Monday, 17 January 2011

Tikkun olam is environmental sanity –- by Rabbi Michael Lerner

Excerpted from The Network of Spiritual Progressives. See also his magazine Tikkun.

For the last thirty-five years ecologists have been warning about the impending environmental crisis, apologists for the large corporations that are despoiling the earth have been sponsoring corrupt scientists to say that the crisis is exaggerated, conservative politicians have warned that taking environmental reforms seriously could drive corporations to relocate in other places around the world with the consequence that we’d be out of jobs and still have an unclean global environment, and the bulk of the population has felt powerless to do anything. It’s not that people don’t care about the earth. They care powerfully. This earth is our only home, and our own lives are tied to its well-being....

But few people have seen a path that could connect their caring about the earth to actual life choices that would enable them to have much of an impact in saving the planet from destruction. Many were happy to recycle when it was made convenient by city services offering to pick up recycled goods. A growing number of upper middle class people bought organic foods and products with less poisonous additives — a luxury that most working class people could not afford on a regular basis. When there was an opportunity to stop a local polluter, many voters sided with regulation, though those whose income would be threatened should the venture move out of town often found themselves deeply conflicted — caring about the long-term fate of the planet but also worried about how to feed their families.

Meanwhile, the predicted dangers are already happening. As the demand for food grows, increases in land cultivation cannot keep up, though in the attempt to expand agriculture into the Amazon Basin, major parts of a precious bio-system are at risk, and other parts of the world will soon face water shortages of catastrophic proportions.

CO2 emissions per person

Carbon emissions and global warming are accelerating... Wetlands and coral reefs are damaged... In the last three decades, according to Christopher Flavin of Worldwatch Institute, 13,500 square kilometers of Antarctic ice shelves have already disappeared and two of the largest ice sheets have begun to weaken, threatening to raise the sea level and produce massive flooding.

The impact on the health of the global environment is more severe from advanced industrial societies than from developing countries. The U.S., for example, releases 15.7 million tons of carbon into the atmosphere each year as compared with India (with 4 times the population), which releases 4.9 million tons.

The world’s population has grown to 6.3 billion, approximately twice as many people as were alive on the planet just 45 years ago. Simultaneously, fewer people are living in the same household in the past thirty-five years (down from 5.1 to 4.4 in developing countries and from 3.2 to 2.5 in industrial countries), and since each new household requires land and material, the decline in extended families or living units takes a significant toll on the environment. Birth rates have declined in parts of Europe so that there is an actual decline in population in some countries, while the explosion of births in third world countries continues, in large part because lack of adequate birth control and reproductive health services make it harder for many to engage in planning their family size. The opposition from the Vatican and from the U.S. Religious Right to providing this kind of information if it contains information on abortion or birth control devices has contributed significantly to the inadequate funding for the dissemination of this information, thereby increasing the actual rate of abortions and the number of women who die in childbirth.

Environmental activists have been woefully unsuccessful in convincing government to play a decisive role in reversing this process and healing the earth from the destructive consequences of 150 years of environmental irresponsibility. These activists have been up against seemingly overwhelming odds. The power of corporations to threaten whole regions with economic devastation should they dare to challenge environmental pollutants, media that are slavishly subordinate to the interests of corporate owners and hence unwilling to dramatize the level of catastrophe facing the human race, the irresponsibility of political leaders in both major parties who refuse to acknowledge and seriously contend with the realities (cf. Clinton’s failure to aggressively back the Kyoto Accords which in any event would have been only a weak substitute for serious global action or the plans of the Bush Administration to drill for oil in the Arctic), and the depth of denial among ordinary citizens that leads us to imagine that a little recycling and a few more hybrid cars and fluorescent lights and all will be well.

The environmental movement itself has often channeled the outrage and energy of ordinary citizens in paths that have proven extremely unproductive. Instead of building a mass base for a movement demanding fundamental restructuring of the global economy in ways that would guarantee a dramatic decrease in global warming and in saving the earth for future generations, the environmental movements have often downplayed the seriousness of the challenge on the advice that they would be called “chicken little” and that fundraising does better with a positive message. Instead of working the beltway, the environmentalists need to be mobilizing the American public with a broad vision of what is needed.

