The Sceptic Blog

Random thoughts of a random chappy

Environmental distruption

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  1. In news reports of natural disasters or of changes in the world (hurricanes, drought, flood, soil erosion, species-extinction and the increasing incidence of asthma and allergies, to name a random selection) it is frequently suggested that the disaster or change – or its severity, rate or impact – is partly a result of the way humans are using the planet and its resources.  Some of these suggestions may be unfounded, but probably not all of them.  Certainly, there seems little doubt that we are increasingly feeling the effects in numerous ways of courses of action begun decades ago; effects that were to some extent at least wholly unpredictable at the beginning of the process.
  2. An aspect of the Torah approach to the protection of our natural environment emerges from a technical law in yesterday’s parashah about the construction of the altar in the Tabernacle.
  3. In Devorim 27:5-6 the Torah says “You shall build a stone altar for God there, without using iron on the stones.  Build the altar for God with whole stones …”  Apart from the internal redundancy within that passage, the entire passage is a repetition of the law already given in Shemos 20:22.  If it is repeated here in Devorim we can look for a message for a people making the transition from living under miraculous divine protection in the desert to managing and using the natural resources of a fertile and inhabitable land.
  4. When the law against using iron to hew the altar stones is given the first time, Rashi brings an explanation from the Mishnah in Middos (3:4): iron was created to shorten life, and the altar was created to prolong life.  The obvious difficulty with this is that iron has potential for construction as well as for destruction, and the same is true of stone.  Moreover, the Mishnah goes on to record (3:5) that some of the fittings of the altar were required to be made from iron.
  5. But one important difference in the environmental impact of iron and stone as building materials is suggested by the way in which the law against using iron to hew the altar stones is expressed the second time around.  The Netziv analyses the internal redundancies of the verses and concludes that we are first obliged to choose stones that are without irregularities that might tempt us to cut them with iron, and secondly we are prohibited from using iron on those stones at any stage in the building process.
  6. The result was, as the Mishnah in Middos records, that the builders went to Beit Kerem and dug for stones, selecting only those of precisely the required size and shape, rather than quarrying large quantities of rock from the nearest place, cutting to size and discarding the waste.  They used a more laborious process, slower and more expensive, but one that was less environmentally disruptive; searching for existing resources that suit the task rather than violently forcing the natural resources to conform to our requirements.  That is a choice that was relevant only in the context of the use of stone.  When it comes to the use of iron and other metals, one has no choice but to interfere considerably with the natural world – and with potentially far-reaching and unpredictable consequences – in order to extract the metal and adapt it for use.
  7. The picture that emerges is this: the Torah certainly allows and encourages us to use the whole range of the world’s resources for our purposes.  When iron is required for fittings of the altar that have to be stronger and more flexible than stone, we should use iron.  But when there is a choice of technique and one is less environmentally disruptive than the other, we should use the less disruptive process, even if more demanding or less advantageous in other ways.
  8. We are becoming increasingly aware both that the ecological impact of our actions is unpredictable and also that in many ways we may have progressed too far wholly to avoid undesirable effects of actions long past.  But in so far as the future of the planet lies in our hands, we can learn from the Torah laws of the stone for the altar the importance of wherever possible adopting an attitude of humility, so that in harnessing natural resources we interfere with the world as little as possible.
  9. The practical implications of this philosophy could be immense.  They might point, for example, to maximising opportunities to harness natural sources of sustainable power-generation rather than relying almost entirely on the oil, gas and nuclear power.  It could also be relevant to choices between expensive and laborious irrigation systems to tackle third-world drought and the use of genetic modification to produce greater quantities of food in the developed world that can then be transported to areas of famine.  And in smaller ways too, this approach may suggest actions of all kinds, including personal contributions to environmental sensitivity such as recycling – in which context, what a great blessing and opportunity for kiddush hashem it is that the London Borough of Hackney have now appointed two members of the Jewish community to act as community recycling officers.
  10. At a more abstract level, adjusting our view of the world along these lines could lead to a general desire to adapt more to the environment around us, to curb our desires to control and change, and generally to approach the new year in an attitude of greater humility and sensitivity.

Written by Daniel Greenberg

September 25, 2005 at 12:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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