Lessons From Environmental Catastrophe

Lessons from a previous global environmental catastrophe.

Last week you explained that solving our environmental problems requires international cooperation. What can Jewish tradition teach us about nearing this ideal?

A. In recent weeks we have explained that Jewish law definitely mandates regulation of pollution and other nuisances, but that most kinds of pollution, even the most threatening kinds, are not direct or defined enough to be forbidden without some kind of concrete legislation or regulation. Global warming is considered a major threat, but it is impossible to forbid creating any heat or emitting any carbon dioxide. Such a prohibition would make it impossible even to breathe, cook or heat dwellings.

Yet doing nothing is also not a viable option. Even a relatively small threat of catastrophic climate change is worrisome enough that people worldwide see the need to do something about it. The only real option is for countries to work together to establish sensible limits. The most important effort to date has been the so-called Kyoto Protocol, an international agreement on future limitations on greenhouse. This protocol is certainly an important contribution but almost certainly an insufficient one, since many countries (including the US) have not ratified it, others have ratified it but are not fulfilling it, and others are currently not regulated by it.

What are the prospects of such cooperation? How could it be achieved?

The Torah provides an instructive parallel scenario. In the past mankind once faced a global environmental catastrophe. This catastrophe too was “anthropogenic” — caused by man’s actions. In this case also, mankind was required to act in concert to prevent disaster, and was given ample advance warning in order to do so. How did mankind react? What did the human race learn from the experience?

The catastrophe in question was the great flood. The reason for the flood was man’s corrupt actions. “And God said to Noah, the end of all flesh approaches before me, for the entire world is filled with injustice before them; therefore, I will devastate them with the earth.” (Genesis 6:13) God then commands Noah to build an ark to save himself and his family from the coming flood. This ark was a huge sea vessel, which took Noah and his families many years to build. Couldn’t God have found a simpler way of saving Noah and his family?

Rashi’s commentary explains that God designated such a prominent and unwieldy means of escape because He purposely wanted to give plenty of advance warning to the rest of mankind, to allow them to reconsider their ways. “In order that the people of the generation of the flood should see him [Noah] occupied with it 120 years, asking him, ‘What are you doing?’ And he would reply, ‘God is going to bring a flood on the world’. Perhaps this would bring them to repent.”

In a striking foreshadowing of our current situation, mankind faced looming disaster, but also constructive solutions. One solution was for all mankind to unite and return from their corrupt ways, thus saving the entire world. Another possibility was for any group to take stock of the situation and build their own ark to save at any rate their own members. The sad result was that no one took the warning seriously, and all of mankind was destroyed.

Did the human race learn anything from this experience? Scripture tells us that they did. First of all, they learned that society cannot survive solely on the basis of good intentions; there is a need for strict laws equitably enforced. As soon as Noah and his family leave the ark, they are commanded to enforce basic laws of human coexistence: “He who spills the blood of a man, by man will his blood be spilled; for man is created in God’s image”. (Genesis 9:6.)

Second of all, the generation following the flood internalized the need for international cooperation. “And all the world was of one language, and single intention… And they said, let us build us a city, and a tower whose top will reach the heavens, and thus make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered over all the earth” (Genesis 11:1,4).

Sadly, mankind’s newfound solidarity was not directed towards creating a just society, but rather towards pride and self-aggrandizement alone: to “make a name for ourselves”. Thus God intervened once more in man’s affairs and dispersed mankind subsequent to the construction of the Tower of Babel. But they were not punished with destruction as were the members of the generation of the flood; Rashi’s commentary (Genesis 11:9) explains that God acknowledged and rewarded their cooperative spirit. “The generation of the flood were thieves and bickered, therefore they disappeared. But these conducted themselves with love and cooperation, as it is written ‘One language and single intention.’ We learn that dispute is hateful and peace is great.”

However, He was disappointed in the direction they channeled it and dispersed them.

The process described in the book of Genesis is one of human progress and advancement driven by a combination of revelation (the commandment of rule of law) and experience (the destruction of the flood due to moral anomie). Both these processes have continued since the time of the flood and the dispersion; the revelation of the Torah and the inspiring vision of world brotherhood enunciated by the great Biblical prophets provide a guide, and the many kinds of anthropogenic destruction – ethical, military, or environmental – may have slowly inculcated in us the necessity for cooperation.

There is hope for concerted and binding steps for limiting environmental damage if mankind internalizes the lessons of the past, both human and divine. The most important message is that human cooperation is always desirable and welcome, but that ultimately it is effective only when it is directed towards perfecting the world, and not solely for pride and fame as it was in the time of the Tower of Babel.