We skeptical humans have always greeted novelty with suspicion. We prefer what makes us feel safe and comfortable, not what challenges us. That’s why concepts like global climate change, carbon trading, waste-free business and social equity confound us. It’s easier and more comforting to believe that climate change is a hoax, carbon cap and trade hurts business, we’ll always create waste, and some people deserve (a lot) more than others.
But imagine 3,300 years ago when we Hebrews were about to exit slavery in Egypt. How many must have felt rising panic and demanded, “Whoa, Moses! What are you thinking? Don’t be dragging us into the unknown!”
Just outside Pharaoh’s cities, they stopped short at the Sea of Reeds. Moses held his hand over the water, but it took Nachshon ben Aminadav wading into the sea before it would part: One more example of the need to marry vision with action. And one more in 40 years’ worth of challenges Moses faced with his people. The Torah has to remind us three dozen times to treat strangers with kindness, because we were once strangers in the land of Egypt. It’s one of myriad requirements and commandments. And when each appeared, most people probably viewed it with suspicion, or disdain. When Moses disappeared up Sinai for the Ten Commandments, for example, they reverted to idol worship. Most had been polytheists, few took a weekly day off, and coveting the neighbors’ property, including wives, was part of tribal life.
So while the Torah’s concepts are all good ideas, they were originally newfangled — even heretical. One could say they ran against human nature, if not against the nature of human behavior. Yet we found something so promising in these new directions that, for millennia since, we have used them to inspire and rally ourselves. We’ve made them our frameworks for creating personal and community relationships, for organizing societies and forming governments.
Old habits die hard: we still believe the shortest distance between two points is the one we’ve most traveled, even if there’s a shorter route we can learn. We still kill, steal, blaspheme, antagonize, and refuse to rest. But Torah, and other great works, provide sets of ideals toward which we can strive, and against which we can measure our conduct and progress.
Now the planet we took for granted is doing terribly unexpected things, and people we have trusted in the past are acting extraordinarily disastrously. Who would have imagined earthquakes and tsunamis wiping out Bali, New Zealand, Haiti and northeast Japan in such quick succession? Who could have imagined the irony of Japan being destroyed by atom bombs, and embracing nuclear electric power at the risk of new nuclear devastation? Who could have imagined the Exxon Valdez and BP Gulf oil disasters, the Union Carbide Bhopal catastrophe, Chernobyl, mine cave-ins, and the hundreds of other unpleasant industrial surprises we’ve experienced in just the past few decades?
In the response, environmental statements can get strident (as with the current polar bear campaign), which can make observers skeptical. But for the most part, they’re authentic: Industrial poisons are rampant; glaciers are melting; climate is changing; humans do cause species extinctions. We can mitigate, even reverse these trends. But we’re up against the same obstacles that have blocked change agents dating back to times of Torah, Hammurabi’s Code and before: Beliefs and habits are established, we’ve “always” done it this way; why should we change?
So, let’s answer a question with a question: Is poisoning ourselves a good thing? Or melting glaciers, changing climate, or erasing other species? Over the past 540 million years, scientists have found evidence of five mass extinctions, when more than 50 percent of all animal species disappeared. Over Earth’s 4.54 billion year history, there may have been more than 20.
Basically, we humans are living between extinction periods. Does it make sense for us to bring on another prematurely — or to keep things healthy, and buy ourselves (and our descendants) as much time as possible? If we choose health, I suggest we abide by three “commandments” borrowed from Cradle to Cradle authors Wm. McDonnough and Michael Braungart:
• Make waste equal “food” (for other consumers and processes)
• Use current solar income (not ancient fossil fuels),
• Celebrate diversity (of crops, flora and fauna).
Maybe for this, we can suspend our skepticism.