Many theologies, both within and outside Judaism, encourage us to see ourselves as co-creators of the world, which, among many other responsibilities, can entail repairing and restoring the natural environment. But this form of Tikkun Olam isn’t always as simple to carry out as it appears. While we humans are counteracting harm done to the Earth by other humans, much can go awry, even with the best of intentions. And in our anthropocene, it may be more realistic and beneficial to imagine a new and different state of harmony than to try to clamber back toward an Edenic past.
The conversation below was held on the morning of September 16 for Rosh Hashanah.Read Transcript
Gilah Langner: This morning we have the pleasure of launching a mini-series in our Adult Education program called Science Meets Judaism. Kol Ami is one of only two synagogues in the region that won a grant from the Sinai and Synapses program. In November, February, and June, we’ll be exploring a variety of topics at the nexus of science and Judaism. Today, we are pleased to start off with a presentation from Dr. Betsy von Holle on the subject of creation and restoration ecology, which is the purposeful rehabilitation of an area to recreate a functioning ecosystem.
Dr. Betsy Von Holle is a Program Director at the National Science Foundation, Division of Environmental Biology, as well as Associate Research Professor at The George Washington University, in the Department of Biology. Dr. Von Holle’s recent publications range from exploring global biological invasions to investigating why sea turtle nests fail in southeastern United States. She has been studying the influence of warming and biotic interactions on range expansion for a variety of both native and nonnative species over the past twenty years, which makes her just the right person to tackle the current biodiversity crisis that seems to be the very opposite of the Creation story we just read, with collapses in species populations in air, sea, and land. Are we witnessing the rewinding of the tape? Certainly, everywhere scientists look on the planet, they’re telling us that what’s happening is NOT good.
Betsy, talk to us. How did you get into this work? Where are we aimed, and what can be done?
Betsy Von Holle: I first became interested in environmental science as a university student, but was hesitant to become an ecologist, because I thought it would be too depressing to watch the loss of our natural world — but I’ve been in this field for thirty years and I do see hope for our planet!
My first job out of college was sampling ballast water held in cargo ships, which were docked in Baltimore Harbor. When cargo (such as coal) is missing from the ships, the ships store ballast water, so that they can be stable and low in the water column. The problem is that ballast water contains tiny living species, called plankton, which were about to be dumped into our waterways, and sometimes this can cause big problems. The zebra mussel now costs the US $1 billion per year, for tasks such as cleaning out hydroelectric utilities, where they clog the pipes. The results of that research translated into a policy that ships had to exchange ballast water on the open ocean. After that, I was a volunteer for a study of isopods, or roly-poly bugs, in the Negev Desert of Israel, one of the happiest times of my life. I continued to study invasive forest species in Tennessee for my PhD, and then Massachusetts for my postdoctoral research, and then in DC. My first faculty job was in Florida, where I saw my first nesting sea turtle, and I was smitten – there was no turning back. At that point, I pivoted my research to trying to help endangered species through restoration and modeling where endangered species could move under conditions of climate change and sea level rise.
There are so many environmental changes occurring now, and some of them are occurring at Biblical proportions. We regularly hear about flooding in the streets of cities and fires in areas that usually would not burn. This spring, it was hard to breathe outside because of the massive fires occurring in Canada, a place that typically doesn’t burn to that extent and certainly not at that time of the year.
The planet is undergoing a biodiversity crisis, with scientific consensus pointing to a sixth mass extinction event for the planet. For example, 3 billion breeding birds have been lost during the past 50 years across the United States and Canada. The same patterns of population declines and extinction are occurring globally, and not just for birds. We are also seeing the “insect apocalypse” and major declines in many other species groups. The scary thing is that we depend on bugs – they pollinate a third of our crops and three-fourths of our flowering plants. The current mass extinction event is distinct from prior mass extinctions because it is entirely due to human actions, such as habitat destruction and modification (e.g. building malls/houses/freeways), overhunting/fishing, introduction of non-native species, and the increase of carbon dioxide and other pollutants in our atmosphere.
The American Chestnut tree, which used to be the dominant overstory tree across the Appalachians, has nearly become extinct because of the accidental introduction of chestnut blight fungus with nursery stock from Asia. This is a species that was so dominant that it would have appeared all up and down the Appalachian mountains before 1938. Just as the bison was the preeminent large mammal on the continent and the passenger pigeon the most abundant bird, chestnut is often described as having dominated the eastern forest prior to its destruction by the introduced Asian chestnut blight. Another example is that endangered leatherback sea turtle populations have been declining for the past 40 years. This is a gentle giant in our oceans – they can grow to 2000 pounds!
