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The False Consciousness of Stewardship

Jun28

by: Eleanor Johnson on June 28th, 2016 | 2 Comments »

According to New York Magazine, citing data from NASA and Bloomberg, it’s been the hottest month in recorded history for a year now. In these temperatures, we’ve got big frozen things melting, low-lying places flooding, hurricanes swooping out of season, trash pools whirling in ever-widening gyres, and species quietly going extinct. The long-term impact of the heating up of the earth’s surface is not entirely clear, but what is clear is that something needs to change.

In all of this discomfiting warmth, I am primarily concerned about people, and I am of a mind to start pointing fingers. Not at big industry, emerging nations, or even the U.S. government. I want to point at people who read the Christian Bible superficially, thus engendering misunderstandings that become powerful and damaging political ideologies. More specifically, I want to point fingers at Christian environmentalists who, with the best of intentions, take on the mantle of environmental “stewardship,” which they derive from the Bible, but actually use that mantle to the detriment both of the earth and to accurate readings of the Bible itself.

I’m talking about the Biblical treatment of stewardship. Many Christians invoke the idea of stewardship as a justification for their environmental stances. In one interpretation of Christian stewardship, God gave the earth unto mankind, so that mankind could act as steward of that gift, using the earth’s resources to the greatest possible advantage. Now, of course, many Christian Environmentalists understand stewardship not as carte blanche to do what they will with the earth, but as an obligation to manage God’s gift responsibly. But all too often, the idea of stewardship is impressed into the service of demands to drill for oil in the arctic or dump massive amounts of waste into the seas because, well, there those places are, kind of big and empty and underused.

What I find fascinating about the discourse on stewardship is that it misses the point of the steward parable – often by wrongly conflating it with the Parable of the Talents. The actual stewardship parable, often called the Parable of the Unjust Steward, tells a story of a steward who is entrusted to manage his lord’s wealth responsibly. But the steward fails in his assigned task, wasting all of the lord’s goods, so that the lord demands an account of his expenditures and fires him from his job. Bad news: it looks like there are pretty dire consequences for mismanaging the lord’s goods. But things get more interesting. In response to getting busted, the unjust steward goes to people who were in debt to the lord, and he reduces their debts by half. Now things get really weird: the lord praises him for redistributing the lord’s wealth in this way, for being “unjust,” and for taking wealth from the lord himself.

Needless to say, this parable has historically been a source of consternation for Biblical commentators. But in the 1380s, a cleric named Thomas Wimbledon had a great insight into it. He delivered a public sermon on the Unjust Steward to a group of Londoners, which emphasized how the steward’s original squandering of the lord’s wealth would have consequences for the weakest, poorest, and most desperate in society, and how that neglect to take care of those in need was his primary crime. Thus, the steward’s redistribution of wealth at the end makes sense: it is direct atonement for the initial act of wasting and squandering.

Now, the circumstances of the 1380s were different; Wimbledon wasn’t protesting environmental squandering by nation-states and corporations. But his fundamental insight is deeply relevant to our current socio-political and environmental situation. The Parable of the Unjust Steward only makes sense if you understand it as a claim for the importance of economic justice, the redistribution of wealth, and the protection of the poor. That is what the Bible endorses as the mandate of a steward. So, if the industrialized nations — in fact, I’ll just say the U.S. – wants to orient its environmental policy around the idea of stewardship, it needs to do so with the awareness that stewardship is ultimately about the protection of other people. Poorer people. People down the ladder of socio-economic stability and security.

In our current geopolitical moment, then, anyone who wants to lay claim to stewardship of the “earth” should actually make an effort to foster economic and environmental justice that will include, for instance, the Global South — the area of the surface of the earth that suffers the most acutely from the ongoing effects of colonialism, structural inequality, and environmental decay. If you want to be a good steward, a good Christian using the earth’s resources well and responsibly, you have to do so with an eye not simply toward the material preservation of what you have been given — like coal, oil, gas, or water — but also toward the people who have less than you have and who are structurally positioned to have less access to what you have.

So, as the earth continues in its perhaps doomed course of warming up, I would like to make a plea that people who rely on the Bible to justify their political stances on the environment read a little more carefully, so as to recognize that, to Jesus, the goods of the earth that we are most meant to preserve are the welfares of its human denizens.

