From Light Green To Dark Green: Committing to An Effective Jewish Environmentalism

Tu Bishvat which takes place later this month has become over the last 40 years the Jewish Earth Day. Whatever its origins, Tu Bishvat is the most likely time that synagogues “do” Jewish environmentalism. And while this is a good thing, it tends to isolate the environment as an issue like any special Shabbat program that happens once a year.

And while the present Jewish environment movement has been doing a very good job on educating and activating the Jewish community on the issues of food sustainability and energy conservation, there is still a great deal of work that needs to be done. I find that much of Jewish environmentalism is based on an underlying philosophy of what has been called “Light Green” environmentalism. This is an environmentalism that seeks to solve issues like sustainability and climate change through green consumerism, new technology and green job promotion. All of this is good but it will not solve climate change, environmental injustice or species extinction. It ignores the role of population and development in the environmental crisis; and it ignores the serious critiques the world economic system which is a major component in creating climate change and environmental injustice. Light Green environmentalism is based on a stewardship ethic which still privileges human needs and refuses to incorporate a more biocentrist approach to environmental ethics. In other words, a “Dark Green” environmentalism.

I believe that the Jewish community has been reluctant to enter into this “Dark Green” environmentalism for a number of reasons one of which is that we are afraid to face the kind of self-analysis that Dark Green requires, we have avidly embraced the new technology, and a lot of our community’s wealth comes from many of the industries and corporations that have come under this critique. Thinking Dark Green also means putting aside much of our anthropocentric ethics and create a new ethical system that incorporates the reality of modern technology.

The philosopher Hans Jonas was one of the leaders in creating such a new ethical system for the modern technological age. He created an environmental ethic which arose from his fear of the destruction of humanity and from the need to create a philosophical basis for humans’ responsibility to save themselves and the planet. His response to the environmental crisis is most fully elucidated in his book, The Imperative of Responsibility.

In this work, Jonas argued that the environmental crisis emerged from the human impact on the natural world, which is greater and more far-reaching than in any previous age. This unique and novel power comes from modern technology, which is also radically different from the technology of previous ages. Previous ethical systems, centered on interpersonal dealings within relatively narrow horizons of space and time, are no longer adequate to deal with the moral issues now raised. “Modern technology has introduced actions of such novel scale, objects, and consequences that the framework of former ethics can no longer contain them.” (Imperative of Responsibility, p. 6)

For Jonas, the lengthened reach of our deeds moves the principle of responsibility into the center of our ethical stage. His theory of responsibility, which he saw as the correlate of power, must therefore be proportionate to the range of modern power. Humans must also have greater foresight into the possible impact of new technology what Jonas called “scientific futurology.” Even with this greater foresight we will not be able to fully predict the effects of modern technological power; “As long as the danger is unknown, we do not know what to preserve and why.” (Ibid, p. 27) We can learn what to avoid from the “revulsion of feeling which acts ahead of knowledge, to apprehend the value whose antithesis so affects us. We know the thing at stake only when we know that it is at stake.” [Italics in original.] (Ibid)

Since we are so uncertain about the effects of our technology, and because it could have such far-reaching implications for the human race as well as the rest of life on earth, caution is now the “core of moral action.” (Ibid, p 38) This ethic of caution is also found in the Precautionary Principle, an ethical theory which states that an action, particularly one resulting from the introduction of a new technology, should not be carried out if the possible but as yet unknown results of that action are deemed by valid scientific opinion to have a high risk of being negative from an ethical point of view. The principle states that, when results cannot be determined with some kind of precision, actions which might lead to significant harm should be delayed or shunned. According to the Precautionary Principle, new technology should be assessed for indication of harm rather than proof of harm; a cost/benefit analysis of possible harm is not sufficient. The onus of proof of safety is on those who create the technology.

What are at stake are not only other forms of life but also the very survival of humanity and for Jonas the survival of humanity was a central ethical principle. In previous ages, human action might lead to the elimination of a tribe or a nation, but now all of humanity is at risk. Therefore any technology, which can put humanity at risk, is immoral. “Never must the existence or the essence of man as a whole be made a stake in the hazards of action.”

In many Jewish traditional texts, trees are often used as a powerful metaphor for life (seem Psalm 92:13-15) One of these metaphors is the Tree of Life which appears in Genesis 2-3 and in the book of Proverbs as a symbol of Wisdom. There are also a number of accounts of people being buried by trees (see for example Genesis35:8) which may express a desire that they participate in the eternity of the Tree of Life. This symbol reflects our belief that a tree which reaches up to heaven, lives a long time and can provide us with the sustenance that is given to us by God. It is an appropriate symbol for us to celebrate at this time of year and make us reflect on how we can preserve it.

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