A few weeks ago, during the Eco Film Festival at the Jerusalem Cinematheque, i got to see two films (the trailers of which are at the bottom of this page). The Age of Stupid--a jeremiad about climate change--and Sharkwater--a film about the brutality of shark finning and its impact on the ecosystem. Both films seemed to be trying to teach their 21st century audience about the structure of our delicate universe, and our place in it. Basically, we're ruining it. And the worst part is, we know it.
Don't get me wrong. I am well aware that there are loads of human concerns. I live in Israel, where yesterday (unbeknownst to me), we had our largest national drill to prepare for missile attacks. One reason i joined Greenpeace (the other being that when it comes to politics, i'm still watching Cecil and Essex duke it out) was because of the enormous potential environmentalism has to unify people from all countries, religions, beliefs, etc. No matter what our differences, we can all agree that we don't want to be wiped out as a species. Well, one would think so anyway...
Interestingly, the hackneyed categories of the 'ancients and the moderns', (hopefully a future post) which seem to have evolved into 'backwards religious people' and 'rational modernists' have moved into the political arena as the stereotypes of the 'Bible-thumping-moose-killing-oil-drilling-Republicans' and 'liberal-godless-immoral-baby-killing-Democrats'. Like all generalisations, this is grossly exaggerated, yet rings true in certain ways.
It pains me to admit that the environment is practically a non-issue amongst religious or orthodox people. In 1999, Meimad, a left wing religious Zionist party was formed in Israel. This groundbreaking move to reclaim both Orthodox Judaism and Zionism from right-wing politics is still viewed as an anomaly; in this year's elections, the Meimad-Green Movement coalition failed to gain a seat in the Knesset. The underlying tension felt by many of Meimad's members is well expressed by the the religious philosopher Ernst Simon, incidentally, the father of Professor Uriel Simon, one of the party's leaders and an academic giant in his own right:
The people you can talk to, you can’t daven (pray) with, and the people with whom you can daven, you can’t talkWhy is it that the religious communities tend to play down environmental concerns whilst those who embrace those causes tend to reject tradition?
In 1940, at the behest of the pacifist society in Oxford (otherwise it would have been pretty awkward), CS Lewis delivered the address 'Why I am Not a Pacifist' (published later in The Weight of Glory), in which he explains the departure from tradition within the context of a crumbling sense of community:
I am aware that, though Hooker thought 'the general and perpetual voice of men is as the sentence of God Himself,' yet many who hear will give it little or no weight. This disregard of human authority may have two roots. It may spring from the belief that human history is a simple, unilinear movement from worse to better--what is belief in Progress--so that any given generation is always in all respects wiser than all previous generations. To those who believe thus, our ancestors are superceded and there seems nothing improbable in the claim that the whole world was wrong until the day before yesterday and now has suddenly become right. With such people I confess I cannot argue, for I do not share their basic assumption.Hooker is clearly Lewis's go-to guy, perhaps because he is a strong advocate of an ageless morality that Lewis would go on to refer to as 'The Tao' in The Abolition of Man. Lewis further distinguishes this body of knowledge from the evolution of the mechanical world:
Believers in progress rightly note that in the world of machines the new model supercedes the old; from this they falsely infer a similar kind of supercession in such things as virtue and wisdom.
As a devotee of The Schwarz and a follower of St. Roy, i'm inclined to take issue with the notion that progress entails using newer machinery, but even if this was a correct supposition, are we really more tuned in now then people 'back then'? Check out the bizarre picture above--it's from Robert Fludd's Utriusque Cosmi, Maioris scilicet et Minoris, metaphysica, physica, atque technica Historia--The metaphysical, physical, and technical history of the two worlds, namely the greater and the lesser. Click here to download Fludd's book. Go ahead. Don't be shy. Drink it in. Fludd depicts the complexity of the natural world, in all of its hierarchies, yet depicts nature (yeah--the naked lady) as holding a chain linking the physical world to God, and the microcosm to the macrocosm. In other words, the enmeshed existence of humanity, nature, and God was obvious to Fludd.
About fifty years later, John Evelyn, the famous diarist wrote the first English book against pollution, entitled Fumifugium, or, The inconveniencie of the aer and smoak of London dissipated together with some remedies humbly proposed by J.E. esq. to His Sacred Majestie, and to the Parliament now assembled in 1661, and the following year published Sylva, or A Discourse on Forest-Trees and the Propagation of Timber in His Majesty's Dominions. It seems that people have been aware of the problems of pollution for even before the Industrial Revolution.
Both Fludd and Evelyn were living at a time when, as Donne says, 'new philosophy (science) calls all in doubt'. Astronomers had trashed the idea of a geocentric, and with it, androcentric universe. It was something of a humbling time. In a scene of Sharkwater, Paul Watson of Sea Shepherd echoes this sentiment:
We don't really understand what we are. In essence, we're just a conceited, naked ape, that in our minds are some kind of divine legend. And we see ourselves as some kind of a God that can walk around the earth deciding who will live and who will die; what will be destroyed and what will be saved. But the fact is, we're just a bunch of primates out of control.Remember that weird Fludd illustration? Here's a closeup. Check out what the naked lady's standing above (NASA is clearly lying about shooting stars):
Taken from www.levity.com/alchemy
Watson's view is an extreme response, proportionate to the destruction that we are inflicting on the world, and though his anger is justified, i doubt that his outlook will compel Creationists to join the cause. In The Glory of the Garden, Rudyard Kipling uses the metaphor of a garden to describe English society, in which everyone must chip in:
There's not a pair of legs so thin, there's not a head so thick,
There's not a hand so weak and white, nor yet a heart so sick
But it can find some needful job that's crying to be done,
For the Glory of the Garden glorifieth every one.
