Harvey, Irma, Jose, Katia…no doubt we’ll soon be hearing about Leopold, Mabel, and Norris…and on down through the alphabet until we come back to “A.” Though we can joke about the names, this is no laughing matter. So much is at stake: people’s homes, jobs, schools and communities. What will happen to all these storm refugees? What will happen to the soil and water that becomes contaminated by flooded toxic waste sites; to areas contaminated by crude oil, gasoline, and chemical storage tanks that have ruptured during these storms, or to neighborhoods such as the one in Crosby, Texas, where the Arkema chemical plant exploded due to the degradation of the organic peroxides that they use but could not keep properly refrigerated after the power went out? Who or what creatures will be impacted by these contaminants first: fish, insects, birds, children, the elderly, poor people…? For certainly it is always the most vulnerable, those with the least say in these matters that are impacted first. Not that anyone has a direct say on whether and where a hurricane will strike – but they ought to have a say on how our federal and state governments regulate companies that sell or use substances that are toxic to human and animal life, and to our ecosystems. And yet all too often, the nexus of business and politics – where large lobbies such as the fossil fuel, petro-chemical or mining industries generously back certain politicians who will “go easy” on any costly regulating of their businesses – keeps ordinary Americans from having a say (or even having access to knowledge) about what substances get into our air, our soil, our water. Who suffers from this? These companies’ low-wage workers, the poor who live near these sites, and all God’s defenseless critters who have absolutely no say in the matter.
Those of us who celebrate Earth Day, march on Washington to cry “foul” on climate-change denial, who try to elect more “green”-friendly politicians, are accused of being “elitist.” It is claimed that more regulation on these industries will make them so unprofitable that they will have to close down, thus putting more blue-collar workers out of work, and that those who favor greater regulation are out of touch with the “backbone” of America, those brave workers in coal, chemicals, steel, gas and oil. But these workers always get the short end of the stick, suffering job-related injuries, illnesses and layoffs (sometimes death) while their bosses rise to the top one percent of the wealthiest Americans, or declare bankruptcy, leaving their workers with empty pension accounts and no medical insurance.
Surely the clock is ticking on the American public’s willingness to continue to be pacified by the lies of climate-change deniers. How can people believe that “climate change is a hoax” when floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, unprecedented heat spells, wildfires, drought, torrential downpours, mudslides, and a marked rise in the frequency and severity of Southwestern dust storms have become impossible to ignore? (And this is not even counting the rapid disappearance of North American glaciers, or ice-cover in the Arctic, which is much less obvious to most Americans and not as immediately troubling, despite a direct correlation between these environmental catastrophes.)
Those who refuse to open their eyes might do so by claiming that we are living in the so-called biblical “end times,” and that it cannot be helped – they are not worried, because God will save “true believers” in the end. There is not much I can say to change your mind if this is your belief, because the pileup of disasters just serves to confirm such an “end time” scenario. But those of us who dearly love this amazing planet that God has created, with all of its dazzling features – its mountains, lakes, forests, coasts, rivers, waterfalls, meadows and deserts, its birds, bugs and all kinds of beasts, including the human kind – we MUST stand up this day and say what we see plainly before us. The earth is suffering. People are suffering. Our ecosystems and communities are being mightily disrupted. There MAY still be time to do something about it, if we speak up, if we work on Washington and our state governments to start making changes quickly, if we can pressure our president to rejoin the Paris Climate Accord. As for all those blue-collar American workers, let us build up the green-energy market, train workers in wind and solar technologies, put more money into public transportation and bicycle-commuting lanes – there can be jobs here that do not kill – and let their pay and working conditions be fair!
The Jewish faith teaches that humans, being made “in the image of God,” are meant to be partners with God. God may have accomplished creation without our help, but now that we are here, God needs our help to guard and tend it, at least, if it is to remain a world that humans can inhabit.
In less than a week, the Jewish High Holy Day season will begin, and across North America many of my clergy colleagues will no doubt be preaching on the following text:
“This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live.” (Deut. 30:19)
The choice is up to us. What shall we choose?
Shoshana Brown serves as cantor and co-spiritual leader at Temple Beth El in Fall River.