As Peter Teague, the environmental program director at Nathan Cummings Foundation, put it, “So long as the siren call of denial is met with the drone of policy expertise — and the fantasy of technical fixes is left unchallenged — the public is not just being misled, it’s also being misread. Until we address Americans honestly, and with the respect they deserve, they can be expected to remain largely disengaged from the global transformation we need them to be a part of.”

Michael Shellenberger, in the introduction to his “Death of Environmentalism,” puts it equally starkly. “In their public campaigns, not one of America’s environmental leaders is articulating a vision for the future commensurate with the magnitude of the crisis. Instead, they are promoting technical policy fixes like pollution controls and higher vehicle mileage standards….” What Shellenberger and other critics of the current trends in environmentalism have understood is that what is critical to save the planet is not only correct scientific data and technical ideas for how to improve things, but a new set of core values that must predominate in the public sphere and a new way of understanding that reality.

In Boiling Point, Ross Gelbspan accuses environmental leaders of “being too timid to raise alarms about so nightmarish a climate threat” and for settling for too little... “The major national environmental groups focusing on climate – groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and the World Wildlife Federation – have agreed to accept what they see as a politically feasible target of 450 parts per million of carbon dioxide... [That] may be politically realistic, it would likely be environmentally catastrophic.” What is needed is to cut emissions 70 or 80 percent. Gelbspan advocates the “WEMP” proposal – the World Energy Modernization Plan — to reduce carbon emissions by 70 percent worldwide in three ways: 1) shifting subsidies from polluting industries to clean industries; 2) creating a fund to transfer clean technology to the developing world; and 3) ratcheting up a “Fossil Fuel Efficiency Standard” by five percent per year.

I’ve mentioned here the most pressing environmental crisis, but it would be a mistake to limit environmental concerns to the immediate survival emergencies. There are longer term concerns about the way that the human race is growing so rapidly that we may soon consume many of the resources of this planet, leaving little for future generations. A huge amount of resources are poured into the creation of “goods” that have no redeeming social value except as ways for corporations to make profits, and hence also ways to ensure high levels of employment. It might be useful to think of the human race as involved in a kind of strip-mining of the world’s resources, leaving devastation and waste for the future. And talking about waste, we have no place to store it and so more and more of the planet gets filled with waste dumps that send off potentially carcinogenic poisons.

Of course, the corporations have an answer to all this. “We only produce what people will buy. We are in business to make profits, and our products respond to market demands. If people don’t want these products, we’ll know soon enough and produce what they do want.”

There’s a fundamental dishonesty here... the marketplace responds not on the principle of one person one vote, but on the principle of one dollar one vote, so that the more money you have, the more market power to shape what is being produced. So the market will respond way more to the rich than to the poor.

Still, there is an important point being raised by the response of the corporations: reduced consumption of the earth’s resources, and cutbacks in fuels that are destructive, require the backing (active or passive) of the vast majority of the people of the world. “Well, you’ll never get that,” the voice of cynical realism rushes in to warn us. “People want to get as many toys for themselves as possible, and they will never voluntarily adopt cutbacks in their level of consumption. Run on the ticket of lowering the material level of consumption and you’ll be as dead as the Kyoto Treaty.”

The cynical realist has a point, but only within a certain context — the context of a society in which the bottom line is money and power and the common sense is to “look out for number one.” In such a society, most people will reason this way: “If I cut back on my consumption, it won’t really save the earth. I know how selfish everyone else is, how deeply materialistic, so I am sure that they won’t cut back on their consumption. So what I do won’t really make that much of a difference because most other people will just be taking care of their own material needs. So I end up being part of a small idealistic group that stops purchasing the ecologically destructive stuff but meanwhile everyone else gets what they want. I become the one jerk on the block, while the rest of my neighbors are binging on consumption. Well, why should I do that to myself? I won’t!! And I’m not going to vote for some candidate who wants to do that for our society, when I see that the selfishness is global, so while we stop polluting, those third world countries like China and India, which are now rapidly industrializing and modernizing, will increase the level of global destruction so that our own country’s reduction in consumption won’t have that much of an impact.” Even if we explained to this person that the U.S. footprint is much greater because of levels of consumption than that of other countries, we are unlikely to convince enough people to dramatically reduce their level of consumption unless we can do it globally. “That will never happen,” the voice of cynical realism responds, “so why should I worry about the future, which is going to be a mess anyway — I might as well get what I can right now for myself while I’m still alive.”

