Under normal circumstances, I would consider the effort by liberal Jews to shove Judaism into secular environmentalism to be intellectually dishonest. In the words of Norman Podhoretz, they believe in the “Torah of liberalism” rather than the Torah of Judaism. Their feeble effort to distort the truth by cherry-picking few texts [usually out of context] is mendacious at best, and at worst, is a morally repugnant form of presenting one’s views. However, one has to seriously take King Solomon’s advice (Proverbs 3:6) when he says that you shall “acknowledge Him in all your ways, and He will smooth your paths.” What exactly does that mean? According to Metzudos, “In all that you do [own emphasis added], know HaShem. Create a ‘mindset’ that the purpose of whatever you do is the fulfillment of G-d’s will. Then He will direct your path and you will succeed.” I can direct this in general terms towards Orthodox Jews and non-Orthodox Jews alike. For the Orthodox, this means that living in His ways is not excluded to ritual, i.e., the only indicators of a good Jew are if you keep kosher or Shabbos. For the non-Orthodox, this means that your private life is not severed from your public life, i.e., what I do in synagogue stays in synagogue. Everything you do, from what you eat or wear to how you conduct business or interpersonal relations, is for His will. As we will discover shortly, environmentalism is no exception.
Approaching this from a secular approach, in my view, is a poor idea. As the saying goes, “business is business.” Torah recognizes that man has a tendency to give into its yetzer hara (Genesis 8:22), although man has the ability to overcome it (ibid. 4:7). As Adam Smith postulates in his book A Wealth of Nations, we are greatly persuaded by our self-interest, which means that in this scenario that the only way one can succeed at being environmentally sound is to infuse it with the incentive that the “invisible hand” provides in the free market. If you need any proof of that theory, look no further than the last Copenhagen conference about the supposed global warming issue. Notice how China and India, the two nations that are emitting more carbon than any other nations because of economic growth, are choosing economic development over environmental concerns. In its present state, choosing the environment over the economy is irrational. The top priority in the secular world is that self-interest, and an impetus for responsibility for one’s fellow man is, at best, secondary. In order to find any sense of personal responsibility towards others, one needs to take a more G-dly look at it.
Going back to the Garden of Eden, we see two seemingly contradictory sides of man. First, we are told in Genesis 1:28 to “be fruitful and multiply, and subdue it [the land].” G-d commands us that we have dominion of the earth. On the other hand, He tells us to “till and keep it,” denoting stewardship of the planet. We are simultaneously told to domineer and protect the land. Rather than view these two divine mandates as dichotomous, we should view them as a duality. “For my sake was the world made (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5).” Being created in His image, the universe was created for man. Man is meant to use the natural resources that G-d has provided. It does not mean that we exploit those resources to the point where we are left with nothing. This was the realization that Adam made in Genesis 2. As R. Soloveitchik, z”tl, pointed out in The Lonely Man of Faith, “He encounters the universe in all its colorfulness, splendor, and grandeur, and studies it with the naïveté, awe, and admiration of the child who seeks the unusual and wonderful in every ordinary thing and event.” In order to figure out how these two aspects of man's nature become attuned with one another, one first has to look at Jewish law and how it handles the interaction with nature, with specific regard to the prohibition of b'al tashchit, or wanton destruction.
Jewish Law and Environmentalism
For taking place in a nomadic, agricultural society, it amazes me that amongst other values that Judaism purports, one of those messages happens to be environmental. As week look at these concepts, we need to keep in mind what the Midrash has to say about our responsibility to the environment:
“When God created the first human beings, God led them around the Garden of Eden and said: “Look at my works! See how beautiful they are—how excellent! For your sake I created them all. See to it that you do not spoil and destroy My world; for if you do, there will be no one else to repair it.”
