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Earth Day D'var 2021

Ezra Hausman

This week's Torah portion concerns a mysterious affliction called tzara'at that apparently can afflict the skin of an individual, the clothing, or even a house. We don't know what this affliction was, and I think it is pretty clear that the authors of the text didn't know either - except that it appears to have been pervasive and scary, but not irreversible. Many commentators have taken it to be a spiritual ailment as much as a physical one, and it seems to have been the priest’s job to diagnose the ailment: on a person, by judging whether the affliction was more than skin deep, the coloration, and what color hair is sticking out of it, if any. For a house, the priest looks for greenish or reddish eruptions on the stones.
If the priest finds that a person has the look of tzara'at, the priest declares the affected person tamei. We don’t know exactly what this means, but it is not good. After a public declaration that the person is tamei, they have to rend their garment, bare their head, cover their upper lip, and cry out, Tamei! Tamei! Before moving outside of the encampment, until the affliction clears up.

Now this may feel a bit uncomfortable to us, like stigmatizing the victim. And indeed many commentators have taken a tamei person to be unclean and guilty of harsh speech, or of selfishness. But calling it out also means acknowledging the problem, not hiding something which, if not addressed, could afflict the whole community. Only once the priest calls out Tamei can the affliction be addressed, using the available solutions. Some of the solutions may seem silly to us today, like the Priest taking some special oil in his left palm and applying it to the ridge of the right ear, on the thumb of the right hand, and on the big toe of the right foot. I mean, maybe it worked? And some seem more practical, like isolating the individual, or removing the discolored building stones, until the affliction cleared up.
Our bodies, our clothing, our homes. The climate tzara'at facing our global society is also both rooted in and afflicting individuals and communities on every level, from how we nourish and take care of ourselves, to our economic systems, to systems of agriculture and how and where we live and manage our habitations. Alarmingly, far too many in our society - including one entire political party in the US - refuse to even acknowledge its existence. And far too many of us are hesitant to call out tamei. 

I believe that calling out tamei would be a recognition that, like tzara’at, what ails us is not just on the surface. We need to acknowledge that it is a reflection of a far deeper societal crisis, part and parcel of our consumerist, capitalist, exploitative relationship to our planet and to each other. Calling out tamei would mean recognizing that covering up the problem won't work - we have to go outside our encampment of comfort, and we have to wake up from what the prophet Greta Thunberg called our "fairytales of eternal economic growth."
Speaking of the prophet Thunberg, if you want to see what calling out Tamei for the climate crisis really looks like, be sure to watch her speech to the UN Climate Action Summit from September 2019: WATCH: Greta Thunberg's full speech to world leaders at UN Climate Action Summit
In her speech, Thunberg asks, "How dare you pretend that this can be solved with just business as usual and some technical solutions?"

And yet, that is exactly where many of us, in complicity with our political and industrial leaders, want to put our faith:

