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Why is this so hard? From Copernicus to Climate Change

Updated: Sep 22, 2019

Environmental activists often lament and question how hard it is for people to understand the danger of Climate Change and take the action necessary. On one hand, it does seem that the danger is clear. While the details of how CO2 emissions create climate disruption are complicated, we’ve been studying it for over 100 years and are as certain about it as we are about the link between smoking cigarettes and cancer. The tactics used to stir doubt about this connection are actually the same used by the tobacco companies. Even more clarifying, the U.S. Military sees this as an imminent and present danger, calling it a “threat multiplier.” How can it be then that we are still having so much trouble accepting and appropriately responding to Climate Change?

About a year ago now, in the midst of trying to make sense of this situation through a two-month long pilgrimage, as I was walking through Syracuse, NY, I walked by a statue in honor of Copernicus. It had an inscription praising his theory that the Earth is not the center of the universe. Today, we take it for granted that the Earth revolves around the Sun. However, 400 years ago this was not just a new scientific idea, it was a deeply divisive, debatable, and danger proposition. At issue was not just a fact, but all that this fact stood for, and the way it threatened to uproot then-modern view of the world as a whole. It challenged people’s sense of the Earth’s, and by extension humanity’s, centrality in the moral order of the universe and the Church’s interpretation of the Bible. Therefore, it challenged people’s sense of self and as well as soul. Adding to this challenge was the fact that this idea was not based on something that was easily observable to the average person. Are you starting to see the connections with Climate Change now?

The threat of Climate Change presents us with a similar challenge and paradigm shift. None of us can directly observe whether any hurricane, drought, or temperature record is a regular fluctuation in weather or part of a global pattern. Weather is consistently unpredictable and weather forecasters get it wrong all the time. Moreover, at issue is not just a matter of random fact. Instead, it challenges our comfortable understanding of human beings having the freedom and wisdom to use the rest of the planet, all of her resources, and all of her species in any way we want. Perhaps we are not even the smartest animals on the planet by every measure. Afterall, no truly intelligent species would destroy their own life-support systems.

Many religious leaders today suggest that our climate and environmental problems call upon us to move from a Biblical ethic of dominion (Genesis 1:26 – 28) to a model of stewardship (Genesis 2:15). However, this stewardship, like a benevolent monarchy, does not go nearly far enough given the scale of change that is required. What is needed is a model of relationship and kinship. As my teacher Rabbi Yehoshua Karsh teaches, perhaps this is exactly why we are called Adam (Earthling) in the Torah. Human beings are not any more of the Earth than anything else that lives here. However, we are the only ones with the capacity to forget our kinship the planet as a whole. In previous generations, when our scientific might was much less developed this was less of a problem. We could kill an animal, a species, or even wipe out an entire eco-system, without much global impact. However, today, our technological and scientific dominance is disrupting so many eco-systems and global climate, that the lives of millions of people across the world are at stake. Perhaps we were named Adam just for a time such as this? Like a time-capsule, the Adamah(Earth) – Adam (Earthling) relationship, has laid in wait for just this generation, beckoning us wake up from the dream that we somehow stand outside of nature and realize the scientific fact that in disrupting ecosystems and climate we are putting our own flesh and blood at risk.

This is not an issue of academics, it’s an issue of entire world view. It affects our sense of not only priorities, but our sense of self. In my former role as a psychotherapist, I would say this is a move from an ego-Self to an eco-Self. Religions throughout the world and secular ethics have long taught us the importance of moving beyond our ego concerns to centering our families, communities, and values. Today’s Climate Crisis calls upon us to continue maturing into an ecological sense of self, remembering that our Adam-Self is in kinship and dependent on a healthy Adamah and all the life within her ecosystems. As we navigate this transition, it will serve us well to remember that a paradigm shift of this magnitude, like the Copernican revolution, will bring up fear and anger, as well as curiosity, wonder, and awe.

I think this emotional awareness can also help us better navigate the political climate (at least in the U.S.) What we call “Climate Denial,” in addition to its political and corporate dimensions, is also a natural psychological coping mechanism for dealing with the scale of adversity before us. While it sounds like a denial of the facts, it’s actually a confession that people are not yet ready for the scale of change which is needed. In some ways, this is closer to acceptance of the scale of our problem than suggestions that we just need more recycling, changing light bulbs, tree planting, or buying of solar panels and electric cars for those wealthy enough. We need system-change, not just small incremental political or consumer-based changes.

We need more compassion for ourselves and for whomever we call our biggest opponents during this time of transition. The change required is both urgent and will probably take centuries to fully play out. In Jewish terms, this may be like the transition from Biblical, Temple-Centered Judaism to a Rabbinic Judaism which centers ritual life in local synagogues and our own homes. This paradigm shift, however, is even bigger. It calls upon all people to mature from a teenager’s aggrandizing sense of self-importance and towards a sense of community with all life and the eco-systems which make all of life possible. This renewed Adam-Adamah relationship and world view calls upon us to utilize ancient wisdom hidden in our holy texts and passed down from parent to child for millennia across world traditions, modern psychology, ecology, and technology. It is a truly global movement, requiring everyone to contribute their skills, political courage from every citizen of every country, consciousness raising and compassion, as well as bold innovation of every kind. As we prepare for Rosh HaShanah, celebrating a New Year of Creation itself, I pray that we begin to reconsider a new relationship with Life. May we be guided by a deep understanding of the danger that humanity’s relationship of dominance over nature has wrought, as well as a deep love of family and the potential for a much more extended sense of family that the model of Adam and Adamah, a kinship with the web of life itself, would provide.

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