-Midrash Kohelet Rabbah, 1 on Ecclesiastes 7:13
The Torah tells us to create green belts around cities (Numbers 35:4). Leviticus 19:19 prohibits grafting diverse seeds and cross-breeding animals, thereby showing respect for biodiversity. Deuteronomy 23:12 deals with issues of waste disposal, i.e., public sanitation issues. Although the Baba Batra primarily deals with property rights, it still has thourough discussions on air, water, and noise pollution. In terms of strict exploitation, we are even supposed to give animals, as well as the land, a rest during Shabbos. Speaking of giving the land a rest, we have laws of shemita, which is when a Jew gives the land a year’s rest once every seven years. This translates into "thou shall not cause soil erosion."
There are other laws highlighted here, but I really want to focus on Ba’al taschit, not committing wanton destruction, because it is the impetus most cited by Jewish environmentalists. It is based on Deuteronomy 20:19-20 that states that one is to be so careful as to not destroy an enemy’s fruit tree during a time of war. The Sefer Ha Chaniuch (529) expounds on this concept, and says that a righteous person would not even consider destroying a mustard seed because such destruction is considered wicked. If we are supposed to show such attentiveness to something as tiny as a mustard seed, we should have a similar awareness towards the rest of limited resources. But that still doesn't give us a clear heading as to how we should view our role with nature and how we go about using natural resources. The Chatam Sofer, upon analyzing Bava Kamma 92a, is trying to figure out whether it is halachically acceptable to fell a tree in order to build a house. In the larger scheme of things, this is what he conlcudes:
As long as he is not certain that the gain from cutting down the tree is greater than the value of the fruit it bears he is forbidden to cut it down and there is a danger as well, even in a case which is there is a doubt as to the value. This is my opinion. But if he stands to profit, even if only to build houses, which, in our time and place is a more important need than date palms, there is no doubt that it is permitted; however, if the tree can be uprooted with some soil and replanted at another site it is forbidden to cut down the tree. This is my humble opinion.
Quoting Sviva Israel, this is what has to be conluded about the nature of B'al Taschit: The prohibition of Bal Tashchit is not based on the idea that it is forbidden for me to waste resources; rather on the idea that every object in the world has a fundamental right to continue to exist as it is. God created nature, and, in principle, He wishes for it to remain as it was created, without being destroyed or moved, and it is this idea that implies that destruction of natural resources is prohibited without ample justification. When is such destruction justified? When it is done for a useful purpose. In other words, it is not the case that nature is a resource available to me, and if I destroy it I am wasting one of my resources, and therefore I am not allowed to destroy these resources without adequate reason. Instead the idea is that I am permitted to use natural resources, just like I am permitted to use animals for food and clothing. However, fundamentally nature should remain in its pristine state. The use of any natural resource must take into account the entire balance of rights - man’s needs and nature’s rights [own emphasis added]."
What This Means for Us in the Twenty-First Century
As stated above, we are meant to balance our needs with the right of nature to exist in its original state of being. This means that environmentalism has to fit within Judaism, not the other way around. One of the purposes of Shabbat, as stated by R. Samuel Dresner in his work The Sabbath, is to be at peace [and rest] with nature. If Shabbat has been considered by the Sages to be a "taste of the World to Come," surely we must consider our ideal relationship with nature not to be strictly exploitative, but rather harmonious.
As Rabbi Yossi Ives states, Jews need to be at the forefront of this issue. If we are supposed to be אור לגוים (a light unto nations), then we should act like it. As Rabbi Ives states, he is dismayed that G-d-fearing Jews are not discussing the issues at hand. This is not something that should be left for the Left because they will complain how we really shouldn't use any resources and how we should consider ourselves "just another species of animal." They will bring neither balance nor moderation to the issue, which is why I respect the Jewish response precisely because it does. The Torah teaches us to create social harmony by being servants of Hashem, which I have outlined in regards to environmentalism.
In short, we have an imperative to be environemntally conscious. Although COEJL is not a bad source, I would highly recommend Canfei Nesharim primarily for the reason that it deals with environmental issues from the lens of Torah, rather than secular thought. Whether it is over-consumption, water contamination, or energy shortages, I hope that we all can find well-balanced solutions to environmental issues.