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Our Moral Ecology is in Peril

Humans have been at each other's throats throughout history without any consideration for the fact that we are part of an interdependent network that can only thrive when it is cooperative.

Panic has taken over much of the world on the topic of climate change. It is clear to most scientists that the world is in physical danger and that dramatic change must occur, or all that we hold dear will be in peril.

This has occurred because we live in a fragile ecosystem in which interrelated elements depend on one another for survival. If too many of these factors are not sustained, the whole system is compromised and will collapse.

If that realization has finally taken hold in most countries, the concept has most certainly not been applied to human societies, and there is indeed a human ecosystem that has been neglected at least as much as the physical one.

In fact, our moral ecology is in equal peril. Humans have been at each other’s throats throughout history without any consideration for the fact that we are part of an interdependent network that can only thrive when it is cooperative.

The history of the world is the history of war. Man’s efforts to throttle his fellow companion instead of living in peace has a long history. Many people have pondered the question of where God is when there is great suffering in the world, but the truth is that most of the pain of the world is what we inflict on one another.

Many people have pondered the question of where God is when there is great suffering in the world, but the truth is that most of the pain of the world is what we inflict on one another.

There is the occasional bright light of hope to encourage the optimists. The Catholics and Protestants finally realized that they could differ and yet still live in the same world. After a thousand years of war, European countries decided to create an economic union whose interdependence makes war almost impossible. These are huge and impactful developments.

Since the rise of democracies, no democracy has gone to war with another democracy. This is why it is essential that our democracies remain stable and not fall vulnerable to extremism, as they have in recent years. However, the number of democracies is in decline, and this is another blow to our moral ecology.

Judaism’s contribution to the world in this area has been profound. Paul Johnson, a Catholic historian, writes in his “A History of the Jews,” that “thanks to the Jews, we owe the idea of equality before the law, both divine and human; of the sanctity of life and the dignity of the human person; of the individual conscience and so of personal redemption; of the collective conscience and so of social responsibility; of peace as an abstract ideal and love of the foundation of justice, and many other items which constitute the basic moral furniture of the human mind.”

These lessons of Judaism’s moral framework have been adopted by the Western world and once formed the basis for our greatest democracies, but they are beginning to erode. Since the technological revolution following World War Two, the world has changed rapidly, and there is a crisis in the moral sphere to parallel the physical one.

As our arms become ever more sophisticated and lethal, and the world is inundated with power centers, it has never been clearer that we will not fight our way to peace. Victories in war are temporary. Human accord will always triumph over discord, even when it seems impossible; the Abraham Accords were a fantasy a decade ago and now the Gulf States and Israel are linked diplomatically and economically.

All actors on the world stage need to understand that their future, and the world’s fate, depend on our fundamental understanding that we are part of a moral ecosystem and that none will survive unless we all do. As surely as the physical ecosystem can no longer sustain our neglect and abuse, so too our moral ecosystem can no longer bear our hatred and animosity.

In Genesis 6:5, God is described as convinced that Man’s every inclination is toward evil. Yet, after the Flood, He makes a pledge—the sign of the rainbow—never to destroy the world again. For the rest of history, God leaves it to us, the human race, to sustain or destroy our world. An urgent call for a universal commitment to moral ecology should now be the world’s united project.


Dr. Paul Socken is Distinguished Professor Emeritus and founder of the Jewish Studies Program at the University of Waterloo.

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