I’m on my way home from Philadelphia and the annual meeting of The Shalom Center, where I have the privilege of serving as president. The organization has a long history of peace and justice activism, increasingly arcing toward peace and justice for the Earth, which is to say the healing of global scorching (as our beloved director Rabbi Arthur Waskow calls it), which also entails rebuking the broken spirits who profit from the planet’s suffering.
Last month, when Arthur was given the first Lifetime Achievement Award by T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, he pointed beyond human rights to The Shalom Center’s crucial work to heal and protect from the climate crisis: not just human rights, but the rights of the web of life on this planet, encompassing human and other living beings.
One of our chief topics at this year’s meeting was how to awaken Jewish activism on this burning issue. To date, The Shalom Center is the only organization grounded in the Jewish community that has taken this on as a central cause. We spent considerable time devising a new national initiative that you’ll be hearing about soon.
Even before our new initiative launches, The Shalom Center has brought together more than 70 Rabbis and other spiritual leaders to call on the Jewish community to “Move Our Money and Protect Our Planet.”
The Call aims at redeploying resources—small and large—away from purchasing, setting up bank accounts, or investing in ways that support Big Carbon, instead toward purchasing, banking, and investing in earth-healing enterprises, including renewable energy. Even though Jews are small in number, our activism can have significant impact, as in the support and participation of Jews in the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
We also spent considerable time trying to parse out resistances among Jews to climate crisis activism. This is a familiar conversation among non-Jews too: for the people who understand time as very short to reverse the human choices that threaten life on Earth, two feelings are braided: an overwhelming sense of urgency, and an intense frustration that others evidently don’t feel it enough to take the actions activists see as necessary. It’s as if they are stuck on a runaway train, unable to rouse their companions to press into the engine room and take the throttle. Even the august New York Times Editorial Board opined earlier this month that time is running out: “The world has only about 15 years left in which to begin to bend the emissions curve downward.”
It is in the nature of the human subject to want to know why. It is in the nature of the human subject to believe that if we only had the answer to that question, we would know what to do about it. The human mind, being prey to confirmation bias, tends to latch onto good-sounding answers, summoning evidence to support them. Any such group of intelligent, observant people can elaborate an architecture of causes for just about any effect; and often, we are likely to feel at least partially pleased with what we have wrought.
I have as much energy for these conversations as anyone. More than some, no doubt: even when the subject is a terrifying prospect, I enjoy exercising my mind just as much as a brisk walk in the woods. But I’m increasingly dubious that these habits of mind lead to wisdom.
Some of us talked about disconnection from the earth as a root cause of—what? denial, avoidance, somnolence?—in the face of climate crisis. As an ancient religion, Judaism is rooted in the cycles of nature, with festivals that encode times of harvest and planting, the dark of the sun and the full of the moon. Over centuries of rabbinic discourse and the shift from living on the land to living in cities, holy days became redefined. Hanukkah, for instance, became more about the legend of a miraculous Temple Menorah and less about kindling light in the year’s darkest time, dark of the moon, dark of the sun. Perhaps, some of us thought, this process of increasing distance and abstraction from the life of Mother Earth is at the root of the problem.
Maybe so. But then why is climate crisis activism not at its height in rural communities?
Some of us talked about Jews’ internalized persistence of exile: after so many expulsions, perhaps we are dogged by the feeling that we are sojourners in any land, even on the planet itself, and somehow expect to be ejected again.
Maybe so, but on this planet of refugees, displaced persons, and immigrants, we’re not the only ones. Around the world, indigenous people, repeatedly robbed of their lands and displaced by development, continue to lead in calling for a global response to climate crisis. Click around the links for the Indigenous Peoples Global Summit on Climate Change, for example.
Some of us called for more information on what is happening, clearer and more convincing data.
Maybe so, but as I said in my keynote for the Staging Sustainability 2014 conference (you can find the video here), experts often inundate us with data that reinforces the feeling of overwhelm so many of us experience in the face of this wicked problem, rather than stories that connect us to possibility:
The key problem we are facing isn’t persuading people that the future would be better without climate change: no one wants to die in a tidal wave or a drought, no one wants to live cold and lonely in the dead husks of a civilization that failed to outlast its appetites. But no matter how scared they are by doomsday images, many people are not now able to see an alternative future in which their own choices and actions have value and agency, in which their own fates are closely connected to the fate of the planet, in which the vast numbers who do not personally benefit from poisoning our air, earth, and water recognize themselves as subjects in history, rather than its objects, and reject the dominion of those commanding them to adjust to absurdity, despair, and irrelevance.
Some of us looked to the powerful messages constantly beamed from the operators of our broken systems to the broken places in our own hearts, telling us we are powerless to resist, that it is right that their own profits take precedence over well-being—or if not right, at least inevitable. Perhaps we have been betrayed as children by those who claimed to protect us, and as adults we generalize this into a worldview. Or perhaps (this is true of my own psychology) repulsion at the persistence of hypocrisy—the yawning gap between power’s claims for its own virtue and the actuality of conduct—took root in childhood and continues to dog us.
Maybe so. Everyone has a history, and none of us is able to live as if it never existed, although we do have the capacity to learn awareness, acknowledgement, and choice. But do our histories doom us to repeat the past? If so, no human change would be possible, and we’ve all seen change after change in our own lives and the lives of others.
All of our explanations (and others you may propose) have value, but none of them points to a single stroke of magic guaranteed to dissolve denial and avoidance, awaken the somnolent, activate those who have been unwilling or unable to act. Just so, all of the campaigns attempting to awaken response have value: demonstrating and lobbying against the XL Pipeline or for a carbon tax, training young leaders, circulating petitions, for instance, as on 350.org.
Why? Because the human heart and mind are many-faceted, curving like a chambered nautilus around the unique cocktail of discouragements, fatigues, and internalized powerlessness each of us experienced. No overall explanation, however coherent and dazzling, can suffice to dissolve the tangle of obstacles on our path.
Some people I respect feel that our task is to activate everyone in roughly similar modes of protest and pressure: work on stopping the Pipeline, say, or defeating pro-Big Carbon candidates. Some believe that legislative politics move the world and all the rest amounts to chatter.
Maybe so, but I think the magic we need will come from less from answers than from the act of asking, of joining in dialogue about this urgent and universal problem, and of walking as many different constructive paths as we can devise.
When people tell me they are working on economic justice and the polarization of wealth, I understand they are also working on climate crisis, because the passion to accumulate and dominate created both. When people tell me they are working on racial justice, I understand they are also working on climate crisis, because the embedded beliefs that enable people to treat others as objects rather than equal beings is at the root of both. When people tell me they are creating works of art that cultivate empathy and social imagination, I understand they are also working on climate crisis, because our failure of empathy must be healed to heal the Earth.
For me, wisdom lies in embracing the totality.
I like Bob Schneider’s version of “Running on Empty” from the new Jackson Browne tribute album.
Running on, running on empty
Running on, running blind
Running on, running into the sun
But I'm running behind.