Eleanor Johnson is a professor at Columbia University.

Talking to Josh Fox and a Review of How to Let Go of the World and Love All the Things Climate Can’t Change

Jun28

by: Heidi Hutner on June 28th, 2016 | 2 Comments »

Editor’s Note: This piece was originally posted on Heidi Hutner’s Blog, and is reprinted here with permission of the author.

“Can a person stop a wave? Could you stand on the shore and stop a wave from crashing? What are the things that climate change can’t destroy? What are those parts of us that are so deep that no storm can take them away?”

- Josh Fox

How to Let Go of the World opens with Josh Fox dancing to the Beatles — joyously celebrating the banning of hydraulic fracturing in New York State. Fox and thousands of fellow “frackativists” had just successfully pushed through the ban on ‘fracking’ in New York (2014).

Fox’s first environmental film, Gasland (2010), brought national attention to the negative environmental impacts of hydraulic fracturing.

So, Fox had good reason to celebrate the New York State ‘fracking’ ban, and yet…

Fox soon recognized that while the banning of ‘fracking’ in New York State was a big win, there was and is much more to be concerned about in the environmental battle.

Namely: global Climate Change.

How to Let Go of the World next takes the viewer on Fox’s journey of environmental despair (a condition I deeply identify with and talk about in my TEDX talk “ECO-GRIEF”).

Fox returns to his family home in the woods that inspired the making of Gasland, only to discover that a favorite childhood tree is infested with parasitic insects (induced by Climate Change). The infested tree is a living symbol of the changed world we now inhabit–a world gravely altered by the ravages of fossil fuel extraction.

Fox is thrown into a state of hopelessness.

Yet Fox determines to, “find the people who’d found this place, this place of despair, and gotten back up.”

The film then takes the viewer all over the globe. We follow Fox as he seeks to understand how others cope with environmental grief.

We observe the negative environmental, health and social impacts of Hurricane Sandy in New York, sea-level rise in the Marshall Islands, deforestation and oil spills in the Amazon, and the wanton burning of fossil fuels in smog-laden China, among others.

Along the way, Fox has heart-to-heart conversations with prominent Climate Change authors Bill Mckibben, Elizabeth Kolbert, and climate scientist, Michael E. Mann. He also speaks with the activist and “civil disobedient” Tim DeChristopher, who went to jail for 21 months for protesting a Bureau of Land Management lease auction to the fossil fuel industry in Utah.

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A Call for Love in the Face of Hatred: Rabbi Lerner’s talk at Muhammad Ali’s Memorial

Jun16

by: on June 16th, 2016 | 1 Comment »

In case you who missed it, here’s Rabbi Lerner’s talk at Muhammed Ali’s funeral.His vision is all the more relevant given the horrific killings in Orlando and the way it is being used to promote fear, hatred and Islamophobia. It has gone viral on social media and inspired over a million people already. If it inspires you as well, please read below for how to be an ally with Rabbi Lerner to help build the world he describes.

Wondering why Rabbi Lerner got invited and how to respond to the handful of naysayers who have been upset by Lerner’s powerful message? Please read below.

Muhammad Ali had known Rabbi Lerner as a friend and ally in the 1960s and early 1970s when both were indicted by the U.S. government for their roles in opposing the war in Vietnam. He then wrote Rabbi Lerner to praise his book with Cornel WestJews and Blacks: Let the Healing Begin.Approximately seven years ago, he decided to invite Rabbi Lerner to represent the American Jewish community at his memorial service. Rabbi Lerner only received a phone call invitation from the Ali family four days before he got on an airplane to Louisville.

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Threats to Mother Earth and How to Confront Them

Apr28

by: Leonardo Boff on April 28th, 2016 | Comments Off

There are four threats that our Common Home faces, and which demand from us our special attention.

The first is how in modern times the Earth is viewed as an object of ruthless exploitation, seeking only the greatest profits, without regard to life or purpose. This vision, that has brought undeniable benefits, has also created a dis-equilibrium in all the ecosystems, which has caused the present generalized ecological crisis. With that vision entire nations were destroyed, as in Latin America, where the Atlantic jungles, and, in part, the Amazon rain forests, have been devastated.

