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Intertwine the Environment and Social Justice? Be Careful.

Recently there has been a lot of talk in the Jewish environmental community about the environmental interlinkage with social justice issues. You can see it in the talk about “food justice,” efforts on environmental justice, or in the Siach conference (An Environmental and Social Justice Conversation). Of course, these issues have always been intertwined for some Jewish-environmental organizations, such as the Shalom Center. But increasingly Jewish environmental programs and, worryingly, Jewish environmental grant opportunities – seem tied to the social justice movement, meaning they may need a “social justice” angle in order to be considered viable.

In some ways it seems natural and beneficial for the Jewish environmental movement to link ourselves with the social justice movement. Politically, they often already agree with our agendas, and their support (which, of course, doesn’t take much convincing) can be helpful to us. Social justice organizations also often have more political clout and savvy than Jewish-environmental organizations, so their partnership is much welcome. And of course some topics have both justice and environmental angles.

Still, Jewish environmentalists should take caution before tying ourselves too tightly to the social justice movement. Here are some thoughts about why.

Since working for COEJL on Capitol Hill in the late 90s, it’s been my firm position that the environment will never get protected until it’s a non-partisan issue, i.e., until environmental responsibility is recognized as beneficial to all people (poor or rich, white or black, liberal or conservative). If we don’t recognize the importance of engaging all people in environmental gains, we might find ourselves making gains in a specific administration, but when the political winds turn, the environment suffers. We’ve seen this happen over and over again, with disastrous environmental consequences.

While tying our political interests to the social justice movement may work for short-term political gain, it further alienates us from people who disagree with any number of other aspects of the “liberal agenda.” Those people have a lot of power, and when they get distracted by those other topics, they can completely miss the fact that protecting the environment is good for everyone (including them).

We might get a good vote with the help of the social justice movement, but that vote can easily be changed when a new administration comes to power. For the elections (the big game), the social justice advocates were mostly voting with us anyway. We are not always going to win those games; that’s why we must talk to people who don’t already agree with us. Aligning ourselves with the social justice movement will not achieve that goal.

The Politics of Partisan Issues

The social justice movement has been effective, over time, even though it’s perceived as a “liberal” agenda. The environment has not been nearly as effective. Why is this? I believe it’s because we have a different political “arc” than the social justice movement.

Different issues have different political arcs. For example, think of abortion, a topic with a clear ideological split which is not going away. Some people think abortion is murder. Some think it should be the woman’s choice. While some may be swayed, there will always be a significant group of people who think abortion is just wrong. As a result, the abortion debate seesaws back and forth depending on who is in power. There is probably no way to change this political arc because of the ideological issues involved; each party ends up unhappy when the other is in power, but they feel good when they get into power and do the right thing.

The social justice movement has a different political trajectory. Its trajectory is slowly upward, as people become more aware that a specific way of thinking or acting is unjust. While a given administration may cut back certain activities, or even say they are wrong, ultimately another administration will restore them as new generations come to power. We can agree that there is a significant way to go before our society is “just,” but we can also agree that we’ve come a good long way in the last 100 years. And with the educational efforts of the social justice movement, we’re likely to be more just in the coming 100 years.

Now, what is the trajectory of the environmental movement? Unfortunately, it has taken the arc of an ideological swing, with people arguing the “truth” of science (as if science cares what we think). This arc has been incredibly detrimental to the environment itself.

The social justice movement is recognized as a liberal movement: being liberal is part of its essential definition. They can afford to align themselves with a specific political side because ultimately they are going to win the day. You could argue that may happen with the environmental movement; of course the younger generation is more pro-environment than the older generation. But unlike the social justice movement, we are NOT better off environmentally than we were 100 years ago. And while we may (possibly) be on a path to be more sustainable in the next 100 years, the environmental crisis does not have the luxury of waiting even 20 years.

