in billions. (Exxon-Mobil’s recent profits were the highest in all corporate history.)

And now many geologists and oil-business experts are saying we are at the brink of Peak Oil — when demand zooms up and there is not much left to drill.

COEJL, the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life believes:

Emissions from our fossil-fuel energy consumption – air and water pollution, poisonous mercury, smog-forming ozone, and carbon dioxide – endanger all of Creation, and threaten to push overstressed species over the brink. Yet “even those creatures you deem superfluous in this world – like flies, fleas, and gnats – nevertheless have their allotted task in the scheme of Creation” (Midrash, from about the 8th century – Exodus Rabbah 10:1).

This fails to tell the complete story. It is believed in the industry that only about 20 to 25% of the petroleum in the world has been discovered and produced and therefore we are nowhere near peak oil. Another example is the profit issue. While it is true that companies have posted record profits, they actually paid out more in various taxes than they made in profit in one of our most heavily regulated industries. It ignores that in the United States, the air has become progressively cleaner in the years since the passage of the Clean Air Act in 1970. We are more efficient. We now produce twice what did on the same amount of energy per capita than we did in the 1970’s. The lack of seikel on the issues is astounding.

These organizations focus on Torah’s concerns about waste. There is tension in Jewish values involving environmental issues. In several places in Tanakh man is given the earth to use for his benefit. We are also told not waste the resources of the planet. (See Devarim 20:19-20 and the related Halacha) The language of the verses is utilitarian. It reads “When you besiege a city for many days do not destroy its trees by swinging an axe against them, for from it you shall eat and you shall not cut it down. Is the tree of the field a man that it should enter the field before you? Verse 20 exempts non-fruit-bearing trees from verse 19, if you need the wood to protect yourself or subdue the enemy. As such we use the earth in order to make it better for man, but not abuse it.
COJEL for example has called for all electricity in the US to be generated with renewable resources within 10 years; on its face a laudable goal. It ignores several important facts. It completely changes the model of distribution. Most electricity is generated within a few hundred miles from where it is consumed. Renewable sources will require the development of large wind and solar farms. These will be located in the midwest for wind and the southwest for solar. This will require the construction of thousands of miles of new transmission lines, which will be opposed by the same groups who oppose current methods of generation. This is no small problem. Typically, actual construction of power lines takes 6 to 9 months depending on length. When one adds in governmental clearances and court challenges the time stretches into 10 to 12 years.

It is also costly. The Energy Information Agency did a study in 2007 discussing the cost per megawatt hour (MWH) of Federal subsidies for various forms of electrical generation. Fossil fuels were the cheapest at less than $0.50/MWH. Renewables are expensive. Solar and wind came in at $24.34 and $23.37 respectively. To convert to renewable for all of our electrical needs would be very expensive not only in terms of investment, but what we pay for power and the cost in jobs and growth.

Some say that the loss in jobs and growth will be offset by the growth in green industries. This is wishful thinking. In order to bring change, billions will be invested in new manufacturing plants. The effect of requiring use of renewables will be to drive up costs. Why invest billions in a manufacturing plant where overhead costs are exorbitant when one can build a new factory overseas and pay much less in overhead?

EcoJudaism talks about pikuach nefesh, the requirement to preserve lives. One needs a steady source of base line power so that vital services such as life support in hospitals do not go down. The problem with renewables is that they are not reliable. Who wants to be the doctor who has to explain to a family that their loved one died because the wind wasn’t blowing hard enough or it was too cloudy?

One question Parsha Balak poses is why Bilaam? In Breachot 7a the Gemara states there is one moment every day when Hashem is angry. Bilaam knew when that moment was. The anger arises at sunrise and “the kings of the world put on their crowns and prostrate themselves to the sun.” This angers Hashem because it deifies nature. See also Sanhedrin 105b. If we put nature over the welfare of man, we deify nature. By sacrificing man in a vain effort to improve nature we anger Hashem by worshiping the idol of environmentalism.