In January 2015, 18 scientists published in the well known magazine Science, a study on   “The planetary limits: a guide for a human development on a planet in mutation”. They enumerated 9 fundamental aspects for the continuity of life. Among them were climate equilibrium, maintenance of bio-diversity, preservation of the ozone layer, and control of acidity of the oceans. All of these aspects are in a state of decline. But two, that they call the “fundamental limits”, are the most degraded: through climate change and the extinction of species. The breakdown of these two fundamental frontiers can cause the collapse of our civilization.

In this context, to care for the Earth means that to the conquest paradigm, that devastates nature, we must oppose the paradigm of caring, that protects nature. The paradigm of caring cures old wounds and prevents future wounds. Caring leads us to live in harmony with all the other beings and to respect the rhythms of nature. We must produce what we need to live, but carefully, within the tolerable limits of each region and the riches of each ecosystem. 

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Passover and Earth Day: 10 Plagues of Fossil Fuels

Apr18

by: Dan Brook on April 18th, 2016 | Comments Off

(Source: Eric Kounce)

Creation is being replaced with destruction. As Jews, we are tasked with remembering, conserving, pursuing peace and justice. On this first night of Passover 5776, which is also Earth Day 47, we recount 10 of the plagues of fossil fuels, which are negatively affecting all countries and most species.

1. oil drilling and coal mining
2. fracking
3. gas guzzling
4. subsidizing fossil fuels and oil corporations
5. overuse of plastics
6. wasting energy
7. using a finite resource as if it’s infinite
8. not putting a price on carbon
9. not boldly transitioning to safe, clean, renewable energies
10. condemning our children and their children and future generations to a world of climate chaos

We can no longer be fossil fools for cheap energy with high eco-costs to satisfy greed and the idolatry of profit. We should no longer be enslaved by the pharaohs of environmental destruction and their doomsday cult.

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California’s Dirty Secret Comes to Light: Environmental Racism Meets Black Lungs Matter

Feb23

by: Rev. Dr. Brooks Berndt on February 23rd, 2016 | Comments Off

A photo from one of the recent rallies held in Oakland, CA.

In December, news outlets ranging from theNew York TimestoMother Jones magazinewere touting the leadership of California at the UN climate summit in Paris. TheLA Timesportrayed Governor Jerry Brown’s active presence in Paris as representing not only the crafting of his “political legacy” but also his preoccupation with preventing “catastrophe.” Yet, environmental lawyers, community activists, and faith leaders are increasingly bringing to the public’s awareness what has long been California’s dirty secret. In a state known for its environmentalism, environmental racism has remained a festering, unbridled sin.

Last summer,a lawsuit was filedagainst Brown and California Oil and Gas Supervisor Steve Bohlen shortly after California instituted regulations for the practice of fracking, the injection of a chemical-water mixture underground to extract oil. The lawsuit asserted that the regulations discriminated against students of color who disproportionately attended schools close to permitted oil wells. More recently, another lawsuit has been filed against the city of Los Angeles for its approval of oil drilling in neighborhoods populated by people of color. Earlier this week theLA Timesreported, “Working-class, minority neighborhoods in Wilmington and South Los Angeles have been plagued for years by foul odors, noise and dirt from oil operations that are practically in their backyards.”

Another battle front against environmental racism is also in Oakland, California. In the low-income, predominantly black and Latino community of West Oakland, a proposed coal terminal is being challenged by local advocates. In a statement entitled “Black Lungs Matter,” the Alameda Interfaith Climate Action Network detailed research that demonstrated how the residents of West Oakland already live in a community that suffers from high levels of pollution. Those living in the neighborhood experience “five times more toxic pollution per person than residents of the city of Oakland,” while “children in West Oakland are seven times more likely to be hospitalized for asthma than the average child in the state ofCalifornia.”

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A Second Scientific Revolution Reveals the Mortality of the Modern World

Feb5

by: David W. Noble on February 5th, 2016 | 2 Comments »

In this essay I explain how I moved from a critique of a metaphor of two worlds, America and Europe, to a critique of a metaphor of two worlds, modern and traditional. I also now see America and the modern as symbolic representations of a limitless frontier. I see Europe and the traditional as symbolic representations of a limited home. Once I saw Europeans leaving home to come to an American frontier; now I see modern people leaving traditional homes to come to a universal frontier/marketplace. And I see this powerful modern prophecy of an exodus from a limited old world to a limitless new world as the major cause of our dangerous environmental crisis. We do not nurture our earthly home because we believe we are going to a frontier of unlimited resources.

