5780: The year of environmental teshuva

We are over-consuming the world.

'We have too many cars'  (photo credit: REUTERS)
'We have too many cars'
(photo credit: REUTERS)
We learn from the Rambam that teshuva (repentance) has three main components.
First, we need to reflect on our behavior.
Secondly, we must commit to change our ways.
And thirdly, we have to try to make amends for the damage we have done.
This is an apposite summation of what the entire Western world now needs to do in relation to the global climate crisis. It’s a useful frame as we enter this New Year.
Reflecting on our behavior. We are over-consuming the world. We have too much stuff. We have too many cars, we get on too many planes and we eat too much industrial meat and dairy. (It may indeed be “kosher,” narrowly construed, but industrial meat is one of the largest drivers of anthropogenic climate change. The more we learn about the environmental costs and the ethical shortcomings of industrial meat, the clearer it becomes that we have to change how we eat.)
Committing to change our ways. So as we sit in synagogue or gather for celebrations with family members and with friends, we must make a genuine commitment to change in this coming year. We are past the point – far past the point – at which “carry on as you were” is in any way tenable.
And this commitment to change needs now to be institutional, as well as familial or individual. Every synagogue, every Jewish day school, every camp, every JCC; every place of work, every restaurant, every business, every nonprofit – all of our collective enterprises need to immediately set up a Green Team, or to significantly strengthen the one that already exists. We need to learn about the food we consume, the energy we use, our waste-stream, our plastics and our travel, and then create policies and plans to effect significant change.
Try to make up for the damage we’ve done. We must say, loud and clear, to our elected officials: we need governments to pass policies that will help to save us from ourselves. We need to tax carbon in all its forms. We need deeper incentives for clean energy. We need significant investments in public transport. We need public health incentives to move us towards plant-based diets. We need to plan for long-term adaptation. We need 20th century Israeli-style tree-planting on a 21st century global scale. We need to strengthen societal resilience. And we need to protect the vulnerable from the consequences of our behaviors. (Globally, roughly seven million people were displaced by extreme weather events – just in the first six months of 2019.)
AS WE STRIVE to commit to environmental teshuva, there are opportunities as well as challenges. The growth of Israeli clean-tech is just a microcosm of Israeli ingenuity and sometimes custom in a country that – in its density, climate and water fragility – represents what many parts of the world will shortly face in the coming decades. Israelis and Israeli environmentalists are rightly self-critical, but Israelis have fewer cars, live in smaller homes, use less water and eat more local foods than most people in the industrialized West. Every city needs to turn its waste dumps into a version of the Hiriya and Gan Sharon recycling park. Every region needs a version of the Heschel Center, empowering cohorts of environmental leaders who are driving change in urban governments. Emerging nations looking for advice are turning to Start-Up Nation Central, knowing that innovation in relation to the climate crisis will be the fastest-growing business sector in the next two decades. And we all need leaders like the students and alumni of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, coming together to tackle some of the greatest challenges of our era.
In the North American Jewish community, there is similarly mixed news. In the last two decades we have seen strong growth in what has become known as the JOFEE sector – Jewish Outdoor, Food, Farming & Environmental Education. Hazon has been at the forefront of this work, with partners like Coastal Roots, Urban Adamah and Wilderness Torah (in California), Ekar and Milk & Honey Farm (in Colorado), Pearlstone (in Baltimore) and Shoresh (in Toronto), plus Sadeh (just outside London) and camps like Eden Village, Tamarack and Ramah Outdoor Adventures. We’re engaging some of the best and brightest of our young people. We’re re-learning and thus renewing Jewish wisdom in the face of these grave societal challenges. We’re strengthening communities in profound ways.
And yet... what we have done is far too little. The attention of the Jewish community keeps being pulled towards other crises, the emergencies that are the communal equivalent of a broken leg. The climate crisis is like being 100 lbs. overweight and smoking two packs of cigarettes a day. It may not kill us today or tomorrow – and the immediate pain may be less than from a broken leg – but it represents a far greater threat to our medium-term health and wellness.
Every Jewish federation and every foundation must put the climate crisis on their agendas, and make significant commitments to environmental education, action and advocacy. The rabbinical schools cannot nurture a new generation of rabbis if they do not address these issues. Day schools need to bring together faculty to create integrated curricula. Our Hillels need to be supporting students, as they challenge both the Jewish community and the universities to do far more, and every rabbi needs to speak up – starting with these upcoming Jewish holidays.
I want to end by noting the contemporary salience of one crucial part of the story of Jonah, which we read on the afternoon of Yom Kippur. Jonah prophecies that the City of Nineveh will be destroyed – as a consequence of the behavior of its inhabitants. But prophecy in Jewish tradition is not the expectation that something will happen; it is rather the understanding that something may happen – if we don’t change our ways. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, the teachings of our scientists, the extreme weather events and then the refugees and the political destabilization and extremism – these things are bad, in themselves. However, they are also portents of something far worse, potentially yet to come. They are the dyspeptic prophecies of our era.
But the lesson of Jonah is clear, then and now. We have free will, we have choice and we can and must change our behaviors.
And if we do teshuva, we may indeed have the power to avert the evil decree.

Kein yehi ratzon
– may it be so…
The writer is CEO of Hazon, the largest environmental organization in the American Jewish community.