Ecology and Globalisation

Wednesday, September 5th, 2007

When God creates humankind in Eden, we see the story told twice. In the first instance, we are told of a creation of man and woman together – zapped into existence by the creative force of Bri’a – a spiritual creation of a humanity told, “be fruitful and multiply,” a humanity charged with the population and conquest or civilisation of the earth.

In Genesis Chapter 2, the same story is retold with a far more physical and earthy imagery. Adam is rolled out of the dust, the breath of life is infused in his nostrils, Eve is drawn from his flesh. This man too is given a mandate – Leovdo uleshomro – to tend to the world and to preserve it.

Mankind is entrusted with twin responsibilities – on the spiritual level from Genesis 1 our charge is to expand and extend God’s blessed dominion over His Creation. On the physical level, while we may work and develop the planet and harness its resources for our benefit – we are obliged to preserve and to conserve.

It is the synthesis of these two endeavours that constitutes our partnership of God in the act of creation. And perhaps it is when we understand this, that we can properly appreciate the value of a Sabbath – a day of physical rest and of healing to enable us to focus on our spiritual relationships.

As Genesis unfolds, we are told that Noah was so named because he would bring comfort to a cursed earth – on which our commentators explain that Noah invented the plough. Now, wheat fields could be harvested in abundance, whereas previously, grains needed to be picked from between the thorns and the thistles

While Noah is possibly best remembered for his one-man, one-boat campaign for biodiversity – literally floating the idea long before David Attenborough’s fabulous series – and later for planting a vine – it is his initial message of comfort to a cursed earth that speaks to me this morning. It was a landmark moment. For ten generations the world had been perceived as hostile. With his invention, it became a precious and cherished resource.

I think that the last year has seen our twenty-first century world mark a similar watershed and wake up to the value of our planet. It is a precious and cherished resource. We will look back and say that in 2007 climate change, global warming, deforestation, over-fishing and the need to harness renewable sources of energy became a mainstream concern. It had been in fringes of political debate for a long while – but in 2007 every prime minister, president and political party had something to say on the issue.

When I speak to groups of teens or young adults, this is their greatest worry. My grandparents were raised imagining that the Jewish world was on the brink of extermination – and their generation experienced two devastating world wars. My parents’ generation and my early life were consumed with warnings that the Russians were coming or we would destroy each other and the planet beneath us with our incredible arsenals of nuclear weapons.

Mostly, our children are not in fear of enemies but overwhelmed with a creditable sense of responsibility over the environmental legacy we are passing on. Mercifully, it is not the threat of their country being invaded that keeps them awake at nights. But they do not sleep easy – and nor should we – for we are reaping more than we sow.

From the words of scripture to the injunctions of Jewish Law and the interpretations of the Sages, there are a plethora of sources instructing us to care for our environment. “See you do not destroy My world,” says God to Adam in the Midrash – “for there will be none after you to repair it.” Jewish Law regulates how we deal with both fauna and flora. We are taught not to waste and not to lay waste. We are taught to plant and to nurture and to feed. We are taught not to cut down fruit trees for their timber. We are taught to be sensitive to the animal kingdom.

If our spiritual responsibilities extend to our animals – how much moreso to our brothers and sisters who are born in the image of God.

Written large in the Scriptures is the obligation to be charitable and to provide food for the hungry, healing for the sick, welfare for the poor, education for the children, security for the underprivileged – vechay achicha imach – so that your brother may live alongside you.

The world changed on December 31st 1600 when Queen Elizabeth I gave a Royal Charter to the British East India Company. From the moment onwards, mercantile interests and a company’s responsibilities to its stockholders became increasingly influential in shaping government policy. The East India Company was a player in everything from the Boston Tea Party in 1773, the Opium War of 1840 and the Indian Mutiny of 1857.

Today, some companies and their boards of directors are more influential than many governments. Their interests cross so many boundaries. Of the world’s 100 richest economies 51 are corporations, not countries. The three richest billionaires own more than the 600 million poorest on the planet.

Decisions made in boardrooms to source coffee beans a few cents cheaper from another country – or to change the mix to satisfy desire for a richer blend – or to buy a genetically modified yellower banana with a longer shelf life, rather than a traditional and natural product don’t just change the choice or the prices on the supermarket shelves – these decisions can destroy entire village economies and put people out of work.

It may be that there has always been wealth and poverty – and a gulf between the fortunate and the needy. Even the Bible assures us that poverty will not disappear. What has changed, though, is our awareness of our reach. We have more brothers to worry about than ever before.

When I was a kid, a penpal was a student in France who would send me a letter once every term and a photo once a year. He went to a school like mine but had baguettes instead of bagels on a Sunday. Today, my children and I correspond with a hundred people on MSN chat or Skype or Camfrog. I can be in daily touch with people from all walks of life and on every continent. I can see into their homes or their internet cafes. I can watch their lives and their communities on webcams. Through modern media I can see communities of people dying of treatable diseases, I can see starving children, see the disparity between the haves and the have-nots in the same way as Attenborough’s Planet Earth cameras can show me one of the last 40 snow leopards in the wild.

That reach is not bad. Companies are providing education and improvement in may societies. I spoke last night to a New Zealand friend in Bangalore, whose communication technology will bring income to Indian families. Its development will also enable businesses to reach out from urban centres into neighbourhoods of abject poverty. Cadburys, Fry, Sanitarium and other great corporate names represent the ability of visionary directors, often religious ones, to engender both prosperity and human dignity.

At each stage in Creation, God said, “let there be…” And then there was. And then God saw that it was good.

Let there be – there was a directive based on an idea or a vision. And there was – there was implementation or execution. And finally, we are told, God saw it was good – there was evaluation. God said that it was good.

Humanity is not just a product of an environment – nor are we simply adaptive to our environment. On the contrary – we can shape our environments to suit our needs and tailor them for our future. We have a responsibility to see a world that is not cursed but that is precious – God called it good – and we must keep it so.

We have a responsibility, also, to define our needs more broadly and charitably than before. We can see further and anticipate better. We understand more clearly the impact of our local decisions and therefore must work harder so that our brothers and sisters may live alongside us and share in the bounty of creation.

It has always been our desire to give our children more opportunities than we had. It is our duty and our challenge to give them a better world and a cleaner one than we inherited. It is a sacred duty, a godly duty – and we, who would like our children to follow in our religious footsteps must take it on.

It is a duty that all our faiths can endorse and uphold – and must – for the sake of the future. Our united and wholehearted response will not only satisfy the injunction to nurture and preserve our physical environment – it will go a long way to expanding and enhancing the appreciation of the spirit, the compass of faith and the Dominion of God.

There was a rich man who was approached by a poor beggar asking for food. The rich man asked, "Do you smoke? I could give you some cigarettes." The beggar responded "No, I don't. God help me, I am just hungry and want food."

Then the rich man asked "Do you drink? I have a bottle of good whiskey I could give you." The beggar replied "No, I don't drink. God help me, I am just hungry and need food."

Finally the rich man asked "Do you gamble? I could give you some good tips on the races this weekend." The beggar again replied "No. God help me, I am just hungry and want some food."

Finally the rich man said "Well, in that case, I had better take you to my home." He invited the beggar into his car and drove him to his very substantial home. There, he introduced the beggar to his wife, who asked "What are you going to do with this man? Are you going to invite him to live with us, eat our food, and wear our clothes?"

The man replied, "No, of course not. I just wanted to show you what happens to those people who don't smoke, drink, or gamble and who look to God for help"

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