Rabbi Allison RH Conyer
Etz Chayim Progressive Synagogue
Rosh Hashanah Morning 5780
It's the end of the World as we know it
It's the end of the world as we know it
It's the end of the world as we know it
It's the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine.
Some of us may remember this 1987 classic REM song. I couldn’t help but think of this song the other night as I was driving a car full of VCE students, listening to their conversation. They were discussing what yearbook quotes to choose for what they would be doing in the year 2050. One of them said: “What’s the point? I’m not going to be around anyway.” Well that was bleak!”, I thought. I couldn’t help myself, so I said: “You’re not going to be THAT old. 48 is not ancient, you know.” He laughed, as did the others, and said:
“No. It’s not just me, I’m talking about all of us. Humanity. You know…because of global warming”
So, I have to admit something to you. Something I’m not particularly proud of. I’ve been so busy with my life, my family, my work, that I have not really paid attention to everything going on with Climate Change.
Last year, my son’s best friend was the lead organiser for the Melbourne Student Climate Change strike, and, like the activist I usedto be, I was delighted that my son was attending and organising group participation from his school. And still, I didn’t ask for the details. Basically, I knew temperatures were getting hotter; more extreme weather was happening all over the world more often, and people were getting scared about long term implications. Though I could never really get my head around the connection between the rise in the earth’s temperatures AND increase in floods and storms. It just didn’t make sense. But, I let it pass over, and went on with my life.
Then I started to hear that in 12 years’ time, the damage done will be irreversible. Damage to what? How? What does irreversible mean?
At some point early this year, I wrote about our responsibility to care for the planet, and I must have mentioned global warming. Someone responded that the degree to which climate change is occurring is very much exaggerated and people were getting worked up unnecessarily. After all, what’s really different? There have always been “the hottest days,” and storms and flooding are nothing new.
At this point, I knew I was in over my head, because I had no idea about the science. I also had no idea that there were people out there that didn’t believe the science at all. After all, NASA, the Academy of Sciences in the US, Great Britain, and Russian, as well as distinguished universities all over the world are all saying the same thing. How could anyone NOT believe that? I decided to give myself a crash course on what’s been happening over the past 30 years. To say, it was overwhelming is an understatement.
The headlines alone were confronting:
Ahhh! Very dramatic. Surely, they’re exaggerating. After all, Melbourne experiences extreme climate changes every day. Maybe the rest of the world is becoming more like Melbourne!
So, where to start? I went to a presentation at a Tikkun Leil Shavuot event about Climate Change led by Rebecca Forgasz, Associate Professor at the Centre for Jewish Civilisation at Monash University. She summarised NASA’s findings, starting at the beginning, for which I was very grateful. She showed us a picture of the earth taken from space depicting the earth’s atmosphere. Proportionately, the atmosphere to the earth is like an eggshell to an egg –thin and fragile. The atmosphere acts like a greenhouse, holding in moisture and heat, warming the earth. Excess heat is able to escape through the same atmosphere, maintaining a healthy temperature. However, greenhouse gasses, a by-product of human technologies, now prevent the heat from escaping, increasing the overall global temperature.
Apologies to you who know this, but I am certain that I am not the only person in this room who has either overlooked this issue or has been confused by the science.
This global warming is drying out the earth, causing heatwaves, droughts and bush fires, slowly threatening ecosystems for humans, animals and plant life. Icebergs are melting, causing sea levels to rise, resulting in severe flooding in some areas. Ocean temperatures are also slowly rising, harming and threatening extinction to some sea life. Also, this increased heat increases evaporation, which is changing rain patterns – in some places, causing unprecedented storms.
So, I finally understood the connection between global warming, flooding, and storms, but the next part I was totally unprepared for.
Because of these unprecedented weather conditions, many people have lost their homes and livelihood. Where homes and fields once stood, there is now flooding, cutting off power supplies, access to fresh water, food, and medications, increasing disease, malnutrition and death rates. These displaced people, forced to leave their homes in search of a safer place, are now called “climate refugees” by the United Nations, who have identified 18.8 million climate refuges to date. They arrive and are often unwanted in their new cities, exacerbating socio-economic stresses, at times leading to civil unrest.