While these are examples of species decline and demise, there are positive outcomes from species recovery efforts. Green sea turtles, which live until 70 years old, and don’t start reproducing until they are 25-35 years old, have been recovering since the Endangered Species Act was enacted in 1973. In the US, Bald eagles were on the brink of extinction because of hunting and pollution. Laws created almost 40 years ago have helped protect them, and they’ve made a comeback. Same with the iconic species, the American bison, which can be found in natural areas throughout the US. In prehistoric times, millions of bison roamed North America. By the late 1800s, there were only a few hundred bison left in the United States after European settlers pushed west, reducing the animal’s habitat and hunting the bison to near extinction. Had it not been for a few private individuals working with tribes, states and the Interior Department, the bison would be extinct today. Now there are about 10,000 bison distributed across multiple US states.
Restoration ecologists and conservation biologists are actively working to stem extirpations and extinctions by restoring degraded land and taking actions to increase populations of threatened and endangered species. Despite the successes I just mentioned, there are limits to what restoration can do. When people are trying to restore the land back to a functioning ecosystem, this usually takes place in relatively small areas and usually with the intent of providing a home, or habitat, for individual species that need to recover from a loss of numbers. Most small restoration projects around the world do not take the larger landscape into account, and this means that as the climate changes, the smaller patches of land being restored for a given species may or may not be appropriate for them in the future. If the habitat patches are not connected to other habitats, then those species may not be able to shift with climate change into appropriate areas. Generally, species are shifting northward, or up mountains, to keep up with climate change. The eastern US has many small patches of natural areas that are divided by roads, houses, malls, and cornfields. Some species may not be able to traverse these inhospitable areas to get to natural areas, or parks, where they can survive and reproduce.
But even where restorations cover large areas of land and water, they may not be accurately taking climate change into account. The best example of this is the largest and most costly restoration in U.S. history, the Everglades restoration of sawgrass prairie – costing over $10 billion and still going on. Yet the Everglades are predicted to be underwater by 2100 due to sea-level rise.
There are many scientific challenges, in terms of figuring out where species will be able to survive and thrive in the future, and what plots of land to restore. Ecosystems are complicated and vast, and it’s so difficult to predict how they will respond to climate change. In addition to the scientific questions, there are significant moral and ethical quandaries associated with this crisis, given that humans have caused it and have the power to solve it.
One way that scientists are helping species respond to climate change is by helping them move with the changing climate, to areas where they are better adapted to the climate. Assisted migration describes the human-assisted movement of representatives of a species or population harmed by climate change to an area outside the native range of that unit to where it would be predicted to move as climate changes. These species can’t move on their own because of human-caused barriers to dispersal (think malls, roads, buildings, agricultural fields), or lack of time. Think of it as a moving truck for species! It takes a while for plants, which can’t move on their own without a dispersal agent such as a bird or a mammal, to shift with climate change, whereas insects and birds, which can move, are able to shift with the climate faster.
Some scientists argue that conservation biologists have not yet developed sufficient understanding of the impacts of introduced species to make informed decisions regarding species translocations. Certainly, there are potential benefits of assisted migration, which include: overcoming small patches of natural areas that are spread far apart, assisting species with poor dispersal, preventing biodiversity loss, promoting rapid adaptation of populations to new conditions, and maintaining genetic integrity. But there are also potential serious negative consequences of assisted migration, and these are the impacts on the web of species present in the recipient ecosystems. The species being moved might have the same types of impacts in their new location that invasive species have on ecosystems.
An example of a deliberate introduction for conservation that had disastrous effects was the American red squirrel being introduced to Newfoundland to supplement the diet of the pine marten, a declining species. The squirrels competed with birds for black spruce cones as a primary food source and then caused the near total extinction of the Newfoundland red crossbill. Risks associated with introducing species outside their historical range cannot be reliably estimated or anticipated at this time. Given these risks, assisted migration is like playing a game of “ecological roulette” and should probably be rejected as a conservation strategy.
Restoration and assisted migration raise ethical concerns as well. After all, people have been moving species around the world for millennia, both accidentally and for economic reasons, and sometimes to disastrous effects, owing to nonnative species impacts. At this point in time, who gets to decide what species to move, when, and how? How can we be sure we know what we’re doing? Who has the authority to decide what gets saved, and what’s left to perish? In other words, who gets to play God? Should scientists and policy-makers incorporate the traditional place-based knowledge and religious views of indigenous groups and others into decision-making?
So that’s an overview of the perspective from science. What does Judaism say to the climate crisis?