But unlike abortion or social justice, issues with some natural ideological boundaries which may not be easily transcended, the environment is a topic on which we all should be able to agree. The goal of the environmental movement matters to every person and every creature on the planet. And we’re failing.

Social Justice is Easier

While both are Jewish values, there’s also a difference between social justice issues and environmental issues from a Jewish perspective. Jewish social justice values stem primarily from a certain set of Jewish sources that emphasize protecting the “other”: We’re encouraged to protect the widow, orphan and stranger; we give charity as a matter of “justice” as opposed to lovingkindness; we’re supposed to protect the stranger because we were strangers in Egypt.

Environmental values in the Torah are connected to different sources which call us to our own personal responsibility for ourselves, all our neighbors, and everything we do. The environmental mandate is in fact broader, because it’s incumbent upon us ALL the time not to waste, not to mistreat animals, not to pollute the air, and generally not to destroy the world. This is often more difficult than social justice activities which may simply be executed by writing a check or taking care of the poor person when we pass them on the street or go into their neighborhood on a service project.

When Jewish environmentalism is tied to Jewish social justice, it’s easy to focus on the social justice aspects of the project. These aspects are short-term and immediate. The victimized or underprivileged individuals are there and they are in great need. Our heart calls us to be compassionate to them. We respond in a way that can make things better quickly and we can see those results immediately – the person has been fed, sheltered, listened to. Even if there are long-term efforts needed, it makes a difference to the person that they have been begun, and that difference matters.

Long Term Matters

Not so the environmental crisis, in which history will judge us only by our end results. Environmental protection is inherently a long-term proposition. While short term results may inspire us, we all know that they must go far beyond the short-term to make a tangible difference to the environment as a whole. That’s why environmental actions are challenging to do, to teach, and to persevere in.

To be frank, it doesn’t truly matter to the environment how many bright children are inspired in a classroom session on Judaism and the environment; it doesn’t even matter (blasphemy!) if they each go home and recycle cans for the next two months. (This might matter to the Jewish community, of course, and that does have value.) But for the environment, what matters is how those children live their lives, how they vote and what jobs they choose, what they choose to make and to buy. That is a long term effort. We might work for ten years or more before feeling we've truly succeeded in a specific area.

And yet, even though we can’t see the results immediately, that long-term effort is incredibly important. If we pay too much attention to short-term needs, we may lose sight of the long-term need to protect the environment for future generations – and then we will face huge problems for all, including those we tried to help with our short-term efforts.

“Made a Difference to that One”?

In the social justice movement, the short-term effort of protecting an individual or addressing a specific problem makes a real difference; at some level, it’s sufficient. But protecting one aspect of the environment is not sufficient, because each aspect depends on the other. Unlike with social justice issues, the environment is constantly being threatened by new problems; often in the form of technologies which may not even be seen as harmful from the outset. To protect the environment, as a society we require constant vigilance and a sense of global responsibility. Our movement must reach a critical mass of people across the entire world – even those who don’t agree with us on all the other “liberal” issues in the social justice basket.

There is an old, often-told story about the boy who is trying to make a difference by throwing starfish beached on the sand back into the ocean. Presumably, the starfish would die outside of the water, and so he’s picking up one starfish at a time on a beach covered with them. Someone comments to him that his work makes no difference because he can’t save them all. He picks one up and throws it into the ocean, saying, “It made a difference to that one.”

This expression makes perfect sense to the social justice leader. But the environmentalist must pause before being satisfied by that story. Why were those starfish beached in the first place? What damage did this do to the ocean ecosystem; to food available for fisherman miles away? How can we prevent this from happening again? In the big picture, throwing one starfish back is completely inadequate. It might have made a difference to that one, but what will happen to that one when it goes back to an ocean that is warming and acidifying and overfished?