Even for me, a social activist at heart, that was a bit much. Really? Everything is being blamed on climate change? Not sure about that. However, I read a few articles from respected scientific journals supporting this claim. One article, in particular, analysed data from 157 countries and found an empirically valid connection between climate change, conflict, and cross-border migration. Wow!
Another bizarre connection I found was between global warming and eating meat. Now, many of you know I’m a vegetarian, but I never considered the environment as a motivating cause. Then I learned that “the meat industry is the second highest carbon emitting industry, outdone only by fossil-fuelled energy production. The combined impacts of industrialised agriculture create the same amount of greenhouse emissions as all the world’s cars, trucks and aeroplanes combined.”I’m not saying everyone should become vegetarian or vegan, but it is suggested that reducing meat consumption can significantly decrease the impact on global warming.
Another unanticipated consequence has been the increasing psychological impact of global warming. My sister-in-law, Merle Conyer, an incredibly intelligent and compassionate woman and counsellor has expanded her practice to include a new field called climate change counselling. I didn’t even know that was a thing. According to Google Scholar there are 97,900 articles on climate change counselling. Apparently, it is a thing, and has been for a while.
My sister-in-law introduced me to a series of new psychological terms specifically related to climate change, such as: eco-anxiety, eco-grief, eco-depression, andeco-despair, all states relating to chronic anxiety or a profound sense of grief, sadness, powerlessness and hopelessness over the state of the destruction of our natural world caused by human action or inaction.
I was blown away at the breadth and depth of the physical and psychological damage of global warming.
So, now I understand why people don’t believe it. It’s so unbelievable, it’s like a Hollywood film. How could it be true?...But it is.
Some of you may be thinking - Glad you informed yourself, Rabbi, but what does this have to do with Rosh Hashanah? This is not the time or place for politics. Surely, there are more important messages to give to the community during this time of year. My response to this is that climate change and global warming have EVERYTHING to do with Rosh Hashanah and I, honestly, cannot think of any more important message to give on the day that we celebrate the creation of the world than the protection of thatworld for future generations. This issue transcends politics and speaks to our Jewish values and imperative to care for our world and our future.
There is a well-known story from the Babylonian Talmud about Honi ha’magel who was walking one fine, spring day, and saw a seventy-year-old man by the side of the road planting carob trees. He asked: “Old man, why do you bother planting these saplings when you will not live to see them bear fruit?” The wise old man answered simply, “When I was a young boy, there were carob trees planted for me by my parents and grandparents, so I plant trees for my children and grandchildren.” (Adapted from Tanaait 23a) This story conveys the important obligation we all carry to ensure a fruitful future for subsequent generations.
In the beginning of Genesis, the Torah tells us that humanity was created to care for the earth. The first commandments in the Torah are:
פְּרוּ וּרְבוּ וּמִלְאוּ אֶת-הָאָרֶץ...
Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and master it; rule the fish of the sea,
the birds of the sky, and all living things that creep on earth” (Gen. 1:28).
In other words, humanity was given the responsibility to care for the earth and everything living on it.
The Psalms say: “The heavens belong to Adonai, but the earth belongs to humanity” (Ps. 115:16). Does that mean we can do whatever we want with the earth? In our post-modern world, humanity has obtained great technological mastery over the world. We have made incredible progress in medicine, improving both the quality and quantity of human life, ending some crippling diseases, as well as advancement in engineering, transportation, communication, and even conservation in many ways.
We also find ourselves now amidst many unintended modern plagues of our own making – land degradation, including deforestation…; water pollution, leading to the depletion of fresh water…; and atmospheric pollution, leading to ozone layer depletion..., as explained by Dr. David Goldblatt, a Swiss research consultant on energy and the environment.
