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Global Warning

Mark Levene
Jewish Chronicle, 16 January 2004


It's official. Despite the flat-earth, oil-lobby brigade of Senators who can't bring themselves to acknowledge the truth, in a recent edition of Science journal the most senior US government advisers on climate have. It is human activity, they confirm, which is producing today's greenhouse gases and the results are going to be seriously bad for our health. We can expect more frequent heat waves, droughts, extreme precipitation events, and related impacts e.g. wildfires, heat stress, vegetation changes, and sea level rise.

OK, they can't tell us exactly how this will pan out; whether for instance Britain will simply suffer extreme oscillations between drought, flood and storm, or, as some are predicting, a rapid shutting off of the Gulf Stream so that even torrid Bournemouth will be feeling more like Alaska anytime soon. Even so the scientific consensus is increasingly stark. As a group of Dutch boffins calmly put it some years ago, not only is the rate of climate change going to be in excess of anything we've experienced in the past but there are no reasons to expect that humankind or the ecosystems on which it depends will be able to adapt to such rates of change.

Put more starkly still this means that the 21st century is going to be a rather extraordinary one though perhaps apocalyptic might be a better way of putting it. Yes, I admit this is not the sort of prognosis which sits easily within a mainstream Jewish tradition. Christian bible-belt millenarians might revel in the prospect but Jews have had too any encounters with actual catastrophe to be equally enamoured.

Yet look at the origins of Judaism and there's surely something interesting about our religion's historical relationship with the present. Judaism crystallised in a period of accelerating change not to say crisis. Humankind's apparent mastery over nature throughout a vast Eurasian belt in the first millennium BCE helped promote the reality of a widespread market economy and with it the displacement of old thought-systems in which the fate of men was assumed to be in the lap of the Gods. This was truly as Karl Jaspers described it, the Axial Age, a turning point in history in which not only did we humans begin the see the whole picture ­ in itself a giant stepping stone towards monotheism ­ but our central place within it. We could make the world a better place. Or we could wreck it. It is surely no accident either that Judaism's prophetic voice dramatically kicked in during a period of massive political instability in the ancient Near East in the late 6th century BCE. It was our own behaviour, responded the prophets - what we did or did not do - which would determine the wellbeing of future generations.

It is this aspect of Judaism which to me is so compelling and timely. Admittedly, man's relationship to his fellow man and fellow woman rather than his direct relationship to his environment has always been the more foregrounded element. Nevertheless, the connection between the two has also remained implicit. The rampant materialism, greed and exploitation against which Jeremiah and the others raged was not just damaging for the individual it also undermined communal sustainability. It was through such insight that the intense Jewish relationship to notions of social justice was set on course and thereby provided for that awesome responsibility to be a 'light unto the nations'. Rational engagement and interpretation of the world around us combined with the ability to imagine beyond the mundane and parochial; these were the ancient intellectual resources bequeathed to us across time and space.

How sorely we need them now. The world is extremely sick ­ quite possibly terminally so - and only a huge dose of prophetic holism has any chance of healing it. It is paradoxical then the state we ­ as Jews ­ are in. What exactly in this dread time have we to offer to the rest of mankind? The long tradition of attempting to understand and provide answers for the human condition, imperfect as many of those attempts may have been arguably reached its apotheosis in the last century though increasingly in a strongly secular guise. Perhaps it was this very daring, as the late Primo Levi believed, which helped catalyse the Holocaust. Perhaps, too, it is this fate which is the reason why Jews as Jews have turned in on themselves.

Again, there is an enormous paradox here given that in the last half century Jews have become more part of the dominant mainstream than they ever were before. Yet at the same time we as a people have increasingly responded to the problems of humanity as if that entity was only ourselves. Should we really need reminding that atrocity did not end with our attempted extermination? Or that the whole fantasy of 'never again' flies in the face of some fifty genocides and politicides since 1945? This is not to gainsay the suffering which happened and continues to happen to Jews. It is simply to remind ourselves that there is a larger crisis of mankind out there and neither all of its manifestations let alone causes begin or end with violence perpetrated against us.

If the implication then is that the contemporary miseries of the world are closely connected with what man - with very much Western man in the van - is doing to it, one let-out clause might be to say what can we, specifically as Jews living in Britain, do about it ? To propose that the ongoing killing in the Eastern Congo is also our problem in addition to the bombings in Haifa or Herzliya, or that by the same token, every time another lump of Antarctic ice-sheet shears off we should be thinking about drastically changing our lifestyles may seem a tad extreme. On the other hand, maybe it is the very way most Jews now live which precludes us from seeing the connections.

