Personal ethics in the face of climate change

by Susie Davidson

In his master work “Walden,” Henry David Thoreau wrote, “We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us.” Thoreau, who is largely credited as a forefather of the environmental movement, was issuing a dire warning that progress can, ultimately, lead to enslavement. He sensed that for all the conveniences that new modes of transportation, farming, communication and manufacturing could provide, we would ultimately become, for all intents and purposes, mere cogs entwined in our machinery. As the Industrial Revolution in his 19th Century America followed that of Great Britain and Europe, his fellow citizens were excited and empowered by the thought of being able to control their immediate environment and society. But visionaries like Thoreau far preferred to remain closer to the world in its natural state. One wonders if he could even have foreseen the detrimental effects of industry we have come to know – increased pollution, overuse of finite resources, and even global warming.

I could not help but think of Thoreau’s quotation when I heard the new report by government scientists naming this July officially the hottest month in the recorded weather history of the contiguous United States. This came as little surprise to many, given the current drought affecting two-thirds of the country and the generally scorching conditions across the continent. Indeed, three of the five hottest months in the history books have been recent: 2012, 2011, and 2006. It is no wonder that NASA scientist James Hansen has declared that we are now in the midst of climate change.

In Midrash Kohelet Rabbah 7:28, we read: “When G-d created the first human. he took him and showed him all the trees of the Garden of Eden and said to him, ‘See my works, how beautiful and praiseworthy they are. And everything that I created, I created it for you. Be careful not to spoil or destroy my world – for if you do, there will be nobody after you to repair it.'”

It is sadly ironic to consider that humankind’s pursuit of industry, powered by a cavalier desire to control one’s surroundings, may in fact lead to a situation of humankind’s own making that is, in fact, uncontrollable. Thoreau somehow sensed this. In light of our biblical teachings, we must nonetheless continue to respect the earth even when we feel we are but a tiny cog in the wheel of humanity. As stated in Pirkei Avot 2:21, attributed to Rabbi Tarfon, “It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work [of perfecting the world], but neither are you at liberty to desist from it.”

Susie Davidson, who coordinates Boston COEJL, is a poet, journalist, author, and filmmaker who writes regularly for the Jewish Advocate, the Jewish Journal, the Jewish Daily Forward, JointMedia News Service and other media, and has contributed to the Jerusalem Post, the Eagle Tribune, the Boston Sunday Globe, and the Boston Herald. She has also authored four books and made a film on local Holocaust survivors.

 

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