If your feet are in an oven and your head is in a freezer, around about your tummy you should be feeling an average, comfortable temperature. Thus goes the old joke explaining the risks of statistics – and of seeing things in strictly black and white terms.
At risk of offending people at either extreme of the climate change debate, the speech to the UN given last month by Greta Thunberg, the teenage environmental activist, grated on my nerves. At the same time, I believe it would be better to take action against pollution – even if future generations discover that it didn’t reduce the global temperature and temperature swings – than to carry on polluting without regard.
In her emotional address, Thunberg, 16, gave the impression that there’s literally no tomorrow in global terms. Her fixation on one subject can be partly explained by both her youth and her Asperger’s. The same explanation goes for seeing things in terms of black and white.
“This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be up here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you all come to us young people for hope. How dare you!” lectured Thunberg in the brief address that could earn her a Nobel Peace Prize by the time you’re reading this.
“You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet I’m one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!”
As iconic images of the change in climate go I find the poor starving polar bear whose habitat is slowly disappearing more moving than a Swedish teenager armed with a PR team.
Thunberg’s childhood has been exploited, not stolen. And her address makes a mockery of the work of 2014 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Pakistani-born Malala Yousafzai. Malala, who is universally known by her first name, also delivered an impassioned plea to the UN. When she was 13, she spoke out against the Taliban’s prohibition of education for girls. Two years later, she miraculously survived an assassination attempt for her continued lobbying for girls everywhere to be able to go to school. Even this did not stop her, and her Nobel Peace Prize when she was 17 was well deserved.
Contrast Malala’s campaign to Thunberg’s encouraging children to skip school on Fridays to protest climate change.
My own interest in environmental issues was sparked by a lesson by an inspirational geography teacher in the days when the word “environment” was barely a whisper, let alone something that resonated around the globe. It was toward the end of my high-school days, in London in the late 1970s. I was probably about Thunberg’s age, receiving an education rather than lecturing the UN with the use of emotion rather than data.
And this is how it should be – dedicated teachers explaining the world to eager teens.
The lesson was so compelling, that I was determined to take action. Already planning my aliyah, I went home and wrote a letter (the old fashioned, pre-email way) to the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel to ask what I could do and I used my hard-earned money to take out a subscription to the SPNI’s publication.
I AM not belittling the need for and benefits of raising public awareness. Many years after that lesson in school set me on a path I still tread, I became The Jerusalem Post’s environmental affairs reporter. When Yossi Sarid was appointed environment minister, I followed him from garbage dumps and sewage treatment plants, to a one-of-a-kind tour of public toilets at gas stations and even to the nuclear center in the Negev.
Among the stories I remain proudest of was an investigation into the state of the country’s rivers – warning of the dangerous levels of pollution. This was before the Maccabiah disaster in 1997, when the bridge collapsed during the opening ceremony of the games. Three of the four victims who died were killed by the polluted waters.
I also exposed the practice of some “farmers” to bury live unwanted chickens in the giant Hiriya landfill.
I learned that awareness can lead to better legislation but laws and regulations are worthless if they are not backed by enforcement.
For five years, I held a unique position as both parliamentary reporter and environmental affairs reporter. I called my double beat “MKs and other animals.” Here I learned another important lesson. Caring for the environment is not a matter of Left and Right.
Some of the biggest campaigners on environmental issues at the time were MKs on the Right, including Uzi Landau and Bennie Begin. Agriculture and later environment minister Rafael Eitan worked happily with Shinui MK Avraham Poraz and (then-Labor) MK Avrum Burg to improve legislation protecting animals.
Talk of money and eternal economic growth are no fairy tales, as Thunberg would have us believe. To recycle Theodor Herzl’s famous saying: “If you wish it, it’s not a fairy tale.”
Israel, the Start-Up Nation, is known worldwide for its technological advances and solutions particularly in the field of water and agriculture and is sharing this knowledge around the globe. It is also a shining light when it comes to renewable energy sources, particularly solar energy. Among the country’s high priorities should be using some of the income from Israel’s offshore gas fields to fund research projects to make solar and wind energy more economically viable in the future.
ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION is not a modern concept. The precepts can be found throughout the Bible from Genesis to the Deuteronomy, protecting the land, the trees and the animals, as well as the people. Increasingly, religious and even ultra-Orthodox groups are rediscovering biblical roots to the idea of sustainability and animal welfare. With all due respect to Thunberg, there is nothing new under the sun: As it is written in Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:13: “Beware lest you spoil and destroy my world, for if you will spoil it, there is no one to repair it after you.”
At my (Orthodox) synagogue in Jerusalem recently, the congregant giving the weekly drasha (commentary) quoted a midrash that tells of Honi Hame’agel (Honi the Circle-maker): “One day as Honi was walking along he saw a man planting a carob tree. Honi asked him, ‘How many years until it will bear fruit?’ The man answered: ‘Not for 70 years.’ Honi asked him, ‘Do you really believe you’ll live another 70 years?’ The man answered: ‘I found this world provided with carob trees, and as my ancestors planted them for me, so I too plant them for my descendants.’”
The upcoming Sukkot (Tabernacles) holiday has in recent years been given an added emphasis as a “green” holiday. There’s nothing like sitting in a flimsy booth, a reminder of the 40 years spent crossing the desert after the Exodus from Egypt, to demonstrate our vulnerability. The Four Species are a reminder of the importance of agriculture. And during this holiday we read Ecclesiastes, King Solomon’s words of wisdom, including many environmental messages: “Everything has an appointed season, and there is a time for every matter under the heaven. A time to give birth and a time to die; a time to plant and a time to uproot that which is planted...”
Part of the Sukkot tradition is to host visitors in the tabernacles, a timely reminder that we cannot live in isolation. We need each other.
After Sukkot ends, on Shmini Atzeret, the Prayer for Rain is recited. Before “climate change” became a catchphrase and images of drought and floods were carried around the world in an instant, praying for the right amount of rain at the right time came, well, naturally. In the words of the prayer we ask God to send us rain and wind:
“For a blessing and not for a curse.
“For life and not for death.
“For plenty and not for lack.”
Amen to that.