Celebrating Tu B'Shvat as if Environmental Sustainability Matters
Richard H. Schwartz

Since Tu Bishvat, the “New Year for Trees,” has increasingly become a “Jewish Earth Day,” why not use Tu Bishvat Seders as, among other things, a time to consider how we can effectively respond to current environmental crises that threaten all life on the planet?

The world is rapidly heading toward a climate catastrophe, severe food, water, and energy scarcities, and other environmental disasters. This is a strong consensus of almost all climate scientists and science academies worldwide. The warmest year for the US since temperature records have been kept for the lower 48 states was in 2012. All 11 of the warmest years worldwide have occurred since 1998. Polar ice caps and glaciers worldwide are melting faster than the worst-case predictions of climate experts. There has been a recent significant increase in the number and severity of heat waves, droughts, wildfires, storms, and floods.

Everything possible should be done to avert these disasters, because if we don’t, nothing else will matter much. Saving the global environment should become a “central organizing principle” for civilization today, and tikkun olam (the healing of the world) should become a major focus for all of Jewish life today.

Time is running out for efforts to avert the potential catastrophes. Climate experts, including James Hansen of NASA, believe that we may be very close to a tipping point, when climate change might spiral out of control with disastrous consequences. While many climate experts think that 350 parts per million (ppm) of atmospheric CO2 is a threshold value for avoiding a climate catastrophe, we are already at about 400 ppm and experiencing an increase of two or three ppm per year. While climatologists think that an increase of over 2 degrees Celsius would be disastrous, climate experts project that we will have an increase of at least 4 degrees Celsius, unless major changes soon occur.

Among the many necessary changes, reducing consumption of meat and other animal products is something everyone can do to meaningfully address the problem of climate change. A 2006 UN FAO report, “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” indicated that animal-based agriculture emits more greenhouse gases (GHGs), in CO2 equivalents, than is emitted by all the cars, planes, ships, and other means of transportation worldwide combined. A 2009 cover article in World watch magazine , Livestock and Climate Change,” by two environmentalists associated with the World Bank argued that the livestock sector is responsible for at least 51 percent of all human-induced GHGs. This is largely due to the massive destruction of tropical rain forests to produce pasture land and land to grow feed crops for animals and the emission of methane (a very potent cause of warming) from farmed animals.

Tu Bishvat is an ideal time to start a dietary shift since the Tu Bishvat Seder in which fruits and nuts are eaten, along with the singing of songs and the recitation of Biblical verses related to trees and fruits, is the only sacred meal where only vegetarian, actually vegan, foods are eaten as part of the ritual. Such a shift would be consistent with basic Jewish teachings on protecting human health, treating animals with compassion preserving the environment, conserving natural resources, and helping hungry people.

Despite all of the above and much more, there is great denial out there and far from enough is being done to try to avert the potential catastrophes. Most people seem to be “rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic, as we head toward a giant iceberg.”

In response to the above points, Jews, preferably in alliance with others, should play a major role in increasing awareness of the threats and how the application of Jewish values and a shift toward vegan diets can make a major difference. This would help show the relevance of Judaism’s eternal teachings and, more importantly, help  move our imperiled planet to a sustainable path, so we can leave a decent world for future generations.