Much discussion has been had in recent years, including in recent political discussion, about combating climate change. It is regularly described as an existential threat. Businesses are trying to show how green they are, particularly by reducing their carbon emissions. Saving the planet and reducing carbon emissions are now, for the majority of the public, synonymous terms. Political candidates, newspapers, environmental groups all talk about the months we have left to save the world, how we have to rejoin the Paris Accord in order to stave off the worst effects of the climate crisis. That’s true, but it ignores the reality that is dawning on more and more people that we are already past the point of no return and that climate change will already happen that will be catastrophic to billions of people on this planet. We can probably stave off the very worst effects of it for humanity, which would be total extinction, but we are already locked into a series of positive feedback cycles which will irrevocably change our planet.
In fact, reducing carbon emissions and saving the planet are not the same thing. Most people assume a causative chain – that if we reduce carbon emissions then we save the planet. In fact, it’s the other way round – if we save the planet, we will also reduce carbon emissions. We tend not to talk about the causation working in that way because it’s far more inconvenient to do so. The truth is that we could end fossil fuel usage tomorrow and still not save the planet, because saving the planet is a far larger task and we don’t like to talk about that far larger task because it would necessitate a total change in our lifestyles, and not just a change in carbon emissions. What needs to change is the relationship between ourselves and nature. Reducing carbon emissions should never be the ultimate goal – that goal should be our reconnection with the world around us. Through that reconnection, carbon emissions will necessarily diminish but much more will happen, too. This is an existential crisis but it is not a crisis that can be solved by only by the business world, it’s a crisis solved by a change in attitude to which businesses then adapt.
Some people object to the language of “saving the planet” because they say that the planet will be here long after homo sapiens has been wiped off it. Such people say that what we’re really trying to do is save ourselves – save humanity from extinction. That attitude is actually a symptom of the far larger issue of androcentrism – of putting humanity in the middle of everything – instead of biocentrism. There’s no question that the Bible helped those with an androcentric worldview to claim divine support for their position – indeed, last week’s Torah portion of Genesis clearly has the world set up for humanity to then use in stewardship. However, there is another voice in scripture, a profoundly biocentric voice in which humanity is one voice in a larger choir of creation, a theme which is echoed in many of our prayers. Genesis, however, is clearly androcentric. In this week’s Torah portion, when Noah loads the animals onto the ark, he loads seven of every clean animal and two of every unclean animal because the clean animals would need to be sacrificed – in other words, they were being saved so that they could be useful to humanity. In some sense, he is saving the animals in order to save humanity. But those who say that we’re only really saving ourselves are ignoring the fact that Noah did save two of every other animal as well because, and this is so essential, they have value in and of themselves, regardless of their usefulness to human society. That is a secondary and crucial message in the story of Noah. This isn’t about us, it’s about all of creation. Yes, of course, reducing carbon emissions helps reduce devastation in other species, but that’s not the only way. All the windmills in the world won’t save the planet if we don’t make other profound changes to our society.
For example, if we cut our emissions but also continue to cut down rainforests for palm oil plantations, then we can be absolutely certain that not only will the earth become more hostile to us but we also we condemn to extinction many species, including the beloved orangutan. More efficient cars and homes and businesses are essential, but if in those places we still buy products that contribute to deforestation, then the impact of that efficiency is dramatically undercut. If we still give our money to banks who invest in companies that mine for resources in rainforests, if we buy phones from companies who slaughter gorillas just to get to precious metals, if we only consider the larger carbon footprint while avoiding the devastation caused by the way we spend our money, then we have to ask how green we really are? If we continue to consume plastic and other chemicals that pollute the oceans and strangle the wildlife therein, then we have to be honest enough to remove any pretense of being environmentally friendly. And if we continue to oppress the global poor, if we continue to support the economic systems that lock billions of people into debt and force them to despoil and then sell their own local environmental resources on a global market, are we really going to save the planet just because we reduced our carbon emissions? Indeed, how green are we if we continue to buy products from multinational companies who, half way round the world, force billions of people to buy patented monoculture crops that help the corporations rake in enormous sums of money which are removed from the local economy while the local environment is degraded beyond repair due to the lack of biodiversity in the crops, and then the same corporations make more money selling pesticides to the farmers which poison them further and which would have been totally unnecessary had their local knowledge of how to plant crops locally been listened to?
Noah sits in the ark with all the animals. He tends them and takes care of them but ultimately, he believes that he is above them, not one of them – he thinks he is a guardian of nature, not a part of nature. Western society has for the last four hundred years shifted from a perspective of working within nature to one of conquering nature. We’ve now conquered nature by devastating it. We won the war in which there were no winners. Yes, it is important to reduce carbon emissions but that will be a hollow victory if we do not simultaneously repair the relationship between ourselves and the rest of nature. We need to be of nature, not for nature. That is a change in spirituality, not in business models. It is a change in the way we view our world. It means changing our liturgy, rephrasing our spirituality and then, as a result, in modifying the way we live on the earth. This Shabbat Noach, we acknowledge that time is short. The waters are literally rising. We need to change not just how we shop but also how we think because we can no longer simply shut the door and drown out the cries of the rest of the natural world as it faces annihilation. This Shabbat Noach, we need to commit to saving the planet not just through an alternate consumerism but, more importantly, through re-evaluation of our place in this world. We do this not for our sake, but for the sake of the whole of this wondrous, irreplaceable creation. And let us say, Amen.