  • One technological fairytale is that carbon capture and sequestration will let us continue to burn fossil fuels with abandon, as long as we somehow capture the carbon emissions and pump them somewhere where they would be "permanently" stored. In fact, we would have to burn even more fossil fuels because of the energy it takes to capture the carbon, compress it, and store it. The problems with this idea are endless, including that any leak would not only be damaging to the climate, it could be incredibly deadly. Concentrated CO2 displaces oxygen, instantaneously killing anything that breathes . 
    • I have a different idea: we need to recognize that carbon is best stored underground as it is, in the safest, most stable way possible. Let's leave it there. We have plenty of resources that can power our economy without making the planet uninhabitable - I say let’s focus our efforts on those.
  • Another fairytale: Even as states and regions are setting aggressive climate goals, our gas utilities are preparing to spend billions of dollars replacing gas distribution pipelines that will take decades to pay off. When challenged, they claim they can meet climate goals by using "renewable natural gas" in the future, which will come from landfills, biomass, and hydrogen produced from renewable energy. It's not that these resources don't exist, but the math simply doesn't come close to penciling out. That's why there is never actually a plan, just a "trust us" and a tragic missed opportunity to redesign our energy system as they pursue their very profitable “business as usual.”
    • I have another idea - we need to develop a national plan to transition our homes and businesses off of on-site fuel combustion within ten years, while protecting safety and minimizing gas leaks. Every dime we spend on energy infrastructure in the meantime should be consistent with that plan.
  • Another fairytale: It is great news that Detroit and many of the world's automakers are finally moving in the direction of electric cars. And they are fantastic. But in what world does it make sense to drag ourselves around in two tons of steel for ten or 100 miles per day, especially when we now know many of us can work productively and happily with no commute? The whole car model may be deeply ingrained in our lives, but it is also unsustainable, and insane.
    • Another idea: Let's invest heavily in improving both broadband for all, and great public transportation, and let’s create a world where the individual car ride is rarer and less convenient than more environmentally benign options.
  • This one is a nightmare to me: there has been increasing talk about whiz-bang geoengineering solutions, such as seeding the upper atmosphere with particles that will reflect a portion of incoming sunlight into space, helping to cool the surface. This of course ignores the other effects of our fossil fuel pollution, such as acidifying the ocean and disturbing long-stable weather patterns, and pushes us further in the direction of more chemical and physical disturbance. What could possibly go wrong? 
    • Here’s an idea: let’s fix the problem by breaking our addiction to naive manipulation of the only atmosphere we know of that can support human life, rather than doubling down on our mistakes. There truly is no Planet B.
  • Finally, it is a popular climate activist fairytale that we can fix the problem simply by pricing carbon. Look, I am 100% in agreement that the cost of carbon emissions has to be internalized, so we can make intelligent decisions about the energy we use and the stuff we buy and eat. But a society of energy haves and have-nots, where the rich can pay a few bucks and continue to ignore the crisis, while the poor increasingly bear the burden, is both unacceptable and unworkable. We don’t want this on the global scale, with the rich countries that emitted the vast bulk of the carbon are able to adapt while poorer countries endure a devastating cost. And we don’t want this in our own country, where those who have benefitted the most from the capitalist and exploitative economic system are also the most protected from the mess they created. Solutions that don't fundamentally address inequality and disenfranchisement are doomed to fail - among other things, by empowering science-denying pseudo-populists the world over. 
    • Here’s another idea, although admittedly, it needs some work. Yes, remove the implicit subsidy that polluters get by ignoring the impact of their actions. But I am not a fan of just redistributing the revenues, so people can go out and buy more stuff. We need the Government to use the revenues both to implement clean energy options, and to remedy inequalities and ensure that everyone has a real stake in the future. In our Torah portion, if a house has tzara'at and the affliction continues to spread even after the affected stones are removed, the whole thing has to be torn down, the site has to be decontaminated, and everything must be rebuilt from scratch.

The fact is, if we can address the crisis of spirit and denialism that pervades our politics, there are plenty of real solutions that are not only technologically sound, but economically beneficial. This is not a fairy tale. The history of US environmental regulation is one of resounding, repeated, and persistent, and mostly bipartisan success. It was the visionary president Richard Nixon who signed the Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and gave us the EPA. Time after time, regulations that were initially derided as unworkable have spurred technological innovations and paid for themselves thousands of times over in cleaner air and water, reduced acid rain, protected species, elimination of toxic waste, improved human health and reduced morbidity. The incredible success of wind and solar generation, storage, LED lights, super-efficient heat pumps, and electric cars didn’t happen by magic - they were the direct results of government programs and mandates that drove investment and innovation.

But we also won’t solve this crisis without looking in the mirror and calling tamei on ourselves. There is no solution to the climate crisis that allows us to ignore our own diets, literally and figuratively - we cannot continue eating meats and other foods based on destructive agricultural practices as if they came from the sky. We cannot continue to expect an Amazon economy to deliver whatever we want whenever we want, and all of the garbage to magically disappear. I am of course as guilty as anyone in these areas, even though I know we cannot live our “fairy tale of eternal economic growth” on a planet with limited resources, and with limited capability to absorb our waste. Thunberg says that our leaders don't present realistic solutions because "these numbers are too uncomfortable, and [we] are still not mature enough to tell it like it is." 
Can we grow up and be mature enough? As another young girl prophet, Anne Frank, said in the midst of unimaginable darkness, “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”

I think there’s hope. After four years of pessimism and inaction, I believe we now have an administration that understands what is required, that refuses to accept the status quo, and that is pushing to make the investments that are needed to make a planet-saving difference, at every level.
But how about us? Can we grow up and become as mature as Thunberg tells us we need to be? We have some opportunities to work together with our community to figure out what that would look like. Please consider attending the Jewish Climate Action Conference on April 25th from 12 to 8 to learn more. There is also an opportunity to form a Dayenu Circle at Dorshei as a home base for climate action. 

So on this Earth Day Shabbat, in this season of renewal with spring upon us, I have a question for you: What do you want to be when you grow up? I want to invite you to envision what your life and your world would look like if we truly called out tamei and took action to address our climate tzara’at.

What will it look like, on any scale from personal to global, when we find solutions to address the root causes of climate change, limit its impacts, protect vulnerable communities, or in general behave like mature, responsible stewards of the situation we have created? What will you be, and do, when we all grow up?

Thu, March 23 2023 1 Nisan 5783