A spiritual movement

The only way to counter this cynical realism is to recast the environmental movement as a spiritual movement aimed at building a New Bottom Line and a new consciousness of who we are as human beings. Only a spiritual movement has the capacity to ask how to nurture an awareness of ourselves that transcends ego and begins to see ourselves as part of the Unity of All Being. It is precisely by being able to recognize our interdependence and oneness with all other human beings, all other life forms, and with all of being, that we begin to see a way toward answering the narrow materialist self-interest consciousness that is leading to the destruction of the planet. It is true that some religious and spiritual traditions have talked of human beings exercising dominion or rule over the earth. But what that means in practice is being recontextualized by many of the religious and spiritual traditions, so that it translates into having the responsibility to protect the earth from the environmental threats a section of the human race has caused by its past and present insensitivity to the needs of the earth. Still, dominion or “rule over” language seems more like the language of the Right Hand of God, and so today many religious and spiritual communities are affirming a new relationship to the planet, one which eschews domination and seeks instead to cooperate with the rest of the life-sphere, and which recontextualizes human beings as one member of the earth family, affirming the worth and value of every life form, supporting biological diversity and cultural diversity. To see ourselves as part of the Unity of All Being, made in the image of the ONE, is a religious starting point for this new consciousness.


But you don’t have to believe in a Supreme Being or use religious language to get this spiritual insight. Other spiritual traditions talk of Gaia as a living entity of which we are part. The various animate and inanimate parts of the planet constitute a swirling dynamic that makes life possible. Or we can think of it as a constantly changing open ecosystem with intricate, interdependent parts. The key is to recognize that the earth includes the more-than-human. As Paul Wapner puts it (Tikkun, Sept/Oct 2003), “The earth is not the backdrop for our lives, but is part and parcel with them…. Rather than efficiency, system failure and the like, a tikkun sense of things prods us to talk in terms of care, awe appreciation, sacredness and love. The earth is not something we use but something we share our lives with — something we nurture, have fun with, are stunned by, respond to, empathize with, find nourishment from, and in turn, nourish.”

And this leads to another deep teaching of the spiritual tradition: the insistence that there is enough, that we do not essentially need endless goods, that we are enough as we are, that the earth’s produce can be shared and we can survive without endless production of new things. The consciousness of abundance is a major teaching of many spiritual traditions and practices, and stands in sharp contrast to the teachings of scarcity that underlie much of the fear that drives capitalist consumption.

The Torah commandment/practice of a sabbatical year once every seven, mandating all people to take one year off together (the same year), was a practice of developing trust that there would be enough (in a society where “enough” was far less than what is available to most people on this planet today). The ongoing practice of Sabbath-observance, taking one day off and not using money or buying or selling, not doing any work-related activity, not engaging in any domination or control over nature, is a contemporary spiritual practice that could help foster and strengthen our sense of the abundance that already is there, so that we don’t have to constantly be driven by the fantasy that we need more. Spiritual practice and consciousness may be the indispensable link for helping to develop the consciousness that could respond to the narrow materialistic self-interested consciousness that seeks to benefit in the global marketplace even at the expense of future planetary survival.

If environmentalists wish to win their own very rational program, they are going to have to move beyond environmental concerns and begin to address the need for a whole new way of being in the world., and to build on the spiritual consciousness that helps us see our connection to all other humans, to all life forms, to all of being. It’s a hard transition for the hardcore scientists and legislative technicians who have become the center of currently constituted environmentalism, but unless that shift takes place, we will get nothing better than what we have now: an “agreement in principle” by most Americans that environmentalism is very important, but an unwillingness to actually give it a high priority among their various concerns because of a (sometimes articulated, sometimes unconscious) suspicion that going this route is going to force them to reduce consumption without any corresponding benefit.

