July 21, 2019

Jews in the Anthropocene Epoch

I was at a screening last week for a new documentary on Zionism. A good-sized crowd of donors, activists and people concerned with Israel’s present and future turned out. There were speeches, the doc, more speeches, a Q-and-A. Then, just as the director thanked everyone for coming, and we all rose to leave, the owner of the theater leapt up and said, “Just a second!”

He introduced himself as Dr. Joel Shapiro, the founder of the Electric Lodge in Venice, the venue where we had all gathered. He told us that the entire theater runs on solar power — it actually sells electricity back to the grid — and that it has charging stations outside for electric cars. His goal, he said, is to make Electric Lodge a model for how theaters, museums and other institutions can go green and fight global warming.

Shapiro spoke in a torrent, but people were already halfway out the door. They had two hours for saving Israel, but he struggled to keep their attention to wedge in 30 seconds on saving the Earth.

Maybe, I thought, we need to step back and reconsider our priorities.

I am not, I hasten to add, suggesting we stop caring about, teaching about, fighting about Israel. I’m just wondering if it’s time to redirect some of our time, talent and resources to this other cause, as well.

Because here’s the bottom line: If the nearly 100 percent of scientists who concur on the causes and effects of global warming are correct — and at this point it’s just the rocket scientists over at Fox & Friends who doubt them — then the world won’t have Israel to kick around much longer. Or Jews. Or any of us.

On Oct. 24, scientists meeting in Berlin are slated to officially adopt a name for our epoch: the Anthropocene. Geologic time is divided= into eras, periods, epochs and ages. We all know ages — Jews appeared in the Bronze Age and, as peoples go, have had a remarkably long run.

Epochs slice a bigger chunk of time, according to measures taken from sedimentary rock, fossil and chemical indicators. We are currently listed as belonging to the Holocene Epoch, which started 11,700 years in the past.

But on Oct. 23, the Anthropocene Working Group (AWG) will decide whether to recommend that the massive changes humankind has wrought on our environment require a new nomenclature. Thanks to us, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are now greater than they have been since humans appeared 2.6 million years ago, and oceans have reached peak levels not seen in 6,000 years.

“There have been hotter periods, such as the Jurassic, when there was no ice at the poles and there was a rainforest in Greenland,” Jan Zalasiewicz, a stratigraphic geologist at the University of Leicester and a member of the AWG, told the British newspaper The Telegraph, “but they came upon the planet slowly. The same thing happening in 50 to 100 years is off the scale.”

If only this renaming were just an academic exercise leading to a new Wikipedia entry. But epochs are marked by mass extinction — and our extinction levels are off the charts. Some 90 percent of the world’s large fish have disappeared in the past 60 years because of industrialized fishing, according to a 2003 report. One half of all wildlife on Earth has become extinct in the past 40 years, according to a report released just last month. That’s a rate 100 to 1,000 times the pre-human level. Swedish scientists have warned that human life cannot withstand an extinction rate far lower than that.

As a community, I know we are not blind to this. Our synagogues adopt green programs. A handful of our organizations work to educate and lobby for carbon-reduction and alternative energy. But here’s my question: Isn’t it time we all do more?

Every synagogue and Jewish institution needs to move climate change and environmental stewardship up the ranks of its priorities. There are a thousand ways to get involved: Pick the ones that leverage your strengths. Tell friends of Israel — for example Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper — that the more he can do to reduce the exploitation of crude oil from the tar sands, the better for us all — including Israel. Screen the movie “Fuel” for your congregation. Make sure your elected representatives know it’s time for the U.S. to offer more incentives for people to use the many proven alternatives to gasoline. Make personal choices that reflect your concern: Solar in your homes and businesses, higher-mileage cars. You want to attract the next generation? Help them fight to make sure their children won’t be saying Kaddish for the planet.

Unfortunately, corporate interests and their legislative and media lackeys have politicized science and the solutions it offers. In many ways, the Jewish community is uniquely positioned to cut across those ideological divides. Polls show the majority of Jews of all political stripes are pro-environment.

Perhaps that’s because we understand that saving Israel and ensuring the future of Jewish people won’t matter at all on an uninhabitable planet.

Jews appeared on the scene some 2,500 to 3,000 years ago. Israel took shape over the past 100 years. These are blips in the realm of Big History — but we can use our time here to help preserve and extol the Creation that God deemed “Good.”

It is not enough to worry just about defending Israel and passing along our heritage. We also have to worry —really worry — about passing along our planet.

Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can
follow him on Twitter @foodaism