Mi va’esh u’mi va’mayim. Who by fire and who by water?
We are halfway through what is already one of the worst fire seasons around the globe. More than 2.2 million acres have burned here in California so far, exacerbated by drought. Large swaths of land around the Mediterranean burned. In July, the town of Lytton, British Columbia, in Canada, reached a record 121 degrees Fahrenheit and literally burst into flame.
Less than one month ago, Hurricane Ida wreaked devastation from Louisiana to the Northeast, leaving at least 115 people dead and causing more than fifty billion dollars in damage.
Two months ago, record rainfall in Western Europe caused massive flooding, killing at least 220 people, and washing away an entire town in Germany.
Mi va’esh u’mi va’mayim. Who by fire and who by water?
The most urgent issue facing humanity is our imbalanced relationship with the earth. It outweighs every other concern: Covid, freedom, democracy, racism, poverty, education, and Israel.
Our out of balance relationship with the earth puts our species at risk of extinction. If that happens, nothing else matters – at least from humanity’s perspective.
Every one of us must do better when it comes to the ways that we utilize the earth’s resources. And since none of us can do everything, we can direct our efforts towards those issues which seem most urgent to us and which we have the greatest capacity to influence.
There are so many ciritical issues, including for those who do not believe human beings cause climate change. Much of the western United States is in extreme drought conditions. Microplastics are everywhere, from the deepest seas to the highest mountains. Humanity’s encroachment into unoccupied areas, called WUI, the Wildland Urban Interface, puts people at greater risk from disasters like fire. The oceans are acidifying.
I plead with all of us. Pick at least one thing that you care about and do more than you are already doing.
Who is to blame for how things have gotten to be the way they are?
You may recall a famous ad that appeared regularly on television in the 1970’s. The scene opens with a Native American man paddling down a bucolic river in a canoe. His hair is in braids and he is wearing a leather “Indian” outift. The camera turns to the water. A single piece of trash floats by. Now we see an industrial nightmare. Large factories, container ships, and pollution spewing smoketacks dwarf the small canoe.The Native American drags his boat to the shore, where more trash litters the ground. As he begins walking, a voiceover proclaims:
“Some people have a deep, abiding respect for the natural beauty that was once this country.”
He is now at the side of a busy highway. As the traffic zooms past, a driver carelessly throws a bag of rubbish out the window. It lands, scattering garbage across our hero’s feet. The voiceover continues:
“And some people don’t.”
As the camera zooms in on the Native American’s face, a single tear rolls down his cheek and we are admonished,
“People start pollution, and people can stop it.”
This ad, which came to be known as the “The Crying Indian,” is considered by the Ad Council to be one of the “50 greatest commercials of all time.”
By every measure, it was super effective.
Part of a campaign by a nonprofit organization called Keep America Beautiful, it helped lead to the reduction of litter by 88% across 38 states. But that was not the real goal of “The Crying Indian.” As they say: follow the money.
The nonprofit Keep America Beautiful was not founded, as its name might suggest, by a bunch of do-gooder hippies. It was created in the 1950’s by the American Can Company and the Owens-Illiniois Glass Company, which were later joined by the likes of Coca-Cola and the Dixie Cup Company.
The goal of Keep America Beautiful was to oppose the influence of environmentalists. Prior to its founding, packaging was typically reusable. If you bought a Coke, you paid a deposit and then returned the bottle so that it could be sterilized and reused. In the 1950’s, as the plastics industry was taking off, bottlers and container manufacturers began to aggressively – and successfully – push single use packaging.
In the 1960’s and 1970’s there were increasing moves to enact legislation to limit the production of throwaway containers. So Keep America Beautiful began to sponsor ad campaigns like “The Crying Indian.”
The cynical strategy was based on the simple economics of supply and demand. If we want to do something about litter, we basically have two options: focus on the people who make the stuff or focus on the people who use the stuff. The suppliers, or the demanders. Supply or demand.
“The Crying Indian,” with its final message, “People start pollution, and people can stop it,” places responsibility on the demand side of the equation.
The suppliers of all of this packaging would shrug their shoulders and say, “we are just giving our customers what they want. It’s not our fault.”
In fact, it was their fault. Through a decades-long marketing strategy, they shifted public consciousness to center all of the blame and responsibility on the demand side. The result is that there were few limits placed on supply. The companies avoided having to pay the costs of pollution and disposal, and they earned billions and billions of dollars while the plastic accumulated.
I go to Costco and discover apples on my shopping list. Organic apples. But those apples come in a plastic clamshell. Now I, the consumer, am stuck with this piece of plastic that I do not want, but that is now my responsibility to deal with.Does it go in the trash or the recycling bin? Well, it’s got the triangle thing on it, but I recently heard that those triangle thingies are not reliable. Plus, the third world countries to which we used to ship all of our plastic are starting to say, “no thank you. We don’t want your trash.” As it turns out, much of that plastic heading for recycling was just being dumped in open air landfills.
