Humans are miracles of creative energy. Since the Industrial Revolution dawned 150 years ago, we have devised wonderful inventions to improve and lengthen our lives, marveled at our newfound abundance, and thrilled to new possibilities.
So during the High Holidays, writes Rabbi Paul Cohen of Temple Jeremiah of Northfield, Ill., “we must look around at the miracle of creation, and rejoice that we are a part of it.” Then we must use that joyous energy “to repair the damage we have caused through mistakes and intentional acts of transgression. Repentance, prayer and charity (teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah) temper Judgment’s harsh decree.” (http://www.templejeremiah.org/pdf/cov/cov_06_09.pdf)
In Mother Nature’s terms, “judgment” includes melting glaciers, rising sea levels, weather and economic disasters, mass extinctions, tropic desertification and worldwide food and water crises. These are unintended consequences from the world’s 257 countries polluting the planet’s waters, greedily extracting its resources, and pumping 28 billion tons of greenhouse gases into its atmosphere every year, as they power our modern economies.
Of the greenhouse gases total, for example, nearly 70 percent is emitted by just six countries: China (21.5 percent), the U.S. (21 percent), Indonesia (11 percent), Russia (6 percent), India (4.5 percent), and Japan (4.5 percent). And this does not include greenhouse gas outputs of these countries’ armed forces — their largest single fossil fuel consumers.
Together, we have pushed CO2 levels in Earth’s atmosphere to their highest point in 650,000 years — nearly 390 parts per million (ppm). That’s 40 ppm more than the earth can safely process every year, reports the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Clearly, our genius has created challenges that endanger us all.
What are we supposed to do? We have committed offenses against Mother Nature knowingly and unknowingly. We are required to ask forgiveness and make amends. Currently, we exhort each other to “save” the earth. But there are several problems with that:
1. It’s too big a challenge to comprehend or manage. We need to define a smaller, clearer purpose, and build it out of manageably sized pieces that we can accomplish,
2. It sets up Messianic expectations, which run against the High Holiday spirit, that some white knight or savior will make things right for us, instead of us taking action ourselves. Teshuvah requires us to ask forgiveness, make restitution and change behavior, none of which anyone else can do for us,
3. It assumes the earth cannot “save” itself. In fact, the planet did fine for billions of years before we arrived. It’s worse off for our meddling, but should begin bouncing back within 100 years (www.eatliver.com/i.php?n=1451) of our departure — if humans end up going extinct.
So in this season of reflection, I suggest that we restate our call to action: “Save ourselves.” Mother Nature isn’t the only offended party here; we are offending ourselves, too, with noxious air, deforested land, polluted waters, and endangered species. We cannot ask forgiveness of Mother Nature, but we can of ourselves, and making restitution to one will satisfy both. With intention (kavana), we can change our behaviors, and pray that Mother and the Almighty bestow their favor upon us.
Saving ourselves involves teshuva and tzedakah — for us, the earth, and succeeding generations. “Save ourselves” is clear and imperative. It consists of two parts: Acting individually, and acting communally. Each can be broken into tangible, attainable goals, with each attainment rippling toward tikkun olam (healing the world).
On the individual level, we have seen and heard what each of us can do since the first Earth Day in 1970. Lists, books, movies, documentaries, videos, politicians and personalities have told us what to do with increasing urgency. Items have even arrived for free on our doorsteps from local utilities, in the forms of energy- and water-saving equipment to install.
On the community level, others appreciate the results of our actions, and show us that they are meaningful. They provide support, and encouragement to do more. They also provide leverage. It takes a voting bloc to get a policymaker’s attention, and that kind of power is needed to require energy efficiency in our building codes, appliances and machinery, protect species, clean our waters, and tax, or cap and trade carbon.
The key is to trust. If each of us acts to save ourselves, to increase our own health and the health of our families, we will, in the aggregate, achieve great acts of tzedakah for our communities, the world, and future generations.
We showed creative genius getting ourselves into this mess. We’re saying our al chet now, and gearing up to temper the harsh planetary judgment with intentional healing actions. The clues that we’re enjoying “forgiveness” are already appearing in the skies, earth and water all around us. L’shana tovah.