Some say that because these modern plagues are anthropogenic, that is caused by our human influence on nature, there is no Divine warning. This critique reminds me of the story of the devout believer who went bush walking one day and accidently stepped into quicksand. His mate offered him a hand, and he said,” No, don’t worry, G-d will save me.” So, the friend left. Later, as he sunk deeper into the quicksand, another group of bush walkers came by offering him a rope to grab on, but he said, “No, don’t worry. G-d will save me.” Finally, as the man’s head was barely above the sand, a helicopter came by and dropped down a ladder and had a team ready to help, and the man said, “Don’t worry, G-d will save me.”
Guess what? He went under. When the time came for him to meet his Maker, he said, “G-d, what happened, I had faith in you, that you would save me.” G-d, in her infinite wisdom said: “I had faith in you, too. I sent your friend, the group of bush walkers, and the helicopter. It’s not my fault you didn’t see the signs I sent for you to help yourself.”
When I recently asked my older son if his peers were seriously depressed and fearful about their future, he answered me without hesitation, “Yes. But they are more despondent that people knowwhat is causing the problems, they know what to do about it, and yet, they are not doing it.” It’s like the man in the quicksand. We know our planet is on a trajectory towards irreversible harm; yet, too many people, too many governments are not acting fast enough to make the change. My son said: “What does it say about humanity that we know there is an existential crisis, yet we don’t do anything about it.”
According to our beautiful tradition, the world was created for us! Today, on Rosh Hashanah, we celebrate this most awesome gift G-d gave to humanity. The midrash says: “When God created the first human beings, God led them around the Garden of Eden and said: ‘Look at my works! See how beautiful they are – how excellent! For your sake I created them all. See to it that you do not spoil and destroy My world; for if you do, there will be no one else to repair it’.”
G-d has given us this gift with everything we need in front of us. We have the power to heal or harm, create or destroy. When we go off track and make a mess of things, G-d has given us the gift of tshuvah– the power to return, to change our errant ways and restore harmony.
So, WHERE DO WE STAND?
Once again, I am proud to be part of a global Progressive Jewish movement that, for over 40 years, has been at the forefront of environmental advocacy. As early as 1965, the Union of Reform Judaism (URJ) in North America affirmed our responsibility to take steps to reverse the negative impact of human-made environmental degradation through creating cleaner air, water and land by decrying toxic waste, fighting pollution, and calling upon our communities to minimise waste and use natural resources.
In December of 2017, in a Resolution on Addressing the Impacts of Climate Change, the URJ declared this issue to be fundamentally one of social justice. Whilst the wealthiest nations have disproportionally contributed to the high carbon emissions, the effects are not isolated to them, or us. The most vulnerable are affected first due to disparities in resources, infrastructure, health, and social and economic mobility.
The Union for Progressive Judaism in Australia, Asia, and New Zealand advocated for the need to speak up as Jews. Rabbi Jeffrey Kamins from Sydney said: “Jewish tradition highlights many values that emphasise the need for energy policies that are environmentally responsible and that pay due attention to the health and welfare of both present and future generations. Addressing climate change requires us to learn how to live within the environmental limits of the earth so that we will not compromise the ecological integrity of our planet or the long-term economic security of its inhabitants.”
WHAT’S BEING DONE IN AUSTRALIA
Merle Conyer noted that in 2019, a Lowy Institute poll indicated that “…two out of three Australian adults rank climate change as the number one threat to Australia’s national interests… Yet, Australia is one of the lowest contributors to the international efforts to respond to these threats via policy or mitigation strategies (Burck, Hagen, Marten, Höhne, & Bals, 2018) and our emissions continue to rise (Cox, 2019)…
Per capita, Australians are the highest contributors to global warming …Climate breakdown is a global issue to which Australians have disproportionally contributed and one which we all need to step up to redress.”
In June and July this year, both the cities of Sydney and Melbourne declared a climate emergency andurged the Federal Government to respond to this emergency. By next year, 2020, Sydney will be using 100% renewables, enabling them to reach their reduced emission target by 2024. Victoria and the ACT will also meet their legislated targets next year ahead of schedule.South Australia already generates over 50% of its electricity from renewable energy and is on track to be virtually 100% renewableby 2025. Tasmania has the highest proportion of renewable energy and already reached net zero emissions.The State governments are doing their part in the transition to clean power.Now it’s time for the Federal government to step up.
