How (Not) to Trash the Earth

This is disturbing! Did you know there is a garbage dump the size of Texas in the middle of the Pacific? According to an article this morning,

Light bulbs, bottle caps, toothbrushes, Popsicle sticks and tiny pieces of plastic, each the size of a grain of rice, inhabit the Pacific garbage patch, an area of widely dispersed trash that doubles in size every decade and is now believed to be roughly twice the size of Texas.

(Click here for the article in the New York Times and here for pictures of the huge garbage gyre in the Pacific).

Apparently, over the course of decades, the waterways have been naturally consolidating all of our trash – especially plastic – into huge and still-growing areas in 5 of the world’s oceans. I spend a fair amount of time thinking about the environment, so I’m no longer shocked by new studies or statistics on the earth. But this shocked me. It’s so obvious – so plainly in front of our faces. You can’t see global warming; you can’t really see greenhouse gases (though you can see their longterm effects), but you can see huge islands of trash in the ocean, leaking toxic chemicals and altering the makeup of the ocean’s ecosystems. If there was ever solid evidence that humans are having a detrimental effect on the earth, here it is.

What does this have to do with Judaism? Well, Jewish tradition has a very strong ecological ethic at its core, born out of some of the very first verses of the Torah:

וירא אלהים את כל אשר עשה והנה טוב מאד
God looked upon everything that God had made, and saw that it was very good. (Genesis 1:31)

To our tradition, “very good” means that there is divine wisdom and order in the universe. Even for the non-Creationists among us, this resonates, since we can see the beauty of ecosystems and food chains that seem to work together seemlessly. The world is a beautiful place – a kind of well-oiled machine – that continues to astound, surprise, and humble us with its power and its diversity.

So what does that mean for us? It means that the Jewish way to be in the world is to appreciate it for its wisdom and beauty, and to conserve and preserve it as best we can.

  • Appreciating the world, Jewish-style. One way we accomplish this is through saying blessings over food and drink. We don’t often stop to think about those “Baruch atahs,” but they are really a way of recognizing that everything we have is a gift, that we should stop of ask permission before making use of the world’s resources.
  • Conserve and Preserve. The Torah says that humans were placed on earth “L’shomrah ul’olvdah – to care for the land and to work/use it.” We are supposed to utilize the world’s resources in the context of preserving them for others and for future generations. Among other things, the Talmud declares that we are forbidden to waste things that can be used, that humans are not permitted to destroy a species, and that we should take care not to pollute land, air, or water in ways that would cause health problems to others.

Judaism has been teaching for centuries that it is our responsibility to care for the planet. We’re only now getting the message, and change is coming slowly. Our recycling bins and compost bins and hybrid cars are born out of Jewish tradition.

But they sure seem small compared to a Texas-sized trash heap in the ocean.

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