Then seek your job with thankfulness and work till further orders,
If it's only netting strawberries or killing slugs on borders;
And when your back stops aching and your hands begin to harden,
You will find yourself a partner In the Glory of the Garden.
Kipling's portrait of a society united through a common project or custodianship and governed by ethics continues in the mould cast by Hooker, and celebrated by Lewis. If that didn't make you want to net strawberries or join the Home Front Command, Kipling draws upon the joys of Edenic horticulture to drive his point home:
Oh, Adam was a gardener, and God who made him sees
That half a proper gardener's work is done upon his knees,
So when your work is finished, you can wash your hands and pray
For the Glory of the Garden that it may not pass away!
And the Glory of the Garden it shall never pass away !
Drawing upon Adam as a gardener made for a charming poetic emblem, but it seems to have done little to inspire the action and sense of responsibility to be found in Kipling's poem. But what would be the result if Adam's responsibilities as gardner were examined under the Judaic-legalistic lens?
1970 marked this turning point in environmental studies with the publication of Dr. Eric G. Freudenstein's ז"ל 'Ecology and the Jewish Tradition'. The article reveals that then, as now, the issue of environmentalism was charged with religion. Freudenstein demonstrates that careful readings of Biblical and Talmudic text
disprove the repeated statements in the popular press that the “Judeo-Christian concept” of Genesis 1:28 is the cause of the destruction of our environment by western civilization. Rather it is man’s misunderstanding of this Scriptural concept and his insensitivity to the Holy Writ’s concern for God’s nature that should be accused. The concern for the “guarding of the garden” in which man has been placed by Providence is implicit in the Scriptural message. It has been made explicit in the Jewish tradition as formulated in the Biblical exegesis of the Rabbis and in the legal ordinances of the Talmud.Taken from Yad Gavriel: The Complete Anthology of Original Articles by Eric Gabriel Freudenstein, ed. by George G. Freudenstein, forthcoming
Beginning, appropriately with Adam, Freudenstein explains:
Sensitivity to nature can be found by a careful reading of the Creation story. Adam, the first man, is placed in his world, in the garden of Eden, “to work it and to guard it.” (Genesis 2:15). This supervision and maintenance can be taken as the duty to protect the natural environment.
So how are we doing? Well, here are some quick facts about the current plight of sharks and shark finning:
- Shark finning refers to the removal and retention of shark fins and the discard at sea of the carcass. The shark is most often still alive when it is tossed back into the water. Unable to swim, the shark slowly sinks toward the bottom where it is eaten alive by other fish.
- Shark specialists estimate that 100 million sharks are killed for their fins, annually.
- One pound of dried shark fin can retail for $300 or more. It's a multi-billion dollar industry that is only exceeded by the trafficking of narcotics.
- We've decreased the shark population by about 90%, creating, according to scientists, an ecological time-bomb that is not yet fully understood
- Here's an example of how we're basically the cause of our own downfall: shark depletion led to an increase in the octopus population which then preyed upon lobsters, and has already destroyed the Tasmanian fishing industry. This in turn sets into motion a slew of chain reactions in the economy and elsewhere
- Experts estimate that within a decade, most species of sharks will be lost because of longlining.
It doesn't look like we're guarding nature very well. Freudenstein elaborates on the nature of our relationship to the environment, citing Rabbi Benno Jacob's commentary of Genesis:
Adam’s relation to the Owner of the garden in the terminology of Halakhah, Jewish law, is that of a guardian. To guard may simply mean careful treatment and protection against damage. Primarily, however, this term is meant to characterize the garden as someone else’s property. It is a garden that belongs to God, not to Man. (B. Jacob, Das Erste Buch der Tora, Genesis [Schocken Verlag, 1934], p. 91).
In the beginning of this (ridiculously long) post, i suggested that environmentalism has the potential to transcend political and religious factions in order to unite society and lamented the lack of impetus from the religious community. Freudenstein's innovation lies in the assertion that environmentalism is not something external to Judaism, but rather quite central to it. Therefore, those who are immersed in the Jewish tradition are propitiously positioned to promulgate the message of environmentalism:
Ancient Jewish tradition stressed the maintenance of the biosphere over three and one half thousand years ago, but during the centuries of the Diaspora, divorced from the land, that message of our venerable tradition became weak. Jews were often cooped up in urban ghettos, their energies absorbed by the struggle for survival in a hostile world which they were powerless to influence. Nor was the destruction of the world’s natural assets as yet a threat to human existence. In modern times, the active participation of Jews in the Diaspora, in all phases of the public welfare, the reclamation of the land in the State of Israel and a general awareness of the problems of ecology, have created a new climate for a deeper understanding and acceptance of the concern for the environment evinced by the Jewish tradition. Conditions are now propitious for the ancient Jewish message of bal tashchit to be once again proclaimed loud and clear to all men of goodwill.