‘Doomism’ vs Hope: A Jewish Voice on Climate Change

Do not believe that the future is written. It isn’t. There is no fate we cannot change, no prediction we cannot defy. We are not predestined to fail; neither are we pre-ordained to succeed. We do not predict the future, because we make the future: by our choices, our willpower, our persistence and our determination to survive.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (1948-2020)

The Third Working Group of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its report on April 4. Unfortunately the common takeaway from the report was that the world is not on target to reduce fossil fuel consumption sufficiently to keep global temperature rise below 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit and prevent the worst impacts of climate change.

But this report, unlike its predecessors which focused on causes, addresses solutions, and the news was not all bad. Conservation International noted that “three actions — reducing the destruction of forests and other ecosystems, restoring them, and improving the management of working lands, such as farms — are among the top five most effective strategies for mitigating carbon emissions by 2030.” These approaches not only massively reduce emissions, but they deliver a range of other benefits as well—clean our air and water, reduction of coastal flooding, safeguarding fisheries and so forth.

Summing up the report, Conservation International CEO M. Sanjayan said, “We can save our climate, and protect the nature we need to thrive, and live in a world that is more equal and just. There is still time; our future remains to be written. But it’s going to take everything we have, and we need to start now.”

Writing in the New York Times, three of the authors of the IPCC report concurred saying that “it offers hope for limiting global warming. But there is no time to waste.”

Following the report’s release, a bevy of articles appeared on a relatively new phenomenon which has climate scientists worried: “doomism”—the notion that there’s no hope to mitigate or adapt to climate change so why bother to try. As Susan Clayton, a psychologist who studies climate change anxiety explained, “It’s a way of saying ‘I don’t have to go to the effort of making changes because there’s nothing I can do anyway.’”

Having just published a book exploring Judaism as a source of hope, I can tell you it would be difficult to exaggerate how alien this kind of doomism is to the spirit of Judaism. The only biblical home doomism could find is in the book of Ecclesiastes which argues that trying to improve anything in the world is “futile and the pursuit of wind: a twisted thing that cannot be made straight” (1:14-15). Some of the sages considered Ecclesiastes so pessimistic as to be heretical. In this light the sages’ efforts to subvert Ecclesiastes’ doomism comes as no surprise.

Indeed a good case can be made that the origins of the ancient rabbinic phrase tikkun-ha-olam, repair of the world, derived from the sages effort to undermine the Ecclesiastes’ pessimism and obligating us to act in hope to fix the world.

In a further rejection Ecclesiastes’ embrace of human passivity, a midrash on this book from the 5th or 6th centuries places responsibility sustaining the environment squarely on our shoulders.

When the Blessed Holy One created the first human, [God] took him and led him round all the trees of the Garden of Eden and said to him: “Look at My works, how beautiful and praiseworthy they are! And all that I have created, it was for you that I created it. Pay attention that you do not corrupt and destroy My world: if you corrupt it, there is no one to repair it after you.

This midrash, a primary text in the Jewish environmental movement, implies that human beings, created in the divine image, have enormous creative power and we can use if for good or ill. And if we misuse it we shouldn’t expect God to bail us out.

Joseph B. Soloveitchik (1903-1993), the leading light of Modern Orthodox Judaism in his era, took this even further:  Man acts as a divine agent and redeems himself (The Emergence of Ethical Man).

What does it mean to act as a divine agent? We can extrapolate from the Talmud’s dictum about what it means for one human being to be an agent of another. The principal’s legally valid expectation of the agent is summarized by this: “I sent you to straighten out the matter not to make it worse.” Jewish theology holds that God expects the same from us.

Ironically, the Talmud’s dictum uses language of that verse from Ecclesiastes—“A twisted thing that cannot be made straight”—but subverts its conclusion. Once more the sages transform Ecclesiastes’ prescription for passively accepting a less than optimal situation into a requirement for improving matters.

Judaism’s belief that human beings are created in the image of God and that we are God’s agents in the world leaves no room for doomism in any context. To the contrary, these core beliefs mandate that we act in hope to prevent damage to our world from whatever front it arises.  To quote Rabbi Jonathan Sacks again: “Judaism is the systematic rejection of tragedy in the name of hope.”

Originally appeared in the Jerusalem Post, April 27, 2022.