By Richard Gwynallen
Tu B’Shevat Musings
Liberating the earth from capital
Kohelet Rabbah: 7:13
רְאֵה אֶת מַעֲשֵׂה הָאֱלֹהִים כִּי מִי יוּכַל לְתַקֵּן אֵת אֲשֶׁר עִוְּתוֹ, בְּשָׁעָה שֶׁבָּרָא הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא אֶת אָדָם הָרִאשׁוֹן, נְטָלוֹ וְהֶחֱזִירוֹ עַל כָּל אִילָנֵי גַּן עֵדֶן, וְאָמַר לוֹ, רְאֵה מַעֲשַׂי כַּמָּה נָאִים וּמְשֻׁבָּחִין הֵן, וְכָל מַה שֶּׁבָּרָאתִי בִּשְׁבִילְךָ בָּרָאתִי, תֵּן דַּעְתְּךָ שֶׁלֹא תְקַלְקֵל וְתַחֲרִיב אֶת עוֹלָמִי, שֶׁאִם קִלְקַלְתָּ אֵין מִי שֶׁיְתַקֵּן אַחֲרֶיךָ,
When the Holy One blessed be He created Adam the first man, He took him and showed him all the trees in the Garden of Eden, and He said to him: ‘See My creations, how beautiful and exemplary they are. Everything I created, I created for you. Make certain that you do not ruin and destroy My world, as if you destroy it, there will be no one to mend it after you . . . “
With Tu B’Shevat approaching, many in the Jewish community turn their thoughts to trees and more broadly to the earth. For myself, I brought a prior passion for the environment and social equality into my Judaism. I entered with a deep feeling that religion and spirituality should connect one to the larger world, and to have something to say about the stewardship of our world. Consequently, I always liked Tu B’Shevat. I like the D’vrei Torah emphasizing our connection to the natural world. I like the rituals around it. I like the moment we take to remind ourselves of these connections and our responsibilities to protect the earth and pass down a healthy world to our future generations. I like the sense of spirituality drawn from the land. While it is more cleanly stated in Kohelet Rabbah (7:13), I like the fact that we can find those connections in many of our texts.
There is a lot written on Tu B’Shevat and the New Year of the Trees, and even more on how trees play a central role in many Jewish teachings, including Torah, Talmud, and Jewish mysticism. Trees stand at the very heart of much Jewish imagery and meditations. I won’t be going into a lot of detail about that. In this discussion I am going to explore ideas around the urgency of what Tu B’Shevat and the values expressed through it could compel us toward.
As to urgency, more than three decades since warnings started about climate change, neither the dire warnings of scientists nor the consequences of extreme weather have fundamentally altered the global response to climate change. The International Energy Agency, an intergovernmental advisory agency, released a roadmap to achieving a net-zero global energy sector by 2050. It calls for “unparalleled changes across all parts of the energy sector . . . simultaneously”. It requires a massive reallocation of resources, directing social resources to meet social needs not private profit. It requires a rational economic plan coordinated on a global level.
Yet, such reallocation and planning will not come within the existing economic system. This point was underscored in recent weeks when Harvard University and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research released the first ever study of oil industry research on climate change, offering one of the clearest pictures to date of the role of capital in creating the climate crisis.
I start from the premise that we must see ourselves as stewards of the world, not just for our immediate well being, but for the sake of our future generations. We must individually and communally come to see our responsibilities as part of what is commonly expressed in North America as the Seventh Generation Principle; drawing upon the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) philosophy that the decisions we make today should benefit the people seven generations from today. In the words of the Seneca and Onondaga leader, Oreon Lyons: ” . . ., when you sit in council for the welfare of the people, you must not think of yourself or of your family, not even of your generation. . . ., make your decisions on behalf of the seven generations coming, so that they may enjoy what you have today.”
In recent years, there has been a growing understanding across the branches of Judaism that we can no longer ignore the massive impact that our global society is having on the ecosystems of the earth. At the same time, the problem is often expressed as “our unbounded use of fossil fuels”, our energy-intensive lifestyles”, “our growing demand for timber and beef”.
The problem often gets expressed as a consumer problem requiring lifestyle adjustments from everyone. None of us escape our culture. Colonialism, capitalism, consumer society, modernity has affected all of us. In July 1980 I sat on a South Dakota prairie and heard the Indigenous leader John Trudell give a powerful speech. In part of it, he said, “We must become of a resistance consciousness. We must say that, “We will not allow you to smash us, even if it means that we have to deal with that part of you that you planted in me . . .”
