Like many people, I am very troubled by the modern world’s extreme, exploitative consumption of the environment. And my concern is not just for the ideal of preserving nature, but practically, for the well-being of humanity. Because our rape and abuse of the environment clearly is boomeranging back to harm us, and will continue to do so more and more if we don’t act more sensibly, responsibly and with more foresight. What I would like to ask is: If and what Judaism might say about this? Thank you.
Regarding the Torah’s general approach to environmental preservation, mankind’s Divinely-given dominion over the earth (Gen. 1:28) is qualified in the Torah as a mandate to guard and protect it: “And G‑d took man and placed him in the Garden of Eden, to work it and to guard it” (Gen. 2:15). Thus, the Torah attitude is not to conquer the world by raping it and destroying its resources, but rather to both permit and obligate: cultivation with concern, progress with restraint, growth with conservation, and technology with preservation.
A Midrash (Kohelet Rabbah 7:13) beautifully summarizes the Torah approach to environmental issues: “When the Holy One, Blessed Be He, created the first man, he took him and showed him all the trees of the Garden of Eden and said to him, “See My works, how beautiful and praiseworthy they are; and I created all of it for you. Be careful not to spoil or destroy My world, because if you spoil it, there will be no one after you to repair it”.
Regarding your specific, practical concern, the Talmud (Baba Kama 50b) presents an exemplary teaching via the following story: A man was discarding unwanted stones from his property into the public domain. A pious man who observed him said, “You wicked fool! Why are you removing stones from another’s domain [by which he meant to say that it is his today, but will be another’s tomorrow] into your own domain [the public realm is forever for all, including himself]”? But the man jeered at the pious person’s observation [not understanding his intention]. It wasn’t long before the man was obliged to sell his field, and, while walking along the same road, he stumbled over the very stones he had discarded there. He then exclaimed, “How correct were the words of the pious man when he said, ‘Why are you removing stones from another’s domain into your own’!”
This is an explicit criticism of the tendency of people, out of self-centered interest, to secure their own immediate needs in their own narrow space, despite its harmful effect on the world around them. And what’s worse, their selfish short-sightedness blinds them to the fact that they are ultimately harming themselves through the very means by which they seek self-betterment.
Unfortunately, the modern world’s lack of concern for the environment has escalated this harmful dynamic to a global scale. In the name of progress, but motivated by profit, we have “improved” our relatively narrow sphere of life while casting the resulting unwanted debris into the public realm, thereby polluting and contaminating the air we breathe; the water we drink and from whose life we feed; as well as the earth whose growth we eat and whose creatures we consume. It’s no wonder we are plagued with the most malicious of maladies, as we constantly breathe, eat and drink the very unwanted wastes we expel into realms we consider outside of our own, but are just as much “ours”, if not more so, than any of our narrow “patches”.
And speaking of patches, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a perfect example of this. In the North Pacific Gyre, which is the largest ecosystem on earth, an incredibly vast area of ocean is polluted with vast amounts of our discarded plastic, collected by currents from around the globe and captured in the gyre. This patch covers 1.6 million square kilometers, contains an estimated 80,000 metric tons of plastic, and consists of 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic! And the patch is rapidly accumulating, as are similar such patches in the Atlantic Ocean and the other ocean gyres. It is beyond our scope to detail the alarming damage this causes to the environment, and the manifold ways it ultimately harms humans worldwide. But even a little thought goes a long way toward understanding how we’re stumbling over our own unwanted, discarded waste.
As if the damage we’re causing ourselves from the self-centered stumbling stones we’ve scattered in the air, earth, and water across the globe is not enough, we still haven’t learned the simple teaching recorded in the Talmud so long ago, and now we’re doing the same thing to the next great frontier – Space. According to the European Space Agency (ESA), over 5000 launches into space over the last 60 years have resulted in about 42,000 tracked, free-floating fragments and an estimated 170 million total pieces of debris!
Much of this space debris actually re-enters our atmosphere, from dozens to hundreds of times a year, including occasional significant episodes. In 1979, the re-entry of NASA’s 154,000 lb. Skylab rained space junk all over Australia. The 2001 re-entry of the even larger 286,000 lb. Russian space station Mir was just as earth-shattering. After China lost contact with its space station Tiangong, resulting in its plummeting, uncontrolled re-entry of 2018, this 19,000 lb. hurtling schoolbus-sized debris raised great concern as experts were unsure where it might strike.
In one notable event, a woman was actually struck “out of nowhere” by a piece of space debris in Oklahoma in 1997. Larger pieces from that same re-entry landed in several places in Texas, including right in a farmer’s front yard. More recently, a hiker in Colorado found a titanium tank from a Russian upper-stage rocket launched in 2011. As Earth’s orbit becomes more and more crowded with junk, our space-strewn debris will increasingly return to haunt us, and it seems only a matter of time until what has been mainly misses might hit more and more close to “home”.
I’ll conclude by adding that Judaism’s attitude toward protecting nature is not just for tangible results in the present. The Torah also teaches to plan preservation strategies for the future. The Talmud (Ta’anit 23b) relates that Choni HaMe’agel was walking on the way and saw a man planting a carob tree. He asked the man, “How long until this tree will produce fruit?” He answered that it will take seventy years. Choni asked him, “Are you sure that you’ll still be around in seventy years?” The man replied, “Just as my fathers planted for me, so will I plant for my children”.
Thus, in addition to being wise and alert enough not to scatter and be harmed by our own self-centered stumbling stones, we also need to be far-sighted enough to bequeath the world in its G‑d given state to our children, and not discard stones which, even if they may not currently harm us, most likely will be injurious stumbling stones to our progeny.
- Ask the Rabbi, The Environment, https://ohr.edu/this_week/ask_the_rabbi/1950
- Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Pacific_garbage_patch
- Hamodia, Binyan, issue 361, pg. 16, Chinese Space Station