This week our Jewish Center and Federation hosted the annual Yachad lecture inviting us to a lecture and workshop with Reverend Michael Dowd. The reverend spoke on the topic of Climate and Deep Sustainability: Awaking to Grief and Gratitude. It was kind of a downer and I think the reverend might have come off as something of a doomer which may not be undeserved.
Heavy on reference materials, the Rev. Michael labored over conveying in no uncertain terms that we were not approaching a climate change cliff but that we long ago fell off and were only now approaching the sudden stop. This may be the case as well, and I'm not in a position to argue what the future will look like in the next generation or two. The terminology of Post-Doom thinking kept coming to the foreground and the idea that we had precious little time to accept the inevitable and shift into this paradigm was stressed. The thing is, Rev. Michael was speaking to a boat load of Jews. I think we know what post-doom looks like, from the shoah to the inquisition to the destruction of both the temples and the galus of exile but more than that we have a culture that didn't turn away from it. His well constructed lecture I'd assume would have been to most Jews a description of the yearly cycle from Tisha b'Av through Yom Kippur where we accept and recognize our "objective reality" and spend the next month preparing our souls for the new year, standing in literal death shrouds before the Ein Sof. The Reverend was forthcoming in his assessment that the Jewish world was much further ahead in the legwork needed for accepting and then moving on such matters.
Technology will not only not be the answer, but could make the problem worse in the long run by artificially prolonging the ultimate crash. This concept was brought up and I don't entirely disagree on this account either. It made me recall the Ray Cat, an idea from the 1980's on how one would forward a message, a warning 10,000 years into the future. Knowing our technological waste, such as spent nuclear fuel will linger at least that long at dangerous radiation levels but that our civilization probably won't, how can we responsibly warn the future? The idea put forth was to genetically modify an animal that would probably still be hanging around with humans to have a biological response as a warning and to build a culture around it. In this case cats that would display a glow (somehow) and a song and cultural message that meant the area was unsafe. While the technological side of this proposal is outlandish, cultural engineering or re-engineering is at our disposal. In fact Frank Herbert illustrated it well in his science fiction Dune regarding the Bene Gesserit, his fictional sisterhood of priestesses, who implanted cultural ques across the galaxy to act as safeguards for their sisterhood.
Rabbi Zalman z''l said we can make changes and liked to use computers as an example. Very careful and considerate modifications to the software without modifying the firmware or hardware were something to consider. If we need a more earth centered a more sustainability centered Judaism we needed to see in our tradition the tools to do that. My best example of that is using our Torah and its tales in ways that lend to consideration of the environment. If we built midrashim that helped understand our relationship to ground water via Abraham and Isaac's wells for example? It may be the case that we are running out of time and have reached a point of triage thinking such as Rev. Michael suggest. This is the time not to give up but to pour our culture into the next generation in a way that it will serve them when they need it. Reading Eco Bible: An Ecological Commentary on Genesis and Exodus You can see that our narrative stories contain much in regard to building a more fundamental contentedness with the natural world, something future generations will need in times of climate catastrophe.
And it is a bummer to learn that the days of getting your cake and eating it are over. Even more of a bummer to learn that all that metaphorical cake under the bridge is why we're in trouble. Much like NBC's The Good Place and spoiler alert tried to show, it's systemic and so interwoven and out of individual hands that your individual actions are not to blame for dooming humanity as a specie to extinction. You need not bear overwhelming guilt, but also you must overcome the impulse to resigned inaction, and I think this was the message Reverend Dowd meant to convey to us this week.
Rabbi Tarfon said: the day is short, and the work is plentiful, and the laborers are indolent, and the reward is great, and the master of the house is insistent. It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it... Pirkey Avot 2.15-16