But are we equally to blame? Are our lifestyle habits the root of the problem? What is required to ensure life on earth?
In that same speech, Trudell also said: “Only by fulfilling our obligation to the earth can we fulfill our obligation to the people. Only by understanding our connection to the earth can we create a fair system that’s going to be good to the people.”
In this discussion, I am more interested in these questions, and in thinking about what Tu B’Shevat, and this larger understanding of our role in the universe as stewards, leads us to today.
Background and Personal Views
Tu B’Shevat seems to reassert itself, to re-flower, if you will, periodically. We find it in ancient Jewish society. In Tractate Rosh Hashanah (2a:4; 14b:1) we see that “the New Year of the Trees” divided the tithing of one year’s crop from the next. But with the expulsion from Israel, the festival went dormant, until the kabbalists of Safed in the late 15th and 16th centuries rediscovered Tu B’Shevat and gave shape to the seders of today. Later the early Zionist settlers found in Tu B’Shevat a celebration of their reconnection to the land of Israel. Finally, Tu B’Shevat received renewed focus, propelling a growing interest in it up to today, from the intersection of counterculture and revolutionary movements of the 1960s with a growing focus on environmental protection, and growing critiques of Christianity and Judaism for an ideological focus on humanity to the detriment of the natural world.
My earliest murmurings of a spiritual experience of the world came from the hikes and walks of my childhood; long hours, or days, spent in woods or marshes. The totality of what we derive from the wisdom of the trees, and the place of trees in Jewish thought is vast, but, to me, part of that wisdom is that our lives are more than just the days we are living. It’s intergenerational wisdom. Our life is connected to the lives that came before us, and the generations that will come after us. In that sense, our lives don’t just begin with our birth or end with our death. In this sense, our life is not like a single season, but a larger and more continuous thing. The wisdom of our ancestors goes through many generations. Thus, my life is not just about the days I spend on the earth. If our lives are interconnected, then we are responsible for the world of our future generations.
I have always enjoyed a particular midrash that speaks to this interconnectedness of generations. Honi, who had a reputation for being very wise, was walking on the road and saw a man planting a carob tree. As wise as he was, Honi was confounded by the man’s actions. It takes 70 years for a carob tree to bear fruit. So, Honi said, “You’ll never see the fruit of this tree, so why are you going to all this work?”” The man answered, “The carob trees I am now eating from were planted by my grandfather. Just as these trees were planted for me, I am planting trees for my grandchildren so they will be able to eat the fruit of the trees I plant.”
All life is geared toward producing more life, and that is.the guiding principle of the Tree of Life – the growth of life. Tree roots draw water from the earth, water that comes from many sources. The tree is connected to the soil and water in a continuous cycle. Groundbreaking research emerged from the University of British Columbia in the late 1990s demonstrating that trees communicate with each other, even across species, and has led to remarkable discoveries about tree life.
In nature there is no waste. When a branch of a tree breaks off or the tree itself falls it decomposes and becomes part of the earth, enriching the soil. Humans are the only species that have the ability, and sometimes the desire, to waste and destroy. The Creator created all life to bring more life. Trees become a model that even love and energy and goodness can cycle through the generations like the cycle of trees. And so, Kohelt Rabbah reminds us of our responsibilities.
Yet . . . study, talking, and teaching is not action
As much as I like all these things about Tu B’Shevat, as I’ve mentioned in other essays about the Pesach seder, Sukkot, and other moments in the Jewish year, for me, what’s important is what happens after the words, after the services, after the seders – after we rise from these many worthy and good things.
The evidence today is beyond doubt that climate change is a significant danger to the entire world, and that human causes are driving it. The problem is that when our occupations are more mental types of work, when we focus on study and talk, we can mistake talk, study, and analysis for action, then go back to our daily lives. But it’s not action, and action is what’s needed now.
The early 20th century constitutional scholar Jacob tenBroek was fond of saying that “Movements without principles are dangerous things. They shouldn’t exist. But principles without movements are just plain pointless.”
Some might understandably see Dr. tenBroek’s comment as overstated. We certainly need a firm foundation in ideology and principles. Still, Dr. tenBroek reminds us that principles do not make change. Movements make change.
