This Tu Bishvat - a Nobel environment prize

As we celebrate Tu Bishvat, the Jewish environmental holiday, 1 way to show we're serious, would be to work toward a Nobel Environment Prize.

By
February 6, 2012 22:33
3 minute read.
DRIED FRUIT and nuts

DRIED FRUIT and nuts 390. (photo credit: Thinkstock)

Like nature itself, Tu Bishvat has gone though a number of different seasons throughout its existence. From its Biblical origins as a tax day on fruit trees, to its Kabbalistic transformation as a nature-mystical holiday, and more recently as the environmental holiday par excellence of Judaism.

Our tradition is saturated with nature-sensitive messages, from the charge to “guard” the earth (Genesis 2:15) to the nature-intoxicated words of many of the Psalms, to the sublime message not to disturb the environment on Shabbat.

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The environment is synonymous with life, and we are commanded in Deuteronomy to “choose life” (30:19). We know that the condition of our shared global environment is increasingly vulnerable and that we must act with greater resolve to address its condition.

One way to affirm that commitment would be the establishment by the Nobel Foundation of a Nobel Environment Prize.

As the Tu Bishvat and the seasons change, so has the Nobel Prize. From 1901 until 1969, Nobel prizes were awarded in Physics, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine, Literature and Peace. However, in 1968 the Nobel Prize in Economics was added and the first award conferred the following year.

While the establishment of a new Nobel prize should not be taken lightly, humanity has entered a new century where Alfred Nobel’s goal to improve the human condition and the conditions for our survival now face grave challenges caused by the deterioration of our global environment. The Nobel Prize in Economics was established by a large donation by the Riksbanken, the central bank of Sweden, to the Nobel Foundation.

While the prize in Economics was not part of Alfred Nobel’s original list of prizes as described in his will, it is considered almost as prestigious. A similar donation by an individual or foundation could be the catalyst for the establishment of the Nobel Environment Prize.

There are those who will say that the Nobel Peace Prize is the appropriate venue to recognize outstanding achievements in the field of the environment, as was done four years ago.

There is a logical connection between peace and the environment. More and more government agencies, think tanks and academics understand the connection between the debasement of environmental conditions and military conflict. Severe drought caused by climate change has been a factor in the conflict in Darfur. In contradistinction the environment can serve as an agent for peacebuilding as, for example, seen through the bridge-building work of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies in Kibbutz Ketura.

Despite that connection between peace and the environment they are too great to be shared by one Nobel prize. This view has been advocated for years by Dr. Tom Benson, President Emeritus of Green Mountain College, a leading environmental college. The Nobel Peace Prize should continue to recognize those distinguished efforts to bring about better relations between peoples, while the envisioned Nobel Environment Prize would identify such efforts to bring about better relations between humanity and our common global environment.

Since the first Nobel prizes were awarded in 1901, global temperatures and sea levels have increased, and glacial coverage has shrunk.

Most alarming, parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased from 300 in 1901 to 392 today. Vermont-based environmental activist Bill McKibben reminds us that 300 ppm was the top level naturally reached during the previous 800,000 years. 350 ppm, which was passed in 1988, is considered the highest long-term safe number for human survival.

The Nobel prizes were established by the will of Alfred Nobel, who instructed that prizes should go to individuals whose efforts “conferred the greatest benefit on mankind.”

110 years after the first Nobel prizes were awarded, the care of our global environment has become essential for the survival of humankind. As we pause and celebrate Tu Bishvat this year, the Jewish environmental holiday, one way to show we are serious about that critical endeavor would begin to work toward the establishment of a Nobel Environment Prize.

The writer is a rabbi and the author of Einstein’s Rabbi: A Tale of Science and the Soul.


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