Tu BiShvat

Ethics & social issues By Dr Laura Miller 08th Feb 2017

“All my days I have been careful never to pluck a blade of grass or a flower needlessly, when it had the ability to grow or blossom. You know the teaching of our sages that not a single blade of grass grows here on Earth that does not have an angel above it, commanding it to grow. Every sprout and leaf says something meaningful, every stone whispers some hidden message in the silence—every creation sings its song.

Rav Kook

Each year, we celebrate Tu B’Shvat with our loved ones as the ‘new year for the trees.’ Sharing fruit or planting new trees with our friends and family, we remind ourselves of nature’s beauty and life’s cycles.

These days, I find the experience bitter-sweet. Of course, natural patterns are less disturbed in North London than they are in other parts of the world. But I look in the newspaper and see images of wounded children, flooded villages, entire communities unable to return home. And I see that environmental degradation is playing a growing role in such catastrophes.

I read the scientific reports and they allude to impending planetary chaos on an unimaginable scale – the Danish Meteorological Institute has detected a huge rise in Arctic temperatures for this time of year (from -23C to -3C). As a result, experts say we are close to ecological tipping points: the meaning of such statements, and the consequences, are difficult to grasp

Perhaps they need to be explained. Maybe if we understood, we would talk about the planet – something we don’t do nearly enough – and feel inspired to take action.

Here’s one reason why we should.

Rising sea temperatures and acidification of the ocean – both caused by greenhouse gas emissions – are destroying the world’s coral reefs at an unprecedented rate. Unless we curb emissions and tackle local threats, the percentage of reefs at risk will increase to more than 90 percent by 2030; nearly all reefs will be in peril by 2050.

These underwater, almost-magical kingdoms provide the nurseries and feeding stations for over one quarter of marine life. Without coastal fisheries, the world’s poorest people will experience a more extreme form of poverty than they do currently, alongside malnutrition of epic proportions. And without the resilience that reef-building corals provide, such coastal communities will then be battered by increasingly frequent and violent extreme weather events. It doesn’t bear thinking about, but if we overshoot 1.5 degrees of warming, we will witness dire consequences.

Worse, evidence suggests that unless we keep well within 1.5 degrees of warming, a 2 degree temperature rise is effectively baked in. Instead of depressing you further by telling you what that means, I am going to list what we need to do:

  • We must fund the conservation action needed to protect and restore balanced and resilient ecosystems. If we each contributed as much as we spent on soft drinks per year to such efforts, we’d be close to the mark. And there is good evidence for well-targeted initiatives.
  • We need to demand that world leaders decarbonise. However disillusioned we are with governments and politics, we must nurture change if we want to pass on any kind of future to our children.
  • We can take the latest protests at Standing Rock as our inspiration, but they – and similar struggles around the world – teach us that nonviolent activism will be needed for some time to come. Rather than watch Earth’s land- and water- defenders from the sidelines, we should support them.
  • We can do this by refusing to accept energy sources that raze forests (for biofuels) or destroy rivers (for mega-dams) or devastate the deep seas (for metals to make solar panels). In doing so, we may be able to our impending mass extinction crisis.
  • And we (I’m sorry, this is not nice to hear) need to consume less – much less. The good news is that if we each cut waste, turned off equipment/lights, reduced meat consumption and avoided single-use plastic, we could significantly reduce our impact.

The solution rests with us. Our purchases, our actions, our dedication to inspiring the right change, our contributions to charities improving and repairing the world all matter so much more than we realise. Each and every one reflects first principles of Judaism: a profound respect for life and creation.

Which way do you want to go?  

Inexorably deeper into a system that tolerates mass extinctions, ecological destruction, inequity and persecution? Or towards a way of life that does not needlessly inflict suffering on any – and that insists on protecting the most vulnerable?

On this Tu BiShvat, while you are with your loved ones enjoying figs, oranges, avocados, or outdoors planting trees, please spend some time listening to nature’s small voices and really pay heed to what they are saying. They speak only of love, balance and resilience, and I wish for all humanity that we would reconnect with these values – these are the best tithes we can give.  

Dr Laura Miller is a member of New North London Synagogue.

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