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Saving Our Planet:
Common Ground for a Divided Nation

Richard H. Schwartz, Ph.D.

The recent acrimonious presidential campaign shows the great divisions in our nation. It was not enough to just support President Bush or Senator Kerry – the opposing candidate was often considered as an epitome of evil, someone whose electoral victory would have disastrous consequences for the nation and possibly humanity. Positions in the red (Republican supporting) states and blue (Democratic supporting) states on many issues were sharply different.

Jews were not exempt from these sharp divisions. While a majority of Americans voted for Bush, about three out of four Jews supported Kerry. There were also sharp differences among Jews, as about 70% of Orthodox Jews supported Bush’s re-election, while Reform and Conservative Jews and secular Jews overwhelmingly supported Kerry.

Rather than continuing an often contentious debate, I think it would be far more valuable to seek common ground. One area where cooperative efforts could be very helpful is the environment.

My belief that non-partisan environmental efforts are possible is greatly enhanced by the existence of a group: "Republicans for Environmental Protection" (REP America). Among its many Republican leaders and supporters are former Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) directors under Republican administrations, William Ruckleshaus and Russell Train.

While the group never endorses Democratic candidates, this year they decided not to endorse President Bush either, because "… over the last four years, the Bush administration has compiled a deliberately anti-environmental, anti-conservation record that will result in lasting damage to public health and to America’s natural heritage.

In their letter of congratulations to President Bush on his re-election, REP America emphasized the importance of a major shift to more environmentally friendly policies. Asserting that "the environment’s importance transcends traditional partisan divides," the group called for cooperative efforts to preserve the land, "an endowment that will yield a lasting bounty for us and for future generations if we are wise enough to manage it sustainably and conservatively."

Here are several reasons why Jews (and others) should be involved in cooperative efforts to improve the environment:

* All Jews – Democrats, Republicans, Greens, Independents, and others – are affected by air and water pollution, destruction of tropical rain forests and other valuable habitats, rapid species extinction, water shortages, global warming, and other environmental threats.

* There are no Republican mountains or Democratic lakes. Whether one lives in a blue state or a red state, there is a need for clean air, drinkable water, and other environmental essentials.

* There is an increasing consensus among scientists that the planet is threatened as perhaps never before. There have already been many signs of the effects of global climate change, including the increasing melting of glaciers and ice caps and the increases in the number and severity of hurricanes, tornadoes, droughts, floods, and forest fires. Over 20,000 more people than normal died in Europe in August 2003 during an unprecedented heat wave. While these effects are associated with an average temperature increase of one degree Fahrenheit in the last century, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a group composed of the world’s leading climate scientists, predicts an average temperature increase of 2.5 to 10.4 degrees Fahrenheit in the next century, a change that would have devastating effects for humanity.

There are many additional severe threats: Plants and animal species are becoming extinct at perhaps the fastest rate in history; tropical rain forests are disappearing at an alarming rate; it is estimated that over half of the world’s people will live in areas short of clean water by the middle of this century; these water shortages and global climate change threaten future food security.

* Judaism commands us to respect and care for and assume responsibility for the world which G-d has created and entrusted to us. We are not permitted to despoil and destroy it, but are obligated to preserve and protect it for future generations. Our tradition mandates that Jews should work as partners of God, toward tikkun olam, the healing and preservation of the world. The daily prayers contain the statements: "Blessed is the One (God) Who has compassion on the Earth" and "Blessed is the One Who has compassion on the creatures."

Many Jewish teachings, including "bal tashchit" (the mandate not to waste or unnecessarily destroy anything of value) can be used as the basis of efforts to move our imperiled planet to a more sustainable path.

* Jews are to be a "light onto the nations" and efforts by Jews, who differ on many issues, to work cooperatively for common causes has great potential for inspiring other groups to similar efforts.

Based on these important concepts, it is essential that environmental preservation become a major focus for synagogues, Jewish schools, and other Jewish institutions. I urge everyone to check out the very strong environmental statements at REP America’s web site (www.rep.org) and other environmental web sites (an excellent one is that of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish life (COEJL): www.coejl.org) and to carry out a major kiddush Hashem (sanctification of God’s name) by joining them and other environmental groups in working to move our precious, but imperiled, planet to a more sustainable path. This would also help attract non-committed Jews by showing that our eternal values can be applied to the solution of current societal problems.

Progress on working cooperatively in responding to environmental threats would be a valuable precedent for similar efforts in responding to other important issues, including moving toward energy self-sufficiency, responding to global climate change, providing adequate medical treatment to all Americans, and reducing poverty and hunger.