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By Rachel S. Mikva
Rabbi Herman Schaalman Chair in Jewish Studies
Director, CTS Center for Jewish, Christian and Islamic Studies
Some folks insist that environmentalism is only for the rich. When I pay double for cage-free eggs or a premium for my hybrid car or listen sympathetically to a friend who cannot afford to repair her car so that it will pass the emissions test—I recognize privilege is involved. On the other hand, as climate changes escalate and natural resources are depleted, the burden will surely fall disproportionately on the poor, as it always does. They already suffer most from toxic waste and chemical poisoning; from hurricanes, droughts, and other natural disasters. Serious eco-justice work has to account for the intersectionalities of environmental concerns with poverty, power, and context.
Let’s talk about chocolate—not as much fun as eating it, but it provides a useful example.
Environment—You can buy chocolate in the U.S. that is certified organic, with cacao grown in the shade to preserve the surrounding ecosystem and to provide shelter for migratory birds, using less energy than conventional farming. It seems ridiculously expensive, however, generally five times as much as your average Hershey bar—a wealthy person’s indulgence.
Poverty—Over half of the world’s chocolate comes from plantations in West Africa with slave labor conditions and the conscription of young children—more than 200,000 children. Three dollars for a “fair trade” chocolate bar suddenly doesn’t seem out of reach when it allows the people picking the cacao to send their children to school rather than sell them into slavery. We are not entitled to affordable chocolate at the price of human trafficking.
Power—Hershey resisted attempts to force disclosure of their cacao sources, and they will not sign a fair-trade pledge. Were all the world’s major chocolate manufacturers to pull out from West African plantations, it would surely cause massive suffering—but their complicity perpetuates cycles of oppression, illiteracy, poverty, and powerlessness. This is the way we have come to expect power to work in the world. It is a story about chocolate, however, so there is some sweetness. In January, Hershey pledged $10 million toward improving working conditions and combating child labor on the plantations—and announced the introduction of its certified fair-trade organic “Bliss” brand. This is only a beginning… but it turns out there is also power among the ranks of chocolate-loving activists.
Frequently, the story is more complicated. The matrix of concerns raises so many questions that we feel ill-equipped to act and, confounded by our own limitations, we do nothing. Serious eco-justice work must transcend anthropocentrism and recognize the deep ecology of the universe.
Abraham Joshua Heschel cautioned us over fifty years ago (here I gender-sensitize his God in Search of Man):
Our age is one in which usefulness is thought to be the chief merit of nature; in which the attainment of power, the utilization of its resources is taken to be the chief purpose of humanity in God’s creation. Humanity has indeed become primarily a tool-making animal, and the world is now a gigantic tool-box for the satisfaction of our needs.
You may have heard some religious enthusiast quote Genesis 1:28 to rationalize such thinking: Fill the earth and master it….Self-justifying prooftexting is a long-standing tradition; some folks used it to excuse slavery. The Hebrew Bible neither created slavery nor outlawed it—but it did present a God of liberation and a radical equality in creation, and eventually we got the point. Similarly, how could the God of all creation not care if humanity chews up the earth and spits it out, destroying ourselves in the process?
A closer reading of the Hebrew Bible presents manifold ideas about relationship between human beings and the universe, both prescriptive and descriptive. These include Job, itself a multivocal text, but one that surely teaches a deep ecology. When God appears to Job in his suffering, Job is challenged to recognize the integral but finite place of human beings in the universe. It is not to shame Job with his smallness, but to demonstrate that our desires—even for justice—do not establish the summative purpose of creation. At the same time, God calls on Job to clothe himself with glory and majesty, to implement justice as best as he is able within the ecology of existence. The intersections of ecology and justice are, in some measure, beyond our grasp. And yet, this is our charge as well.