Taking Responsibility for the Environmental Crisis

What are the spiritual roots of the current environmental crisis?


In our times we are beginning to witness the planet’s ecological balance weakening due to human influence: rainforests shrinking, deserts expanding, hurricanes intensifying, the planet heating. What is driving the deterioration of the natural world? To be sure, there are physical reasons, yet to answer ‘fossil fuels’ or ‘wood use’ or even ‘consumerism‘ would provide only partial answers. In order to truly understand a problem, we need to look under its surface to understand the root causes. In regard to the great loss of the First and Second Temples, the Jewish sages focus not on the destroying armies but on the spiritual deterioration which made way for the destruction of the physical structure.  For many ecological issues, the root issues beyond the physical symptoms lie in the spiritual health of human beings. smokestack

If one only sees physical causes, one may incorrectly view them as the only reason for an effect occurring. The response to the problem, then, will also be limited to the physical level alone. Yet if we neglect the underlying spiritual source, the problem will keep reemerging in different physical forms, growing out of the underlying root. On the other hand, as Rabbi Shlomo ben Aderet (the Rashba, Spain, 13th century) taught, when you address the roots of a problem, the outer problems will naturally fall away.  

Over the last decades we have seen and at some level addressed numerous environmental challenges, from reducing the depletion of the ozone layer to decreasing garbage through recycling campaigns. Still, environmental problems continue to spring up: climate change, deforestation, water insecurity.  This is because we have not addressed our environmental challenges at the root.

Our usual pattern today is to turn to scientists and politicians for technological solutions to our environmental challenges. If the problem is too much carbon in the atmosphere and too much fossil fuel use, the solution must be hydrid or electric cars, incandescent light bulbs, and other technological solutions. Yet these solutions are not sufficient to address today’s global problems. For example, a report from the McKinsey Global Institute cited how China relies on coal-burning power plants to produce as much as 85% of its electricity. The report estimated that were China to replace gasoline-powered cars with similar-size electric cars, it would only reduce the greenhouse emissions from those cars by 19 percent. This is because the electric cars would draw on electricity generated by burning coal. Scientists have stated that humanity must reduce its emissions by many times that amount in order to reduce the impact of climate change.

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Rabbi Yonatan Neril founded and directs Jewish Eco Seminars, which engages and educates the Jewish community with Jewish environmental wisdom. He has worked with Canfei Nesharim for the past six years in developing educational resources relating to Judaism and the environment.

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