Sunday, September 2, 2018

Earth Etude for Elul 23 - Working Together: Will a Single Plan Ameliorate Climate Disruption?

by Andy Oram

Climate disruption is a universal scourge that requires a coordinated worldwide response. As such, it is a constant frustration to activists who wish that institutions everywhere could collaborate on implementing the Paris accords and to do even more. We often lament that governments and companies go their own ways, violating their own promises to hold back carbon production. Why can't humanity learn to work together in its own interest?

Recourse to Jewish traditional texts can help us accept this situation. In particular, the story of the building and destruction of Babel warns us about a too consistent conformity. In the book Subversive Sequels in the Bible: How Biblical Stories Mine and Undermine Each Other, scholar Judy Klitsner investigates the mysterious question of why God disapproved of Babel's efforts. Her conclusion is that God reacted negatively to the very existence of a coordinated effort that buried the individuality of the participants. She also ties the conformity of Babel to that of the Egyptians in Exodus, where only the courageous dissent of midwives Shifra and Puah reversed the trend toward destruction.

Babel's inhabitants started out in disobedience of God's injunction to humanity to fill the earth (Genesis 1:28 and 9:1), coming together in a city. Klitsner further cites a 19th-century Lithuanian author, Netziv, who suggests that Babel built the tower so they could spy on all the people around them and stamp out disobedience. God thwarts this authoritarianism by scattering the people of Babel, and later rescues the Israelites who had succumbed to the conformity forced on them by Pharaoh and lost their capacity to fight back. The resistance to Pharoah coalesced from the separate actions of midwives, Moses’ parents, Miriam, Pharoah’s own daughter, and Moses himself.

Coming back to modern times, we recognize that fixing the climate requires manifold approaches that wouldn't adapt well to a single vision. We wouldn't do well, for instance, to impose a single technology on everyone regardless of geography and economic differences. As technologies improve, different communities and institutions need flexibility to choose the most efficient one that meets their needs. Carbon pricing (a mechanism invented by political conservatives) cleverly recognizes the wisdom of giving incentives to find separate ways to a common goal.

When US federal leaders withdrew from the Paris climate accords on July 1, 2017, and then took steps to weaken environmental protections, the climate movement discovered its far-flung strengths. Some 2,500 individuals and institutions--including states and cities--signed the “We Are Still In” campaign, and at least in the short term, the US’s carbon emissions decreased. In the long run, of course, national and international institutions must recommit to fighting climate disruption. But renewed national efforts will draw on robust local ones.

In Exodus, the Pharaoh was defeated by many individuals finding adaptive ways forward, sharing a common vision of freedom and human dignity but using the unique tools available to each person. Climate change also requires a clear vision of the threats facing us, but a willingness to change direction on the way to ameliorating the problem.

Andy Oram is a writer and editor at O'Reilly Media, a technology publisher and conference provider. A member and past president of Temple Shir Tikvah in Winchester, Massachusetts, he is currently interim secretary of the Jewish Climate Action Network. Some of his other writings can be found at and

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