During the summer of 1944 I became self-conscious of the fact that irony is a significant aspect of human experience. I had graduated from high school into the army in June 1943. Throughout my childhood and youth I was told that my German grandparents had left a European old world of economic scarcity and war and came to an American new world of plenty and peace. But now in an army hospital I began to question this metaphor of two worlds and the concept of a redemptive exodus to a new world. Before being injured in an accidental explosion I had experienced severe poverty from 1940, when our farm was foreclosed, to 1943, when I entered the army. Our home for my father, mother, and me during those years was a small barn that had electricity and running water. We could not afford morphine to ease my father’s pain as he was dying from stomach cancer.

My sense of irony was compounded, therefore, by my financial ability as a disabled veteran to enroll at Princeton University in 1945. Working with my older brother in the 1930s to deliver milk in Princeton, I had learned that Princeton University was a school for the sons of rich men. I was not grateful, however, that I could now sit in classes with young men who came from wealthy backgrounds. But I was grateful that I could begin to prepare for a career in teaching. I wanted to inform my fellow citizens that the metaphor of two worlds and an exodus narrative were not true. They were not an accurate description of human experience.


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Normalizing The Extraordinary in Medellín, Part Two

Dec28

by: on December 28th, 2015 | Comments Off

Note: This is the second of two parts on Arlene Goldbard’s visit to cultural development projects in Medellín, Colombia, in early December; you’ll find the first here.

Ana Cecilia Restrepo, the director of La Red de Escuelas de Musica de Medellín – that Colombian city’s network of music schools that are much more than schools, as you can read in Part One – was driving me back to my hotel on the last night of my stay. Medellín is widely recognized as a city that has successfully launched its transformation from a place terrorized by drug lords and their gangs, in which going out at night was basically not an option, to one explicitly and assertively aligned with its own remaking. See Michael Kimmelman’s New York Times piece from 2012, for instance, or this account of Medellín being named Innovative City of the Year in 2013, particularly for its new transportation infrastructure.

As she drove, Ana told me one of the city’s famous rejuvenation stories. Below, I share it with you. But first I want to tell you about my visit to an amazing cultural center in Medellín.

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Peace for the World, Healing for the Climate

Dec16

by: on December 16th, 2015 | 1 Comment »

Red Line Action at Beale

Yesterday I was arrested at Beale Air Force Base, near Marysville, California, along with seven others. We were charged with trespassing. This video of me speaking was filmed after we crossed the line onto the base. In it I begin to explain the connections between US military policy and climate change. The letter that we attempted to deliver to the base commander gives a more detailed explanation of our concerns and our reasons for demonstrating.

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A Hindu Call to Action in Fighting Climate Change

Nov25

by: Murali Balaji on November 25th, 2015 | 1 Comment »

Editor’s Note: A version of this piece first appeared on the Huffington Post.

At the end of this month, leaders from around the globe will convene in Paris for the latest round of talks to combat climate change and global warming.

For the first time, Hindu teachings will take a prominent role in this effort, as a growing coalition of Hindu organizations, leaders, and interfaith allies are ramping up efforts to protect Matru Bhumi through the Bhumi Devi ki Jai! A Hindu Declaration on Climate Change.

The declaration, first signed six years ago, is now back on the frontlines as the majority of world leaders are finally acknowledging the reality of climate change and the urgency of fighting it.

The declaration, authored by the Oxford Center for Hindu Studies and the Bhumi Project, with support from the Hindu American Foundation, is a call to action for the world’s approximately 900 million Hindus to take the lead in combating global warming. As Hindu leaders note, the effort highlights the natural leadership of Hindu scriptures in calling for action.

The declaration, in part, reads:

“Today, with the 2015 Paris Climate Conference nearly upon us, members of the global Hindu community again urge strong, meaningful action be taken, at both the international and national level, to slow and prevent climate change. Such action must be scientifically credible and historically fair, based on deep reductions in greenhouse gas emissions through a transition away from polluting technologies, especially away from fossil fuels. A transition towards using 100-percent clean energy is desperately needed, as rapidly as is possible in every nation. Doing so provides the only basis for sustainable, continued human development. It is the best hope for the billions of people without electricity or clean cooking facilities to live better lives and reduce poverty.”


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