Elul: A Time to Start Shifting Our Imperiled Planet to a Sustainable Path
Richard H. Schwartz

Elul is here. It represents an opportunity for heightened introspection, a chance to consider teshuva, changes in our lives, before the “Days of Awe,” the days of judgment, the “High holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The shofar is blown every morning (except on Shabbat) in synagogues during the month of Elul to awaken us from slumber, to remind us to consider where we are in our lives and to urge us to consider positive changes.

How should we respond to Elul today? How should we respond when we hear reports almost daily of severe, often record-breaking, heat waves, droughts, wildfires, floods, and storms; when the previous month, July 2012, was the warmest month in the U.S. since records were kept in 1895; when nine of the ten warmest years since records were kept occurred since 2000, and 2012 is on track to be the warmest of all; when polar ice caps and glaciers are melting far faster than the worst case projections of climate experts; when some climatologists are warning that we could be close to a tipping point when climate change could spiral out of control with disastrous consequences, unless major changes are soon made; when we appear to also be on the brink of major food, water, and energy scarcities; and when, despite all of the above, so many people are in denial, and almost all of us seem to be “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic as we approach a giant iceberg”?

It is well known that one is not to shout fire in a crowded theater. Except if there actually is a fire. And, the many examples of severe climate change indicate that the world is on fire today. Therefore, we should make it a priority to do all that we can to awaken the world to the dangers and the urgency of doing everything possible to shift our imperiled planet to a sustainable path. We should urge that tikkun olam (the healing and repair of the world) be a central focus in all aspects of Jewish life today.

We should contact rabbis, Jewish educators, and other Jewish leaders and ask that they increase awareness of the threats and how Jewish teachings can be applied to avert impending disasters. We should write letters to editors, call talk shows, question politicians, and in every other way possible, stress that we can’t continue the policies that have been so disastrous. We should urge that tikkun olam (the healing and repair of the world) become a central focus in all aspects of Jewish life today.

As president of Jewish Vegetarians of North America, I want to emphasize that, while it is insufficiently considered, a major shift to plant-based (vegan) diets is essential if we are to have even a chance of averting climate and other catastrophes. A 2006 report from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO),  “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” indicated, amazingly, that the livestock sector emits more greenhouse gases (in CO2 equivalencies) than all the cars, ships, planes, and all other means of transportation worldwide combined! A major reason for this is that cattle and other farmed animals emit huge amounts of methane during their digestion and excretion processes, and methane is 72 times as potent as CO2 for 20 year periods, the time during which almost all methane leaves the atmosphere. Animal-based agriculture also contributes substantially to soil erosion, rapid species losses, air and water pollution, desertification, and deforestation. To creature grazing land and land to grow feed crops for animals, tropical rain forests are being destroyed at a very rapid rate, adding to CO2 emissions and destroying a major sink for CO2. Making the situation even more serious is that the FAO report projects that the number of farmed animals will double in 50 years. If that happens, the emissions of greenhouse gases from the additional animals will negate the effects of efficiency improvements and of lifestyle changes, and the probabilities for a disastrous future will increase.

A shift to plant-based diets is also important because it is the diet that is most consistent with Jewish (and other religion’s) mandates to preserve human health, treat animals with compassion, protect the environment, conserve natural resources, help hungry people, and pursue peace. It would also help end the epidemic of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and other chronic, degenerative diseases that are afflicting Jews and others.

The afternoon service for Yom Kippur includes the book of Jonah, who was sent by God to Nineveh to urge the people to repent and change their evil ways in order to avoid their destruction. Today the whole world is Nineveh, in danger of annihilation and in need of repentance and redemption, and each one of us must be a Jonah, with a mission to warn the world that it must turn from greed, injustice, and idolatry, so that we can avoid a global catastrophe.