Bridging the empathy gap

November 1, 2015 - 12:00am -- Living City

Bridging the empathy gap
There are moral issues within our environmental challenges

By Rabbi Lawrence Troster

The term “the end of geography” was first used in 1998 in an international journal where the author proposed the idea that the Internet and other means of social communication had fundamentally changed our concepts of nation states. He asserted that national borders were essentially going to disappear.

Last year another article in an international law journal utilized that phrase and said that, because of climate change, international law as it now exists cannot deal with national borders becoming meaningless in the face of large scale climate migration. It has been well known for decades that there is a connection between climate change and other environmental degradation, and social instability and conflict both internally within countries and also between countries.

So the critical question before us is: how are we, as people of faith, going to respond from our moral and ethical traditions to what seems to be a completely intractable problem?
I believe that the difficulty in formulating a response comes from what I call an empathy or ethical gap: we don’t know and will never meet most of the people who are and will be impacted by climate change. In other words there is a gap in both time and space between our actions that are causing climate change and the people that are most affected.

My own encounter with the problem of this gap came more than 10 years ago at an NGO meeting in the UN, where I was on a panel sponsored by the Baha’i community that was looking at the moral implications of climate change. On the panel was the former ambassador to the UN from the island nation of Tuvalu, of which I had never heard. He said that their nation would disappear within 20 years or so because of climate change. The sea had already risen to the point that they no longer have fresh water, they could no longer grow their own food and the only countries that would take them in were New Zealand and Australia, not as a group, but only as families and individuals. About 11,000 people have lived on Tuvalu for 3,000 years with their own culture. Wherever they are going to go, that culture will disappear. It’s not only the shifting of peoples, but a shifting of cultures.

So this to me is a critical moral issue, and from my tradition I am informed by a concept that lies at the heart of the environmental crisis, the issue of justice. We know that environmental justice is concerned with the equitable distribution of risks and benefits, and the democratic participation in decision making: in ethical terms, both are critical to our discussion of the moral implications of climate change.

In the Jewish tradition there are many sources, starting with the laws of the Torah, that are concerned with the fair distribution of wealth power, using the term Tzedek which is often translated as justice or righteousness, but has a core meaning of equity. In the perfect world there is perfect equity: in the political, economic, and justice systems. Rabbinic Judaism developed from Tzedek the value-concept of Tzedeka, which is often translated incorrectly as “charity”. It really refers to the ethical imperative of attempting to elevate the poor in a dignified and respectful manner to a similar level of the person who is giving the Tzedeka.

The great sage Rabbi Moses Maimonides in the 11th century formulated eight levels of Tzedeka. The lowest level is, “I know I have to give it because it’s a requirement, so I’ll do it but I don’t like it.” The highest level is giving someone a job, an interest-free loan or a gift which will enable them to not need to receive Tzedeka.

There are no easy answers to the insecurity produced by climate change and the migrant problem that it is exaggerating. We know that shortages of water, the depletion of farming areas and rising sea levels are creating the conflicts that are already occurring and which will continue to increase in the future. But if climate change is not framed as a moral issue first and foremost, we will not be able to solve it. It is one of the failures of the secular environmental movement that it did not put the morality at the heart of environmental action.

People of all faith communities have a real role to play in environmental action. We can come to it from diverse perspectives but we are united in a common cause. Pope Francis has helped us tremendously in this regard by connecting environmental degradation with the human degradation of society and the concern for the poor.  For people in the religious environmental movement, this is what we have been saying for a long time in many ways, but he said it brilliantly, with a surprising approach.

Tzedek means working for the equitable distribution of resources, that is, sustainable development. We should all be hearing and acting on the call from Deuteronomy: “Justice, justice you are to pursue in order that you may live and possess the land that the Lord your God has given you.” We have no right to the land without Tzedek.                                 

Rabbi Lawrence Troster is the founder and coordinator
of Shomrei Breishit: Rabbis and Cantors for the Earth,
and the Rabbi-in-Residence at the Berry Forum
for Ecological Dialogue at Iona College, New Jersey.