Not recognising that the planet is in environmental free-fall is, of course, hardly peculiar to us. On the contrary, it¹s an aspect of a very general blocking out of the natural world by an increasingly urban not to say metropolitan society. How can one know, for instance, that bee populations are in catastrophic decline until the broad beans which they pollinate fail to show up in our supermarkets? Any society which almost entirely consumes as opposed to produces is hardly going to have an inkling about basic realities. In such a world, taking the kids to school in some ridiculous petrol-guzzling machine becomes a fundamental right just as does having a mobile phone by dint of a continuous supply of the mostly Congolese-extracted Coltan required to run it.

Statistically speaking the only thing peculiarly Jewish about all this is that because we're more metropolitan and prosperous than the national average the more likely we are to be such gross consumers. But what should matter profoundly to us as recipients of the prophetic tradition is knowing how this dysfunctional system has arisen and where it is taking us. Not only is it founded on an entirely predatory rigging of the market whose debit side is the immiseration of millions of people throughout this planet but its accelerated globalising diktat is taking us all, oppressed and unthinking oppressors alike, on a roller coaster quite literally into the jaws of hell. The extinction of great swathes of the planet's bio-diversity may for some simply be a sad casualty in the march of progress. But what it is actually telling us is that what we are doing is simply insupportable and unsustainable. Indeed, it is the most obvious, chilling warning that we will be next.

As a specific cognitive group of that endangered species, then, we have our own stark choice. We can support that tendency - call it neo-conservatism - as that's its current hegemonic nomenclature - which wants, above all, to seize any available oil so that we, Westerners, can have it, before it rather rapidly runs out ­regardless, of course, of what that means for the majority or for the planet. Or we can remind ourselves of the point of the jeremiads. We are destroying the world we live in. If we want to do something about it we have to start by offering an example of something better, something which is more than simply a technical fix, something which genuinely offers hope for humanity.

Strangely, all roads would inevitably seem to come back at this point to that land we call Israel and the other people who also happen to live there or would like to return to, call Palestine. If ever there was a place which is a testing ground for a new visionary approach, this is it. In the 20th century there was a wisdom that you could divide the entire world into discrete, bounded states which the different nations could then inhabit in peace. Put to one side the issue of what or who constitute nations. The bankruptcy of the very idea is actually demonstrable in Israel-Palestine perhaps more than anywhere else. And for a very simple reason: two people, same land, one basic elemental resource, not oil but water. You can try and equitably divide the land but it's much more difficult to divide the water, especially if the critical reserve of that scarce resource lies underneath you in the aquifers. If one side decides that the aquifers all belong to it and then proceeds to massively squander that life-giving resource, you can bet you'll have violence and conflict for the rest of one's limited history.

Yet a world of resource scarcity is also one in which we can begin to recognise and act upon in the interests of our common humanity. This is hardly a new revelation. More than a century ago, Ahad Ha'am pointed out how limited the scope for Jewish colonisation already was and how flouting Arab rights would amongst other things threaten the very integrity of the Jewish enterprise. Fifty years later in 1946 Judah Magnes and Martin Buber integrated this insight into a positive proposal, submitted to the newly formed United Nations. They 'imagined' a bi-national state in Palestine, in other words, Jews and Arabs sharing the precious resource which is the Holy Land.

It's absolutely true that this is a notion far removed from today's supposed 'practical' politics. And if they were alive now Buber and Magnes would undoubtedly be derided by the Zionist establishment as they were then. Yet our perilous global situation actually demands exactly this sort of local yet utterly visionary prescience.

Our evolutionary hardwiring seems to have entirely failed to equip us to imagine our world two, three let alone two or three hundred generations hence. Most of us would say it is not worth thinking about because the prospect is so unimaginably awful. Science may be able come to a rescue up to a point. But the current and dominant application of science is geared towards the corporate, hubristic and entirely short-termist interests of the globalising asset-strippers, not those who would nurture and save the world for the generations to come.

A few weeks back the Jewish Chronicle carried a picture of an Israeli-produced gun that can shoot round corners. Maybe there are those who think we can shoot our way out of our global crisis. Perhaps they need reminding of what that Gentile visionary, Martin Luther King, had to say on the matter : "It's no longer a choice between violence and non-violence: it's a choice between non-violence and non-existence."

Have we as Jews anything with which to reciprocate? For sure, the world is becoming a very dangerous place ­ symptomatic indeed of how serious the systemic dysfunction has become. In the circumstances, the most obvious tribalistic response would be to bury our heads in our own sorrows and tell the rest of the world where it can get off. Alternatively, in a spirit of humility and genuine sharing we could attempt to recover the prescience of the prophetic tradition which is at the core of Judaism's universal relevance.

Dr Mark Levene is deputy head of the Parkes Institute for Jewish/non-Jewish relations at the University of Southampton and co-founder of the Forum for the Study of Crisis in the 21st Century.

last updated 26 March, 2004


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