Sunday, January 10, 2016

Exacerbating Climate Change: Why do people pursue evil policies?

by Andy Oram

Is there an evil force in the universe? We frequently undergo the temptation to say so. How can one shake off the gut sense that an evil force is responsible for the Shoah, and the zeal with which ordinary people across the European continent embraced the worst abuses of the Nazis? Regarding the ease with which self-satisfied Americans incorporated slavery, Jim Crow, and the slaughter of native peoples into their supposedly free society is another temptation to view evil as an intractable force in the world. Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Human sex trafficking.

And now we have climate change. When one thinks that ordinary people subvert the political process to build up wealth that their grandchildren will not enjoy due to the devastation of the Earth, one is hard pressed to find any explanation except the intervention of a conscious evil.

Jews are familiar with evil in personage of Satan--accuser, in Hebrew--who appears in the book of Job as a servant of God, and is known in various between-the-testaments sources by a number of other names, such as Samael and Mastema). We refuse to recognize a demiurge in the Manichean or Gnostic sense--there is no spiritual anti-deity who vies with God to create evil in the world. Evil was created by the shattering of the vessels during creation, and is an emanation of God. So Satan is less than an enemy of God, but more than a Moishe Oofnik. He entered the snake to cause Eve’s downfall, is credited with the death of Sarah in various ways, and is the cause of much evil.

To understand Satan, I turned to Legends of the Bible, by Louis Ginzberg. There, Satan is one of the greatest of God’s angels, and is offended by God’s command to bow down to Adam (p. 33). The question of his motivation gets subtle (like the snake in Eden). The Christian view of Satan’s fall, as reported for instance by Milton in Paradise Lost, attributes his rebellion to pride, which reflects that trait’s position as a major sin in Christian eyes. In the Jewish legend, Satan balks for more principled reasons. He seems to believe that God is violating his own order (like many a faithful lieutenant, Satan applies the leader's principles more strictly than the leader ever intended):

Satan [complained] “Thou didst create us angels from the splendor of the Shkhinah, and now Thou dost command us to cast ourselves down before the creature which Thou didst fashion from the dust of the ground!” God answered, “Yet this dust of the ground has more wisdom and understanding than thou.”

Note how God refers to the newly being: “this dust of the ground” (of course, the name Adam is associated with the word for “ground” in Hebrew). God’s answer takes us to the core of the evil behind climate change. He indicates that Adam was in touch with the Earth, from whence came “wisdom and understanding” about how to treat it. Satan was a creature purely of Heaven and therefore unaware of the Earth’s necessities.

Perhaps the Jewish tradition needed Satan because in those days no one could imagine people who evolve so far away from the “dust of the ground” that they lose Adam’s wisdom and understanding. In our day, many have lost that connection with the Earth. That is why Satan’s evil is among us in the form of climate change.

Andy Oram is a writer and editor at O'Reilly Media, a leading media outlet in the computer field. He is also on the Leadership Team of the Jewish Climate Action Network and active in other progressive political organizations, and a member of Temple Shir Tikvah of Winchester, Mass. Some of his writings can be found at

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