Only when the last tree has been cut down;
Only when the last river has been poisoned;
Only when the last fish has been caught;
Only then will you find that money cannot be eaten.
This Cree Indian maxim comes to my mind after having last night watched the film The Road, based on Cormac McCarthy’s bestselling novel. In that film, social order has broken down entirely as the biosphere essentially collapses. Amongst other things, all the trees have died and throughout the film the thudding of another dead tree as it falls to the ground echoes in the distance. It is a chilling vision.
But it won’t happen to us, right? Well, strictly speaking it won’t… even if we can’t limit global heating to 4 or 5 degrees Celsius (which is looking harder and harder for every year of pontificating and posturing at Climate Change summits), it seems almost impossible for the biosphere itself to die. And yet the idea that social order could collapse is not as impossible. There is increasing realisation that our society now is “nine meals from anarchy” – after three days of lack of food, it seems that most people will do anything to make sure that they and their loved ones can eat.
But it won’t happen to us, right? Well, not as such. Even with positive feedback loops starting to kick in, toppling the millennia-held climate stability upon which our civilisation was based, we’re still unlikely to witness social breakdown in our lifetimes. Instead, it is the inheritance that we seem to want to give to our children, grandchildren or perhaps great-grandchildren. Rabbi Charles Middleburgh writes “our children might forgive our silence and apathy on environmentalism, but our great-grandchildren will curse us for our selfishness…” [MANNA 94, Winter 2007, p.22]. If we continue to think in the short-term, it won’t happen to us, no. But if we live from the perspective of “us” being our extended family through the generations then, yes, unless we all make significant changes now, it will happen to us.
Today is Tu Bishvat, the New Year for Trees. I find it hard to celebrate this year. Yes, there’s the glory and beauty of every tree in the garden and local parks but the crashing of the millions of trees globally that fall to provide people with land, palm oil, coffee and more just echoes through my soul today. Maybe today for Tu Bishvat as well as singing happy songs about how lovely trees are, we should remember the thought from Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer - when a tree is cut down, its cry rings from one end of the world to the other, though no sound is heard. Maybe it’s time to hear the sound so we can help more trees, and future us, live together in harmony.