Earth Etude for Elul 4: We Must Try to Finish the Work
by Harvey Michaels
There is a tradition that in the month preceding the Jewish New Year in September, we begin our contemplation about our failures, and returning to our true selves – our Teshuvah. We can consider climate change a failure that we all share; a problem created by us all. And since we haven’t yet healed the Earth’s climate, we have more frequent extreme weather, fires, drought, floods, glacier melts, sea level rise, habitat displacement, infestations, and diseases, and the devastation that these cause in some places. But we all feel environmental loss: we recall wonderful days in beautiful places, especially with those we love, and realize that they were precious. But when I look at my young grandchild, I worry – will he still have access to them?
I remind those of us getting more advanced in years, such as myself, that we have to take more responsibility: we’ve cumulatively created more emissions than those who are younger, and also we didn’t do enough to discourage the world’s addiction to fossil fuels, carbon-emitting agricultural practices, and deforesting, which we’ve known to be necessary. We could have done more.
This has happened, despite many of us being dedicated to improving the Environment; and some pursuing education, careers, and political acts towards that goal. I was one, inspired as many were by the wonderful Earth Day 1970; an unparalleled gathering of more than 10% of the population. Our collective work that followed did help clean poisons from our air and water, save energy in our homes, and develop new forms of cleaner energy from the sun and wind, and other things; but nowhere near enough.
In a text of ancient maxims, there is a famous quote of a leading 2nd century Rabbi: It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it.  So as one at work in his sixth decade since that first Earth Day, I consider this season: I haven’t finished the work, but have I done enough? Although older, I fortunately can still do much, along with many of my older peers:
We can reduce the emissions we cause, and teach others how to do so. In so doing we can try to encourage and inspire others to Look Up, see what’s coming, and work to prevent it. We can dedicate ourselves to helping those most impacted by what’s been lost. And we can raise our voices in support of those ready to lead us towards the possible solutions that do exist.
When is enough? For me, not yet: I encourage my peers to keep going too. Only when climate change stops, and begins to reverse, have we done enough. For those we love, as well as all those that follow us, for as long as we can, we must try to finish the work.
 Rabbi Tarfon, from Chapters of our Fathers (Pirkei Avot) chapter 2.
 Refers to the climate analogy movie Don’t Look Up, Netflix, Dec 2021; about failing to act in the face of a comet speeding towards the Earth.
Harvey Michaels enjoys being an MIT faculty member, teaching and learning about Energy and Climate Innovation, while investigating climate initiatives for cities, the state and federal government. He also engages in environmental justice advocacy, and faith-based environmental initiatives. Before returning to MIT in 2008, Harvey led an energy efficiency company for many years.