Our times of study and exchange refine our thinking and shape our actions. It enables us to deepen our understanding of our tradition, and turn a critical lens upon history and our contemporary world. Without study and collective exchange, we can’t develop a critical analysis, but developing a critical analysis is only part of the journey. We might see, as I do, the moments in our Jewish year, like Tu B’Shevat, as opportunities to remind ourselves of what is most important in our lives individually and communally, and to deepen our thinking around these matters. We are influenced by so many different things in life that such moments can help to cut through some influences. Decolonization has become a popular term for removing ideological constructs and repairing social damage. The decolonizing of education, and the decolonizing of the mind have become common phrases. However, back in 1963, we were told by Frantz Fanon, the author of the classic, The Wretched of the Earth, that decolonizing the mind is just the first step, not the only step. Learning and teaching something new can be so powerful it feels like it’s making change, but it’s not. In their 2012 paper, Decolonization is not a metaphor, Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang, cautioned against deploying the term ‘decolonization’ as a metaphor that can be applied to social justice projects, for things we want to do to improve our societies and schools, that do not result in changes in land distribution, use, and especially relationships. In the end, action that sets things to rights is what’s important.
The scope of the challenge
So what kind of actions? If we are individually obligated to be part of the solution to sustaining life, and be part of the solution to a major threat to life in our era – the climate crisis – what actions do we take? Are we to reduce our carbon footprint through decisions we make regarding purchases and consumption? Lifestyle changes also have the tendency to make us feel we are taking effective action. But are we? Is it just good but insufficient? There have been tremendous lifestyle changes over the last decades but we still face the worst environmental disaster in modern history.
And who is driving the human caused climate crisis? Are we equally responsible as individuals for the crisis?
In recent weeks, Harvard University and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research released the first ever study of oil industry research on climate change, and it offered one of the clearest pictures of the role of capital in creating the climate crisis. It demonstrated what many have long asserted – that the oil industry was aware of its impacts on the planet and was misleading the public. ” . . . between 1977 and 2003 . . . scientists within Exxon modeled and predicted global warming with . . . skill and accuracy only for the company to then spend the next couple of decades denying that very climate science.” “Exxon scientists . . . predicted that human-caused global warming would first be detectable in the year 2000 . . .”
This was the first study, but not the first indication of what the oil industry knew. In 2021, researchers uncovered speeches from scientists to oil industry executives dated from the 1950’s, which warned of carbon dioxide, the greenhouse effect, and melting polar ice caps.
In their 2010 book “Merchants of Doubt,” Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway exposed campaigns by oil companies to spread disinformation. Then in a 2021 paper, Naomi Oreskes and Geoffrey Supran outlined some of the rhetorical strategies oil companies used. For example, in the media, oil companies were able to frame climate change as a “risk” rather than a reality. They also placed special emphasis on consumer “demand” rather than their own supply of products they knew were harming the planet. They framed climate change as “everyone’s responsibility,” rather than those who were actually producing and selling fossil fuels, and they managed to invent the narrative that fossil fuels would be “necessary for the foreseeable future,” while preventing awareness of renewable energy sources, and obstructing legislation that would develop them.
Yet, this is not the only study showing where the weight of responsibility settles. An Oxfam study released in July 2022, Carbon Billionaires: The investment emissions of the world’s richest people, “analyzed how 125 of the world’s richest people had invested their money and looked at the carbon emissions of those investments.” With a collective $2.4 trillion stake in 183 companies. this group :emits “ . .3 million tonnes a year, more than a million times the average for someone in the bottom 90% of humanity.”
Writing for CNBC, Hannah Ward-Glenton quotes Danny Sriskandarajah, chief executive of Oxfam GB: “The role of the super-rich in super-charging climate change is rarely discussed . .These billionaire investors at the top of the corporate pyramid have huge responsibility for driving climate breakdown.”
Even further back, in the 1990s, the former Oil, Chemic, and Atomic Workers International Union had advanced the Superfund for Workers proposal. The Superfund was a response to the growing concern over the environment, and the efforts by companies to saddle the public and their own workers with the consequences of industry actions. The Superfund asserted that workers in natural resource industries had no vested interest in the damage to the planet, and should not bear the brunt through loss of jobs for industry-caused damage. The Superfund proposed a GI Bill-style system of support for workers that would help them retrain. The movement was founded upon the idea that we are all impacted by environmental damage, but we are not equally responsible, or equally at risk.
The Harvard and Potsdam study followed upon the failure of COP26 and COP27 to enact meaningful, systemic solutions to the climate crisis, and the realization by even supporters of these conferences that the people who got us into this mess cannot and will not be the people who will get us out of it.