Who is the manufacturer of that plastic clamshell? Who knows. What is their legal responsibility? Nothing whatsoever.
It is because Keep America Beautiful‘s ad campaign worked. Our economy does not include the price of disposal in the cost of manufacturing. The suppliers are off the hook.
By the way, the Indian who appeared in the ad was an actor who went by the name “Iron Eyes Cody.” His real name was Espera De Corti. He was a second generation Italian American.
What is your personal carbon footprint? How much CO2 and methane do your actions put into the environment? This is a question many of us have asked ourselves in recent years.
I can easily go online and find a website that will ask me to estimate the number of square feet in my home, my annual vehicle mileage, the number of airplane flights I take per year, and so on. Enter all the data, click next, and presto – my carbon footprint!
Where did the idea for the carbon footprint come from? Follow the money.
The ad agency Ogilvy started the campaign in 2005 on behalf of its client, British Petroleum. Just like “The Crying Indian,” BP wanted to keep the moral responsibility for oil production on the demand side rather than the supply side of the equation.
So BP encourages us to calculate our carbon footprint and then offers suggestions for how we can reduce it, knowing that we will not actually follow through in any economically substanative way. Meanwhile, BP will be there for us to supply all of the oil that we demand.
For its part, BP has made no effort to reduce its own carbon footprint. Quite the opposite – it has continued to expand its oil drilling, including a current multi-billion dollar project called “Thunder Horse” to construct an oil platform 150 miles south of New Orleans in the Gulf of Mexico. When all eight wells are completed sometime this decade, it will produce 250,000 barrels of oil and 200 million cubic feet of gas per day.
But it is our responsibility. After all, BP is just meeting our demand.
This strategy has been used over and over again – by the petroleum industry, tobacco companies, sugary beverage producers. “It’s not our fault. We are just giving the people what they want.”
But it is their fault.
Or maybe not entirely.
One of the most prominent sections in our Mahzor is the Vidui, the confessional. We recite Ashamnu and Al Chet. For the sins we have committed, forgive us and pardon us. We strike our chests in contrition.
Both of these prayers are alphabetical. The Ashamnu lists a single verb for each letter. Al Chet is a double acrostic, with two sentences per letter. We recite a litany of sins. Some are specific actions, while others are general attitudes of selfishness or duplicity.
All of the verbs end with -nu, which is the 1st person plural. We did all of these things. Surely not! I have definitiely screwed up a lot this past year, but I’m not that bad. I didn’t commit every sin on the list. For example, I know with certainty that I did not charge interest to anyone in 5781. I categorically reject that characterization.
We Rabbis will often explain this expression of collective guilt as a way to provide cover, to help those of us who might actually be guilty of one of these sins to face up to it.
Or maybe, in another sense, we actually are accountable for each other’s sins. These confessions are not personal admissions. We, as a collective entity, take responsibility for all that has happened in the lives of our congregation.
Or perhaps we, as Jews, take collective responsibility before God for all that the Jewish people have done.
Or if we widen the lens further, perhaps humanity is in some sense collectively responsible for all that we do as a species.
After all, we cannot avoid the consequences of each others’ actions. This has been made devastatingly clear during the Covid pandemic. Maybe the language of guilt and innocence is not the most helpful paradigm. Maybe it would be more constructive if we framed it this way:
There are actions that individuals and groups take which impact the lives of others. That is an unavoidable fact. When that happens, like it or not, we become responsible.
Humanity is responsible for humanity’s relationship to the earth.
As much as we might like to assign blame, the fire and the flood certainly don’t care whose fault it is.
Whether from a theological, ethical, or self-interest perspective, we are responsible for treating the earth appropriately.
Unfortunately, traditional Jewish law is somewhat deficient as a source of practical guidance. The basic categories developed two thousand years ago, at a time when there was no awareness of an interdependent global environment. Human beings did not know about chemicals that could not be seen or that could dissipate into the upper atmosphere.
Also, Jewish law tends to focus on the actions and responsibilities of individuals, not governments or corporations. In other words, on the demand side of the economic equation.
Nevertheless, our present situation is not entirely without precedent. In his twelfth century law code, Maimonides includes a section called Hilkhot Sh’khenim, Laws of Neighbors. He addresses a situation in which a person wants to build a feature or conduct business on his property that produces pollution that would travel beyond its borders.
