Our Josephs, Our Choices

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Pharaoh Joseph

Credit: Creative Commons-Flickr pcstratman

In the Torah (specifically, the portion of Mikeitz), we read of Pharaoh’s dreams and Joseph’s interpretations of them. As we know, Joseph explained the dreams to mean that there would be seven years of plentiful harvests in the land of Egypt followed by seven years of severe famine. In this way, Joseph was not only an interpreter but also a prophet, having interpreted the prophetic dreams that God gave to Pharaoh.
Pharaoh’s dreams speak to our own day, a day during which droughts, typhoons, and hurricanes of increasing severity are more and more frequent. These are the equivalents of Pharaoh’s dreams: disturbing, anomalous manifestations of something that calls out for interpretation.
But what is our equivalent of Joseph? We have but to think for a moment to realize that among us are men and women who interpret the overall shape of the novel climate events we have been witnessing – climate scientists. With respect to these phenomena, they are the best interpreters of what is occurring.And the consensus is in. Peer-reviewed science journals report that there is no longer the slightest quibble about the reality of climate change.

These Josephs of ours have recognized that we are on the verge of a human-made crisis. No one particular drought, hurricane, or typhoon can be said to be the consequence of climate change, but the overall increasing severity and frequency of these events line up precisely with the law of probability that the theory of climate change embraces.
If we believe our Josephs, then in addition to hearing from others about a climate crisis that is well underway, we are seeing – and feeling – it for ourselves. It is alarming to some that in our day we are often already seeing and feeling these effects.
Nowadays, interpreting and making predictions about our future go hand in hand. Our Josephs are not only interpreters of our climate. They are also its prophets.
To this statement, one might reply that the days of prophecy are long over. Instead of prophecy, one might rebrand the field of scientific prediction as so much soothsaying, then toss it into the rubbish bin labeled “Superstition” where it belongs.But wouldn’t doing so be to renounce the very project of science, from which all of our technological progress and today’s conveniences have developed? Wouldn’t doing so be to turn the very project of being modern on its head?
To refer to our climate scientists as our Josephs is to cast the language of Scripture into modern-day terms, but it is worthwhile following through on this thought experiment. The seven healthy cows represent the decades of plentiful fossil fuel during which we have had virtually unlimited access to travel by car and plane, have heated and cooled our buildings to whatever temperatures our hearts desired, and used seemingly unlimited amounts of electricity in whatever ways we wished. But – so the analogy continues – the days of the seven sick cows are upon us. We have the opportunity to recognize that crippling droughts, fresh water shortages, and rising sea levels are consequences of a decades-long, unprecedented and massive release of greenhouse gases created by unrestricted fossil fuel combustion.
Yet in addition to interpreting and predicting, Joseph of course proposed a remedy: during the seven abundant years, grain should be rationed and stored as a reserve for the famine years. This, too, has a modern counterpart, for climate scientists have been recommending ways that we can avoid the worst consequences of climate disruption and global warming and mitigate the worst effects of climate change. These recommendations include actions such as lowering the amount of greenhouse gas we produce and increasing our use of alternate, renewable fuels such as solar, wind,and hydropower that do not release greenhouse gas to power our transportation, homes, industries, and so on.
Why are we not heeding our Josephs? We suggest two different sorts of answers.
One is political: we keep waiting for the men and women who are the most powerful and visible leaders of our democracy to legislate suitable responses to the predictions of climate scientists. Turning back to our prototype, we recall that to Pharaoh Joseph was, politically speaking,a slave, a non-person. Yet Pharaoh immediately accepted as fact the interpretations that slave offeredand heeded his advice as well. The purpose of this scriptural narrative was not to suggest that recommendations based on the interpretation of dreams are the proper way for omnipotent monarchs to govern. Rather, it was to lay the foundation forJoseph’s redemption and rise to power in Egypt. Nonetheless, how ironic that it implies that a dictatorship responsive to the word of a slave enabled a more effective way to respond to a crisis than a democracy could.
A second answer that helps us understand why we are not heeding our Josephs stems from a phenomenon with a name that sounds strikingly like the name of Egypt’s longest river. By staying in “denial”, we Americans are able to continue the high carbon lifestyles that we have been living during recent decades.It is remarkable to ponder that greenhouse gas emissions are now 60 to 70 percent higher than they were as recently as 1990, owing to an upward, unprecedented pattern of increasing consumption.
It is not only a play-on-words that links the Nile to denial.In making ourselves beholden to habits of consumerism and consumption from which we cannot easily escape, we have entered into our own personal and collective Egypts, our own Mitzrayims, our own lands of bondage.
What can we do about this? Fortunately the answer is both personal and political. It starts by challenging our current consumer habits, and to do so we must be willing to disrupt our complacency.We must look at our own individual contributions to our collective problem;not as so little that it cannot possibly make any difference, but rather as paradigmatic of the very reason why we are in our current situation.
For better and for worse, we do live in a democracy, and this means that we are empowered to make different decisions than the ones that we have been making year after year.Doing so will limit the devastation that is already being wreaked by climate change – our equivalent of the seven years of famine that awaited Egypt after its seven years of abundance.
We cannot make the appropriate changes waiting for our political “leaders” to take the lead. They know that, as matters now stand, they cannot be re-elected by taking strong stances about scaling back consumption in a nation of devout consumptionists. The change must come from us.In this regard, we are not only voters.We are also leaders. Indeed, we are the leaders that we have been waiting for. Look around you, in your home, in your neighborhood, in your community.We are the sources of the problem and we are the sources of its solution.
Joseph, come home. We welcome you back.
David Steinberg, PhD is an art historian focusing on early American art, living in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Paul Tesser, MD, PhD is an ophthalmologist with a background in molecular biology, living in St. Louis, Missouri.
Over the years, they have analyzed contemporary problems by synthesizing diverse scientific, historical, humanistic, and religious opinions into unified concepts in order to effect change.