What does this have to do with Tu B’Shevat?
Perhaps nothing directly. But I think that the context of our times, and what is required of us today, should be brought into our Tu B’Shevat awareness if the connections we reaffirm at Tu B’Shevat are to have an impact in our world today. We are long past the time in which an “action item” attached to the end of a seder is sufficient.
In Our History is the Future, the Indigenous scholar, Nick Estes, asked: “How can settler society, which possesses no fundamental ethical relationship to the land or its original people, imagine a future premised on justice?”
His point is mirrored by Mairi McFadyen, in the article Cainnt nan Eun: Language of the Birds,in which she asserts that without an intimate relationship to the land“ . . . we are sleepwalking into oblivion”.
Estes posed a possible answer to his own question: “Perhaps the answers lie within the kinship relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous and the lands we both inhabit.”
To my mind, Tu B’Shevat crystallizes the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual roots of an ethical relationship to the larger world in the context of the Jewish community. It allows for a Torah of earth, or place, in a broader sense.
In our Scottish Gaelic world, dùthchas, as a Gaelic ontology and methodology, stresses the interconnectedness of people, land, culture, and an ecological balance among all entities, human and more than human. It offers a foundation upon which we foster the kinship relations expressed by Estes.
Does Tu B’Shevat and the concepts surrounding it, offer us as Jews that same foundation upon which to approach building broader kinship relations? Can we allow it to become the springboard for fundamental change? Tu B’Shevat can call upon us to consider where our society has gone wrong – Deforestation. Land use practices that degrade planetary health. Carbon emissions – and provide a framework for reversing the damage and building a new social order.
I was reminded of another comment by Estes, also in Our History is the Future, “Whereas past revolutionary struggles have strived for the emancipation of labor from capital, we are challenged not just to imagine, but to demand the emancipation of earth from capital.”
So, once we are past studying texts and defining all the reasons we should take action, what is that action? How do we take action? How do we make it more than study and words?
In the last chapter of the Book of Esther we read:
וַיָּ֩שֶׂם֩ הַמֶּ֨לֶךְ (אחשרש) [אֲחַשְׁוֵר֧וֹשׁ] ׀ מַ֛ס עַל־הָאָ֖רֶץ וְאִיֵּ֥י הַיָּֽם׃
King Ahasuerus imposed tribute on the mainland and the islands.
Every year when I reach that line, I am reminded that despite the victory of the Jews in that instance, and the staving off of destruction, nothing fundamental changed. Ahasuerus was still king. As long as Esther and Mordecai remained in the king’s favor, peace might continue for the Jews, but the system was the system as before.
If we are to stave off planetary destruction, we can’t leave the same system in place. If we all fulfilled our obligation to protect life on earth for our future generations by joining mass movements that struggle for governmental and industry reforms on the one hand and fundamental change, systemic change on the other,, we could really bring about lasting change worldwide.
But we need to take action as an obligation. Every year, our daughter asks us to write letters to our granddaughter that our granddaughter will open when she is 18. So, we are writing to her future self. In one of those, I wrote: “I hope you will feel our generation did enough to make the world a better place, and that you do not have to struggle with the same injustices which face us today because of our inaction.”
It is indeed hard to commit yourself to such a struggle when you have professional goals to achieve that seem like they will provide more prosperity for your family than such a struggle, when you have travel or other personal goals you want to undertake. Again, it can only happen if it is seen as an obligation, a duty. In the words of the 20th century poet, Deorsa Mac Iain Deorsa in his poem Dleasnas Nan Airdean / The Duty of the Heights.
Dheonaich beagan an sàrach
Tric los càch a bhith blasad
Air an t-sonas chaidh bhuinnig
Often a few have assented to trials
So that others should taste
The happiness that was won . . .
A òigridh mo dhùthcha,
An e ciùine nan rèidhlean
Fois is clos nan gleann iosal,
Air an dion o ‘n gharbh shèideadh?
Biodh bhur ceum air a’ mhullach,
Is bhur n-uchd ris na speuran.
Dhuibh srac-ghaoth nam bidean
Mu’n tig sgrios ‘na bheum-slèibh oirinn.
Youth of my country,
is it to be the tranquility of the plains, then,
the peace and slumber of the low valleys,
sheltered from the rough blast?
No, let your step be on the summit,
and your breast exposed to the sky.
For you the tearing wind of the pinnacles,
lest destruction come on us as a landslide.