Misplaced Zeal

The powerful swell of voices on Broadway, thirteen stories below Agudath Israel’s offices, did more than disturb my concentration. A thousand people were blocking traffic and loudly chanting in unison, the roar less redolent of “Hashem Hu ha’Elokim!” at Ne’ilah’s end than of what I imagine “Kill the Jews!” must have sounded like during pogroms. Which was ironic, considering that, in light of the cause and location, a large number of the shouters were likely Jewish.

The “Flood Wall Street” event was but a weak echo of what had taken place a day earlier, when an estimated 300,000 people (including members of close to 100 Jewish groups, parts of the “Jewish Climate Campaign”), participated in the “People’s Climate March” on the West Side of Manhattan. But the smaller demonstration was large enough and loud enough for me. I had to wonder what made the chanting seem so sinister.

It may have had to do with something the late writer Michael Crichton famously asserted, that people “have to believe in something that gives meaning” to their lives, and that “environmentalism seems to be the religion of choice for urban atheists.”

Environmentalism, Mr. Crichton elaborated, posits “an initial Eden, a paradise, a state of grace and unity with nature,” then “a fall from grace into a state of pollution as a result of eating from the tree of knowledge”— i.e. technology and exploitation of natural resources — and that “as a result of our actions there is a judgment day coming for us all.”

“We are all energy sinners,” he concluded, paraphrasing the new religion’s world-view, “doomed to die, unless we seek salvation.”

MIT Meteorology Professor Richard Lindzen similarly labeled environmentalism a religion, its devotees convinced “that they are in possession of a higher truth” and intolerant of “heretics, or ‘climate change deniers,’ to use green parlance.”

And so it may have been religious zeal that I heard in the din from below. And while zeal is a good thing when sourced in commitment to the true religion, its emergence from a misguided one is cause for alarm. (See: Medieval Christianity, Radical Islamism…)

To be sure, the earth’s climate is changing. But it has changed many times over the millennia, even over recent centuries. Enviro-zealots are convinced that the current climate change signals the end of the world (or, at least, the destruction of the world as we know it), and that humanity is at fault for the impending doom (and has the power to head it off).

Some of us, though, feel that a passuk we recite daily — “Tremble before Him, all the earth; indeed, the world is fixed so that it cannot falter” (Divrei Hayomim 1, 16:30) — reassures us that Hashem has built self-correcting mechanisms into nature, and that our zeal should be reserved for Torah-study and mitzvos.

For daring to challenge the contemporary party line, though, anyone in the least skeptical about the planet’s prognosis is vilified by those who believe that humans can break and, alone, make the earth. The protesters were not just vocal and loud, they were angry.

A recent ScienceTimes section in the New York Times was dedicated largely to cris de coeur about climate change. Hidden among the Chicken Little alarms, however, were some interesting tidbits.

Like the fact that polar bears on Hudson Bay, deprived of ice coverage, and thus seals, in the summer, are feasting instead on a windfall of snow geese, birds that, due to the same warming that caused the ice to recede, have migrated north from the American south and Midwest. And that some varieties of soybeans “grow especially well in high carbon dioxide levels.”  And that in naturalist Diane Ackerman’s words, “A warmer world won’t be terrible for everyone and it’s bound to inspire new technologies and good surprises…”  And that Mongolian herders, deprived by drought of grasslands, have been moving to cities, where members of families of erstwhile nomads are now gainfully employed and enjoying the benefits of electricity and indoor plumbing for the first time.

None of which is to deny the possibility that we do well to explore alternate energy sources and pollute less. It’s only to note the deep complexity and unpredictability of change in the natural world, and the great resourcefulness and creativity that Hashem has planted in human minds.

And to lead us to consider that environmentalism may be but the latest of the “isms” about which Harav Elchonon Wasserman, Hy”d, warned.