Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Wasted Environmentalism?

Yesterday was Tu Bishvat*, the Jewish "Birthday of the Trees." For a while now, I've been a bit of a curmudgeon about this holiday. Most of what you see about it focuses on Jewish environmentalism — which seems appropriate on holiday about trees. But, the environmental angle to this day is really pretty recent. Originally, the "birthday of the trees" was just about a kind of fiscal year – any fruits harvested before this day counted towards last year, when we were calculating our required donations to the Temple. Anything picked afterwards is calculated as part of the next year.

* Not Tu B'Shvat. If you really want to know why, and or if you love picayune discussions of transliteration, click here.

A few hundred years ago, the mystics in northern Israel revived Tu Bishvat and updated it heavily. It was now a deeply mystical (and therefore confusing!) day focussing on personal transformation, our relationship with the Divine Worlds and so on. Still, not really an environmental day. The "green" aspect of the day doesn't really show up until the 20th century when environmentalism became a popular topic. Hence my curmudgeonly feelings about the day--it feels to me like forcing a trendy peg into a round hole to talk about planting trees and reducing our carbon footprint because of this ancient fiscal-religious marker.

But, I've had to admit that I'm being unfair--over the centuries, Judaism has been great at reworking, often quite profoundly, our holidays and commemorations, in order to fit new and emerging themes. Heck, the later mystics that I love so much pretty much re-read everything they can get their hands on, often drastically. There's really no reason that we can't choose to re-invent this otherwise unnoteworthy day into one which supports a theme in which I do believe--the Jewish imperative to take care of the Earth. Because, even if Tu Bishvat "really" has nothing to do with environmentalism, Judaism sure does!

But then, today, I came across an attack on Tu Bishvat from a different angle. Writer, activist, and Tampa-alum Jay Michaelson writes that, whatever day we're on, Jewish Environmentalism is pointless, and often potentially destructive.

The pointless part? Put simply--we're attacking an enormous problem with pointlessly, infinitesimally small measures. It's like trying to put out a forest fire with a squirt gun:
The overwhelming causes of climate change are macro-scale, not micro-scale: specifically, fossil fuels in power plants and vehicles. In the United States, according to the EPA, power plants are responsible for 37% of all human-caused carbon emissions. Coal is by far the worst offender. Transportation is another 31%, industry 15%, residential/commercial 10%.
Carpool all you want, lower your heat a few degrees if it makes you feel better; you aren't really doing a blessed thing to make the world healthier. To use a different old metaphor, it's like eating a double cheeseburger with extra fries and a big dessert, but drinking a Diet Coke. I guess it's not hurting, but don't kid yourself that it's helping you lose weight, either.

But, Michelson argues, it actually does hurt (the environmentalism stuff, not the Diet Coke. Although, that hurts too, but that's a different story…).  Because, when we do little things, we often fool ourselves into thinking we've done enough. Small changes which have no meaningful effect make us feel that we don't have an obligation to do something larger, which might have had an effect. And so, these acts actually lead to more damage to the environment, on whole, rather than less.

There's a lot to argue with in his article. He doesn't play out the math, so he leaves open the question as to whether any amount of combined micro-efforts might actually make some impact. I'm willing to accept, without much hesitation, the idea that all the carpooling in the world won't save our environment. But, I'm not 100% convinced that it won't mitigate the trouble, at least somewhat.

More troubling to me is that he mentions but then dismisses the religious value of doing the right thing, whether or not it makes a difference.
As a religious or ethical matter, there is something to be said for refusing, personally, to be part of the problem. Congratulations, you are morally pure.
That "morally pure" line is pretty snarky. But, I don't think that my small acts of environmentalism make me morally pure. I do, however, think they have a value, at least to me as a religious being. I think that doing the right thing, regardless of what everyone else is doing, is good. I think there is a moral and spiritual value in being part of the solution, or at least not part of the problem. But, I do think he's right that this is only true if we can keep ourselves from ignoring the larger, systemic trouble while acting more locally.

But, my arguments and quibbles aside, I think his larger point is important, and has to be made. The environment really is facing a crisis. It really is, in very large part, caused by human action. And, there is basically no chance that it will get better unless we find a way to engage in large, systematic change.

Jews have always known of the importance of acting in community, rather than individually. We've always understood that the mission that we're on — whatever that mission might be — is too big for any one person, or even any small group. That's why we have community, and that's why we have an ancient religious tradition — were only going to accomplish anything we do it together, across the generations.

It would be pretty ironic if a holiday which has the potential to drive us to help the world instead makes it easier to forget our ancient lessons, and to turn away from the world, instead.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Shouting "Fire!"

Today, Pres. Obama signed 23 Executive Orders aimed at curbing gun violence in this country. In his speech about these orders, he talked once again about the reasonable idea of finding reasonable limits on our rights — even our most dearly held rights. And, he uses one of the oldest clich├ęs in the book — we all understand that, as important as free speech is in this country, we still aren't allowed to shout "fire!" in a crowded theater.

I'd like to suggest that using that example actually does a disservice to the point. Because, that one example is fairly extreme and, maybe just as importantly, it's used so often that it becomes the canonical, and seemingly only, example. So, the argument implicitly becomes, "We will accept rare restrictions on our fundamental rights when absolutely necessary." But, if you look at free speech you'll see that we actually accept quite a wide range of restrictions on those rights, for reasons which are far less than existential.

Slander and libel laws tell me what I can and can't say about other people in public. Copyright laws dictate that I can't say something if someone else has said it before. Obscenity laws limit my free speech simply because someone might be offended by it. Truth-in-advertising laws-- doesn't the First Amendment give me the right to claim that my snake-oil will cure your all of your ills? Cyber-stalking and bullying laws. And so on.

I'd argue that the First Amendment is actually more fundamental to American society than the Second — I can imagine a free society functioning without guns, but I can't imagine one without free speech. But, even with that, I accept that the society of which we dream can't really exist without lots of restrictions on that fundamental right.

The language of the First Amendment is absolute, without the confusing (poorly written) ambiguity of the second: "Congress shall make no law...abridging the freedom of speech." No room for debate there. But, still, despite that clarity, we ignore the plain meaning of the text and enact exactly the types of laws that the First Amendment prohibits. We do so because, as fundamentally important as the First Amendment is, it isn't our only value. It isn't our God. It's an incredibly useful ideal, intended to push us towards a better society. But one which, taken to the extreme, becomes destructive. So, we limit it.

That sounds eminently reasonable to me.