So what would be the benefit if they found environmentalism rooted in a spiritual movement? The benefit of having a multi-dimensional movement that was also speaking to their own immediate spiritual needs.... If people can get convinced that there is a real movement for a New Bottom Line, that selfishness and materialism are not rooted in the nature of reality in ways that will never be altered, then they will be open to environmentalism in a way that could produce real tangible results. Thus, the struggle for the Social Responsibility Amendment becomes an important element in any campaign for environmental sanity.

Let's consider a few other steps.

Protecting the Victims

One of the ironies of global warming is that the environmental damage done by industrialized and industrializing countries will play out first in the form of huge flooding of underdeveloped countries that did not make any serious contribution to the problem. Millions of flood refugees will desperately need a new place to live and work, and most of their own countries will be submerged under water. One way that we can begin to foster a sense of global unity in facing these problems is to adopt a formula which requires the industrial countries to welcome in refugees in direct proportion to the extent to which that country contributed global emissions that caused the problem. So, for example, the U.S. would take in somewhere between 20-22% of the refugees because we had that percentage of the world’s greenhouse gases. China and India would also have major responsibility, as would other polluters. Recognizing that our actions have global consequences, and that we will have to take care of the victims, could be an important step in developing a global ecological consciousness.

A Campaign for Ethical Consumption

Judaism has developed notion of foods that are kosher (acceptable for eating) and those that are not (treyf). Looking back on the system that emerged, I argued in my book Jewish Renewal that this was a system based on moving toward vegetarianism and emphasizing the need for attention to decreasing and eventually eliminating the suffering of the animals who would be killed. But while we will never know the full motivation that led to inclusion of some animals as edible (most were excluded as treyf), we do know that other parts of the system were explicitly based on ethical concerns. For example, it was not kosher to eat food from the corners of your fields, since the Torah mandates that those corners must be left for the poor who get to enter your fields and take their allocation (for them it is not treyf, but for the owners it is). Similarly, the notion of kosher wine was developed as the first grape boycott against the power and depravities of Roman society. Today, the Jewish Renewal movement is an advocate of extending that notion to eco-kashrut, so that foods that are environmentally destructive or produced in an unjust way are “treyf”.

Spiritual progressives need to take this same concept and extend it beyond food to all products.

The notion of ethical consumption already has a powerful foothold in the important movements that have developed around “fair trade” coffee, teas, and chocolates. By encouraging people to buy only those products which could be certified as having been produced in ways that were both ecologically sound and fair to the workers who picked the crop and brought in to market, these movements have already made an important contribution to improving the quality of life of those workers in the countries in which the food was grown.

Imagine extending that consciousness now to all products available on the marketplace. Imagine if all the religious and spiritual communities of the world, working in close cooperation with environmentalists, toxic experts, and labor movement organizers, were to coordinate an effort to develop criteria for a very wide array of products so that they could certify that some goods had been produced in environmentally sensitive ways and were developed, grown, picked, or manufactured in ways that were respectful to the needs of the working people involved. Governments could participate in this process by providing funding to support frequent surprise visits at the workplaces by teams of ethicists charged with determining what was really happening at a given worksite, and could also participate by requiring that products sold in stores that received goods in interstate commerce label the products with a few obvious codes that identified which products were produced in ways that were ethically and environmentally acceptable. Government could also help by mandating ads in media reminding people of the importance of consulting this kind of labeling, in the way that it today mandates ads informing people about the risks of smoking for cancer and heart disease.

While this campaign would have to be energized primarily through free-market choices, it probably should have some stricter punishments for those who produce goods that are overtly linkable to cancer or environmental pollution. For example, criminal liability would accrue for the top management and members of the board of directors of firms that have not taken adequate steps to protect the public and the planet from environmental pollutants, toxic chemicals, and carcinogenic agents. If the punishments were strict enough, this could add a powerful incentive for those who had not yet fully developed an ethical awareness of the interrelationship between all peoples.


See also Wikipedia on tikkun olam, Jill Jacobs' on the current debate within Judaism, videos from other members of the Network of Spiritual Progressives.

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