If a person constructs a threshing floor in the midst of his (property), or builds an outhouse, or does work which raises dust, particles of earth, etc., he must move far enough away so that the pollution does not reach his neighbor and cause harm. Even if the pollution is carried by the wind, he is obligated to move far enough away…Rambam, Laws of Neighbors 11:1
Jewish law deals with directly identifiable harm. And we can see from the examples that Maimonides gives that the pollution in question is all what we would characterize as “natural” byproducts.
But when the harm is indirect, such as plastic in the ocean or CO2 in the atmosphere, Jewish law has no explicit prohibition. And the earth itself has no standing to sue.
I wonder, if he was writing today, what other forms of pollution Maimonides would have included in the law.
The lack of specific legal precedents does not mean that Judaism is ambivalent. A famous midrash expresses humanity’s ideal relationship with the natural world.
When God created the first human beings, God led them around the garden of Eden and said: ‘Look at my works! See how beautiful they are — how excellent! For your sake I created them all. See to it that you do not spoil and destroy My world; for if you do, there will be no one else to repair it.’Midrash Kohelet Rabbah on Ecclesiastes 7:13
Notice a few details. Human beings are the purpose of creation, but the world still belongs to God.
Detail two – All of the beautiful and excellent things in the world can be destroyed, but the damaged world itself will continue to exist.
Detail three – there is nobody else to repair it. We are on our own here. God will not step in to save the earth from our mismanagement.
Let’s take this a step further. In the Torah’s language, adam, humanity, is created in God’s image. That is a theological statement.
A scientist would ask if homo sapiens is fundamentally different than any other species. The answer is no and yes.
Every living thing is comprised of the same chemical materials, and is formed and behaves according to its DNA encoding.
We share the same survival instincts as all life forms, from the great whale to the spot of mold on a rock. We are drawn to that which helps our particular genetic material reproduce and repelled by that which puts it at risk. Most animals know instinctively that fire is dangerous and it is best to run away from it. We would call this “biological knowledge.”
On the other hand, homo sapiens is the only species that can understand how the combination of dry conditions, heat, heavy winds, and a lightning storm increases the chances of a forest fire. A philosopher or scientist would call this “explanatory knowledge” – the ability to tell stories or develop formulas or ideas that explain why things are the way they are.
Those explanations may or may not be true, but they do enable a human being to approach a choice and consider, for example, “What is the ethical thing to do?” Religion, science, the arts – these are all made possible by humanity’s capacity for explanatory knowledge.
This is what makes us unique among living creatures on earth, if not the universe. Shifting back to theological language, we might say that our capacity for explanatory knowledge is what it means to be made in God’s image.
That capacity has made it possible for us to develop civilization and technology, to learn how to live in environments in which our bodies could not survive with biological knowledge alone.
This quality has enabled us to spread out across the world, to reach a global population of nearly 8 billion people, to harness the natural resources of the planet such that humanity has thrived beyond what its mere biology would allow.
This quality is also what puts our continued survival on the planet at risk. And it is the quality that makes us the only ones who can restore the balance and save ourselves.
Whether from a theological or a scientific perspective, we are the ones who must radically change directions. Can we do it?
This afternoon, we will read the story of Jonah, the most successful prophet ever.
Although he tries to escape his mission, Jonah eventually realizes that there is no avoiding God. Reluctantly, he marches off to the giant metropolis of Nineveh, a city so large it takes three days to walk across. He climbs up on his soap box and proclaims, “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overturned!”
The people respond immediately. They declare a fast, and put on sackcloth and ashes. When word reaches the king, he gets off his throne and he joins them, ordering everyone to participate, humans and even animals. God sees and forgives. Disaster is averted.
Can you imagine?
An entire society, top to bottom: the rich, the poor, the politicians, people of all ethnicities and religions – everyone recognizes the danger, accepts responsibility, and fully commits to change – overnight.
My children are really worried about whether the planet is going to be livable when they are adults.
While it would be nice to hold the greatest polluters accountable, I am afraid that it is up to humanity collectively, and us individually.
If you are in a position to make a difference on the supply side of the equation, you are our best hope. If you can influence the decision makers in government or are in government, or if you are in a position in your company to change policies and practices to be a better environmental steward, our children and grandchildren are counting on you.
Most of us are on the demand side of the equation. Whatever you are already doing, do more. If you can, install solar panels on your roof. Get rid of your gasoline powered car. Ride your bike or take public transit more. Rip out your lawn. Buy less stuff. Eat less meat. Move into a smaller space. Protect undeveloped land from human encroachment. We each have capacity, and we know best what we are capable of. Let others know what you are doing and celebrate each other’s actions. That is how we will make a difference.
May we be worthy of the trust given us by God to take care of this beautiful world with all of its excellent creations.
G’mar Chatimah Tovah.