Gilah Langner: Wow, Betsy – kudos to restoration ecologists and other scientists like yourselves who are trying to make a difference, species by species, or habitat by habitat. But listening to your remarks, what came through to me was the immense fragility of the earth. And even more than fragility – a sense that ecosystems are so intricately evolved that almost any intervention has unexpected, often undesired consequences.
In our day, the solidity of the Creation story seems to be undermined every week. The basic assumptions we’ve lived with – that the earth is solid, that water will not overwhelm us, that species will continue to multiply and thrive, that forests will not burst into flame, that living conditions will not become uninhabitably hot – this stable world we were bequeathed seems to be unforming as we speak.
You know, our ancient rabbis felt free to speculate a great deal about Creation. They wondered: Was this world God’s first creation or last? Perhaps there were other worlds. Perhaps in Genesis, God keeps saying this world is “good” – or as Zach pointed out, “good enough” – because God had experience with other, not-so-good worlds. The rabbis wrote stories, or midrash, imagining God experimenting over and over, creating and destroying an unspecified number of worlds, until finally this one was good enough to survive. But for how long? Can it survive its most complex creation, human beings?
There’s another midrash that I particularly love. It goes like this:
“When the Holy One of Blessing created Adam, the first human beings, God took them and showed them all the trees in the Garden of Eden, and said to them: ‘See My creations, how beautiful and exemplary they are. Everything I created, I created for you. Make certain that you do not ruin and destroy My world; as if you destroy it, there will be no one to mend it after you.”
To me this speaks both of fragility and of responsibility. Indeed, there is no one to mend it after us, and we ourselves don’t fully know how to mend it. But to be made in the likeness of God means that we humans, like God, can create and re-create, and rebuild after destruction.
And so we must find a way to stop the destruction and start rebuilding and restoring. Bill McKibben has written, “The most curious of all lives are the human ones, because we can destroy, but also because we can decide not to destroy. The turtle does what she does, and magnificently. She can’t not do it, though, any more than the beaver can decide to take a break from building dams or the bee from making honey. But if the bird’s special gift is flight, ours is the possibility of restraint. We’re the only creature who can decide not to do something we’re capable of doing. That’s our superpower, even if we exercise it too rarely.”
In Genesis 1, God is very clear about putting us in charge of governing the world. In Chapter 2 of Genesis, God makes us stewards of the Garden. To me, these two responsibilities speak to both our destructive and restorative potentials. But whether we are picking which species to save and which to sacrifice, determining which islands will be allowed to drown and which climate refugees will be helped – these decisions will increasingly be in our hands. The question is: How will we play God?
Betsy Von Holle: I think that Jewish social justice ideas offer us a framework, especially the concept of Tikkun Olam, or the perfecting or repairing of the world. Large-scale societal efforts to restore habitat and rescue species from extinction can be viewed as Tikkun Olam, as can individual-level efforts, such as a low-carbon lifestyle and planting native species.
Doug Tallamy’s recent book, Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation That Starts in Your Yard, advocates for creating bridges for species between natural areas with native plantings in peoples’ yards. The easiest example is to plant milkweed in your yard to help migrating monarch butterflies, which were just listed as an endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
The secular environment movement has often been criticized for presenting to the world only apocalyptic views of possible future environmental disasters. It has often failed to present a positive vision of what a sustainable world would look like. Environmental historian Steven Pyne wrote: “The real future of environmentalism is in rehabilitation and restoration. Environmentalists have told the story of the Garden of Eden and the fall from grace over and over again. But we haven’t yet told the story of redemption. Now we need to tell that story.”
As we do so, we need to make sure we are partnering with all Creation in this task. The new Jewish environmental Tikkun Olam requires us to abandon the idea that we always know what is best for the natural world. It requires us to listen to the other voices in the natural choir and to take their needs and goals into account, not only our wants and desires. Tikkun Olam then becomes a vision of restoration, of partnership with the rest of life, and a kind of order that is not a static, changeless world, but more a “discordant harmony,” a grand symphony of theme and variation which celebrates the beauty and the tragedy in the diversity of Creation.
Gilah Langner: Let’s leave things here, but I hope folks will come back on October 14 when we continue the discussion at Shabbat services, and explore Creation and its implications further.
Let me end with words from the poet Adrienne Rich:
My heart is moved by all I cannot save
so much has been destroyed.
I have to cast my lot with those
who, age after age, perversely,
with no extraordinary power,
reconstitute the world.
(This post is part of Sinai and Synapses’ project Scientists in Synagogues, a grass-roots program to offer Jews opportunities to explore the most interesting and pressing questions surrounding Judaism and science. Gilah Langner is Rabbi at Kol Ami — The Northern Virginia Reconstructionist Community in Arlington, VA).