Some Suggestions

If we are going to partner with the social justice movement, and I agree that at times this makes sense, we need to make sure that our environmental needs are not eclipsed by the social justice component. To ensure this, I recommend the following safeguards:

1. The long-term environmental benefits must be at least as significant as the justice gains. Given the crisis we face, if we are not getting significant long-term environmental benefits out of an individual project, why are we spending our precious and limited time on it? In publicity and materials related to the project, both environmental and social justice topics should also be highlighted equally.

2. Not every environmental issue is also a social justice issue. Some topics, like food and environmental justice, have natural linkages. Even climate change has justice components when you consider the people in low-lying nations and poor countries hit with intense storms (although refer to #1 to make sure we’re actually addressing climate change environmental problems with our programs – instead of just protecting the poor who will be impacted). However, we should not stop focusing on topics like saving endangered species just because they do not have a social justice angle.

3. And not every social justice issue is environmental. If a social justice issue has no environmental angle, we do not need to promote it to people as if it does just because of a link to the “progressive agenda.” Some people who are environmentally minded are just not into social justice topics and some may even be fiscally or socially conservative; they shouldn’t be alienated because of that. Their environmental participation is enough on its own and should not be dependent on buy-in to a broader liberal agenda.

4. We should build all kinds of political alliances wherever it makes sense to do that. If it’s good for the environmental movement to join with social justice leaders, we should do that. It may also be good to join with unlikely allies who would never dream of certain social justice agendas: Orthodox Jews, and Evangelical Christians, and conservative Republicans, and Kashrut agencies. The social justice movement does not exclusively work with the environmental movement; they work with the partners that work for them. We should do the same.

I hope that these thoughts stimulate further dialogue as to the future of the Jewish environmental and Jewish social justice relationship. I welcome your comments!

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2 Comments
2 Replies
  • Joe Orlow
    March 1, 2011 (11:56 am)

    Evonne, you packed a lot into one essay. There’s enough in there to expand into a book! That being said, I read your essay twice, and I think it bears re-reading a few more times. For the time being, I’m going to comment on Suggestion (1). In Suggestion (1) you write: “Given the crisis we face, if we are not getting significant long-term environmental benefits out of an individual project, why are we spending our precious and limited time on it?” I would like to point out that the environmental movement as we know it in the U.S. did indeed start out on a micro scale as part of a social movement that incorporated environmental issues. It started out with groups of people in the counter-culture creating communes and living the environmental ideas that they inherited from a generation before. Timothy Miller points out his book “The 60s Communes, Hippies and Beyond” that from just a few communes, certain ideas — including environmental ideas — spread like wildfire. Another example of the “one” making a difference is Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring” which she apparently wrote just a mile or two from where I’m typing these words. It can be argued that “Silent Spring” was a major factor in the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Certainly the EPA itself makes that argument: http://www.epa.gov/history/topics/epa/15c.htm While Carson’s book was all about the environment, apparently she carried the day because of her style of writing as much as her environmental science, which has been much disputed. The web page is mightier than the sword: The Egyptian government fell in 2 1/2 weeks from a Facebook stab. Far from belittling the micro effort because it’s alloyed as the “little brother” of another project and it’s long term effect may, on the surface, seem insignificant, I would say that perhaps there can’t be a macro effort without those seemingly pointless exercises like Nachshon wading into the sea up to his nose. The hypothetical kid in your essay may not grow up and vote environmental if he doesn’t start by recycling his report card. And we may not be able to reach that kid unless we start our own schools — based on social justice — yet with environmental agendas so that by example and through repetition over years we can inculcate and imbue environmental values into the curriculum. To summarize my point: the focus I think has to be on social justice, with the environmental issues coming along for the ride and I say that because it’s difficult to gauge just which environmental efforts will be effective in the long run. Thus by focusing on the social justice issues, we can piggy back the environmental issues on to a winning horse (excuse the mixed metaphor).

  • Sarah Osborne
    April 29, 2011 (4:32 pm)

    You made a lot of interesting points, Evonne!


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