Sixteen-year-old Swedish student activist, Greta Thunberg, started a global movement – School Strike for Climate which currently occurs in1325 places in 98 countries and counting. She said, "People must become aware so that they can put pressure on the people in power. There is no other way…Pledging to spend money and debating the issue is all very fine, but unless we start treating the crisis like a crisis, we don’t stand a chance. We need a whole new way of thinking."…
“Adults keep saying: “We owe it to the young people to give them hope.” But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.”Although some criticise her as being overly dramatic, or dismiss her as being a teenager, or blame her for causing unnecessary stress, Thunberg is passionately describing what scientists have been saying for decades. And people are finally starting to listen.
Our tradition teaches: “Who is wise? One who sees what is yet to be born?” (Tamid 32a). In other words, if we can anticipate future events, we have a responsibility to respond appropriately.
So, WHAT CAN WE DO?
A local Jewish Climate Change activist, Rachel Forgasz, wrote about developing climate consciousness - 7 ways in 7 days- based on the understanding that human beings are creatures of habit. If we create good habits, we can create lasting change. She invites people to focus on one habit each day and continue the habit each week. These habits are “a starting point, not the end game in ourtransition to climate consciousness.” Her suggested habits include: using public transportation, carpooling, biking or walking; reducing meat consumption; buying local foods; taking time to be grateful for what we have, thus reducing our desire for more; reducing the amount of stuff we have, buying second-hand; recycle and reuse our stuff – regifting isn’t cheap, it’s ecologically considerate.
We can reduce waste, such as disposable packaging, and use less plastic; thus, our community will be passing out honey cakes that you will be receiving at the end of this service have been wrapped in biodegradable serviettes rather than plastic.
We can also reduce electricity use. I’d like to commend the King David School for its installation of solar power, being a role model for sustainability in schools.
We can get informed, raise awareness, advocate for policy change, and join others. Forgasz wrote: “Given the scale of our climate crisis, individual lifestyle changes alone will not save us. We must also exert extensive and unwavering pressure on our governments until they legislate for political and economic change…”
We have the power and obligation to make real changes in our lives that can affect the future for our children and grandchildren.
If you are interested in learning more, sharing information, researching environmentally sound ways for individuals and organisations to help protect our world, and joining with others to communicate to our policy makers the importance of climate change issues, please be sure to sign our Environmentally-Concerned sign-up sheet in the foyer, so we can start working together to join others to make a difference.
At a gathering with over 150 faith leaders from across the religious divide urging our Prime Minister to show moral leadership and take urgent action on climate change reform, Rabbi Jonathan Keren Black said: "We blow the horn to awake slumberers from their sleep and to sound the alarm, so we blow it to sound the alarm for the climate emergency, for the sake of the world, for the sake of generations to come…"
This is not apocalyptic alarmism. This is our reality.
I saw a placard last week, while at the most recent organised global strike for Climate Change awareness. It read: “What if it’s a big hoax and we create a better world for nothing?”
Rabbi Tarfon said: "It is not your responsibility to finish the work [of perfecting the world], but neither are you free to desist from it." (Pirkei Avot 2:21)
On this Rosh Hashanah, this day we celebrate the creation of our world, let us commit to taking on our responsibility to care for this world the way G-d intended. Let us commit to taking steps that can help ensure a sustainable future for the next generation. Ken y’hi ratzon- May this be G-d’s will.
Abel, G. J., Brottrager, M., Crespo Cuaresma, J., & Muttarak, R. (2019). Climate, conflict and forced migration. Global Environmental Change, 54, 239-249. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2018.12.003
Midrash Kohelet Rabbah, 1 on Ecclesiastes 7:13
Conyer, Merle (2019). Climate Justice and Mental Health - Think Globally, Panic Internally, Act Locally. Unpublished paper.