From a Biblical perspective that sees the world as “Creation” - the very manifestation of the omnipresent Creator and Guide of the Universe - any degradation, not only of the human person but also of our eco-system, is a terrible offense against God whose glory and benevolence are revealed and testified to in all the natural world and above all in its human summit.
Thus, the current environmental crisis must be seen by us as a religious crisis that demands that people of religion and faith take a lead to highlight our responsibility towards the restoration and protection of our environment as a religious imperative, just as the present and past popes have done.
Moreover, the crisis poses an existential challenge for our very survival and our responsibility to our children and future generations. I recall an event more than a decade ago at the annual conference of the International Council of Christians and Jews which was on the subject of Justice. I devoted much time to the challenge of environmental degradation and ecological justice. At the end of my presentation two women professors specializing in Christian-Jewish relations asked me why I should devote so much time to that subject at a Jewish-Christian conference. Obviously, I had not done a very good job in my presentation! But I said to them, what is the value of the Jewish-Christian partnership if we do not have a home for that relationship? Indeed, we might say, that all other issues as important as they may be, can be compared to repairs and rearrangement of the deck chairs on the Titanic as we head for the iceberg that will destroy us.
There is a famous ancient Jewish homily which tells of people in a rowing boat and one of them starts to make a hole under his seat. The others cry out, stop, what are you doing? He replies, “it is none of your business, I am making this hole under my seat, not yours.” And of course they retort “but as a result, we will all sink and drown!”
No-one and certainly no religion can morally be disassociated from this challenge, for we are all in the same boat. Indeed as the Book of Genesis declares are here in the Garden of Creation “to work and preserve it” -i.e. to ensure its sustainable productivity and future.
The latest World Economic Forum's annual Global Risks Report presents climate action failure as the most severe risk facing humanity together with the related extreme weather events and biodiversity loss.
Humanity’s “broken” relationship with nature has been highlighted even further by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Scientific breakthroughs powered by international collaboration have helped us create vaccines and other treatments that can help tackle the health crisis. But our world continues to be vulnerable to pandemics
Both habitat loss and the wildlife trade increase the likelihood that diseases will make the jump from animals to humans.
Studies show that intensive animal factory farming is the major factor in global warming and environmental destruction
Our increasingly intensive agriculture and food systems require greater land use and are a key driver of deforestation.
This also reduces habitat for wild animals, meaning they come into more regular contact with people, which increases opportunities for potential pathogens to emerge and infect us. In addition, many zoonotic diseases thrive in the increasingly warmer, wetter conditions sparked by human-induced climate change.
Animal factory farming itself has been described as man-made pandemics waiting to happen; and massive quantities of antibiotics contained in human consumption greatly undermine resistance, while massive amounts of hormones given to these animals to resist disease are also retained in their consumed flesh. These have been clearly associated with cancers in humans.
The science about the ripple effects of this environmental loss has been on the table for decades, and now we are seeing real-life impacts, including the emergence of new infectious diseases, with increased frequency
With more than half of global GDP coming from industries that rely on nature, such as construction and food; the necessity for action to protect and restore nature, essential not only for a healthy world but also a resilient global economy, has become more urgent than ever.
Unfortunately, the awareness of these nature-related risks has not yet translated into action that would help head off future pandemics.
Leviticus Ch.26 promises good rains and harvests and prolonging our days on the earth, as a consequence of observing the Divine commandments; and warns of the opposite, if the Divine word is ignored and desecrated.
Maimonides declares that the Torah, the Hebrew Bible, uses the language of men, i.e. metaphor, that is suitable for the simple as well as sophisticated. Indeed, many of the mediaeval rational rabbinic commentators could only make sense of this idea in Scripture as a way of conveying the higher idea of spiritual consequences to our actions.
However, it has been pointed out that today we can understand these texts more literally than ever before, because the consequences of human conduct on our environment are so strikingly evident.
Human avarice, unbridled hubris, insensitivity and lack of responsibility towards our environment, have polluted and destroyed much of our natural resources, interfered with the climate as a whole jeopardising our rains and harvests and threatening the very future of sentient life on the planet (see the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change http://www.ipcc.ch/ ) Moreover unrestrained irresponsible indulgence in modern society has not only led to far greater cruelty towards animal life exploited for human consumption, but also to a further exploitation of large sections of humanity to serve a much smaller sector. Indeed, shocking numbers of human beings languish in hunger while others over self indulge.
A recent study concluded that the average person on the west needs 100 acres of biologically productive space to support his or her annual consumption of food, water, energy and other resources. Distributed evenly however there are only 15 acres of productive land for each of the 6.5 billion people on earth. That means that the average western citizen consumes over seven times his or her share of the earth's capacity. Multiply this by hundreds of millions of people and the human environmental toll comes into better perspective.
While these realities confront global governance as well as national authorities; we as communities, families and individuals are also challenged in terms of our own lifestyles and conduct.
I think it noteworthy in this regard, that a plant-based diet is not only an important response to the problematic exploitation of sentient life, environmental degradation, and much human disease; but a reduction in meat consumption is critically necessary in developed societies in order to reduce deplorable wastage at the expense of other parts of the world. For example, it takes 17 times the amount of water to produce a kilo of beef than it does to produce a kilo of grain. Wise and responsible reorientation and utilisation of resources could enable us to address most of the shameful hunger and poverty that afflict our planet.
Thus, the Biblical link between natural conditions/productivity and our moral conduct is strikingly relevant for contemporary society, as is our very capacity to live in the land. The Torah declares in the book of Leviticus that failure to fulfil the Divine Law will lead to the land vomiting out its inhabitants.
Indeed, our capacity to live on the land depends upon our capacity to observe God’s word and His way.
I would like to conclude with a quote from the environmentalist Gus Speth who headed the UN Development Programme before he became Dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies:-
“I used to think the top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystems collapse and climate change. I thought that with thirty years of good science , we could address those problems. But I was wrong.
The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed, and apathy… and to deal with these we need a spiritual and cultural transformation, and we scientists don’t know how to do that.”
But Religions do know how to do that and that is precisely what Religions should be all about - spiritual transformation; and the nurturing of positive ethical values of respect for human beings and for the Creation as a whole – a truly human ecology.
Accordingly it is the responsibility of all our Traditions, and the responsibility of all of us, to work together to be greater than the sum of our different parts, in changing people’s orientation - especially in the west - to live in accordance with the sublime and sustainable social teachings of our different traditions; of modesty, self-sufficiency, respect for the wellbeing of others, and for God’s Creation as a whole; for our own security, for future generations, and to testify to the glory of the Creator’s work and presence in our world .