by Rabbi Howard Cohen
The end of the human race will be that it will eventually die of civilisation.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
With the approach of the season of Teshuvah it is once again time to reflect on our relationship with the earth. In the past I would have asked myself questions such as ‘did I waste natural resources’; or ‘did I pour unreasonable amounts of carbon into the atmospher’; or ‘did I speak out against corporate environmental abuse’. These questions are important but I believe that there is another set of questions equally or more important that we should start asking ourselves. This year I am asking ‘how prepared am I to live in an ecologically changed/damaged world’ and ‘how am I helping others cope with the environmental changes we fear that are now a part of our reality’.
Humans have already irreversibly and negatively impacted the ecology and environment of the earth. Perhaps we can mitigate to some degree future damage, but we cannot undo what has been done. Thus, the most important existential challenge today is how to live in our environmentally affected world.
Sadly, the environmental movement has failed. This is not because Truth and science are not on its side, nor because it lacked resources or organization. It failed because it was essentially a messianic movement. Like all messianic movements it focused on final outcomes: If we don’t change our ways terrible things await us (think Jonah and his commission from God to the Ninevites). But if we change (teshuvah) our ways we can avoid this horrible fate and enjoy heaven on earth. Alternatively it was messianic because it was built upon the belief that in the end if we do right we can return (teshuvah) the earth and all therein to a time when it was much more like the days of the Garden of Eden. (Think Shabbat as a taste of the Olam HaBa, that is, in the Garden of Eden). The environmental movement failed because messianic movements always fail.
This is a dark message if we are afraid of the unknown. This is a depressing message if we do not prepare for the changes scientist are quite confident will almost certainly come. That is why this year when I reflect on my earth/nature relationship instead of asking what can I do better next year to stop the inevitable changes from happening, I am going to ask how can I live with and help others live with the changes already under way. Learning to live within a changed environment can be empowering, inspire hope and stimulate creativity. It is not, nor does it need to be depressing.
Rabbi Howard Cohen runs Judaism Outdoors: Burning Bush Adventures, through which he takes people into the wilderness for an unforgettable experience of God, Judaism, and wilderness,