THE GREAT EXTINCTION
Yom Kippur, 5780
Rabbi Barry L. Schwartz
On May 6 of this year the New York Times published a photo that broke my heart. It was a picture of a magnificent olive ridley sea turtle washed up on an Indian beach. The turtle is dead, strangled by the fishing rope still looped around its neck.
I wondered why I had such a strong reaction. I thought it was tied to the fact that just four months earlier I had the unforgettable opportunity to swim with these glorious, peaceful animals in the Galapagos Islands.
Then one week later Magaret Renkl, a contributing columnist to the Times, captured in stark prose our shared reaction to the striking image:
That photo undid me. All week long I found myself coming back to it until I had it committed to memory, the shapes and the colors…. I kept being struck anew by the sorrow of that one lost creature, that one preventable tragedy. The turtle’s great head is bowed, resting on the sand. Its eyes are closed; its ancient face is drawn back in a mask of grief. The turtle’s whole body signals resignation, surrender. In the background, [people] play in the surf.
Renkl goes on to say, “If the photo is traumatizing, the story is worse.” The Times article that accompanied the photo was about the unprecedented assault on biodiversity across our planet. Renkl entitled her own piece, “Surviving Despair in the Great Extinction”. The tag line underneath it read, “One million species of plants and animals are heading toward annihilation, and it’s our fault. How can we possibly live with that truth?”
Yes, the report, a 1500 page study by the UN, speaks about the coming extinction of one million species. Think about that. As Renkl writes, “That’s every individual creature in a species—times one million. We can’t possibly conceive of such a thing. We can hold in mind… the image of a single animal who died a terrible death. Devastation on this scale is beyond the reach of imagination. How could we hold in mind a destruction so vast it would take not just one sea turtle but all that animal’s kind, as well as the kind of 999,999 other species?”
That’s what makes the scourge of eco-destruction and global warming so hard to comprehend. The scale is so epic in size and years that we can’t really see what is going on. It’s a nightmare unfolding in slow motion. By the time we awake the damage is done and it is vast. And it is not us, but our children, and our children’s children who will suffer the most.
Those who know me know that I have been a passionate environmentalist since I was a kid. Growing up in the beautiful Hudson River Valley made an impression on me. Visiting so many of our great National Parks with my family made an impression on me. Seeing my father leave his secure teaching position to join a cutting edge environmental education project in the 70s made an impression on me. Working with colleagues to help found Shomrei Adamah, the first Jewish environmental organization, made an impression on me. The good fortune of hiking many of the great walks of the world on six of seven continents made an impression on me. How can I not talk about this report of the looming Great Extinction?
It’s a terrible term, The Great Extinction. Extinction is forever. There is no turning back. There is no do-over; no second chance. Once a species is gone the world is permanently diminished. That color of the bio-diversity rainbow is no more. The Great Extinction, the great die-off has already begun. The only question is whether we can slow it down.
Permit me to inundate you with just some of the facts and figures from the UN report:
The loss of species is now happening tens to hundreds of times as fast as the average rate over the past ten million years. Extinction has always happened but now is accelerating out of control. 1 million of the 8 million known species could disappear within decades, not centuries.
The world population of 7 billion has “severely altered” 75% of the land environment and 66% of the marine environment. Human activity has depleted the average abundance of native species by a fifth, putting at extinction risk a third of all marine mammals, a third of all reef corals, and 40% of all amphibians. The alarming decline of bees and other insects, which pollinate ¾ of the world’s crops, could result in a half trillion dollars worth of damage.
The heightened destruction of coastal habitats due to floods and hurricanes associated with global warming, which we see on TV so often now, puts as many as 300 million people worldwide at risk.
Robert Watson, one of the report’s lead authors, emphasized that drastic environmental action is not just about protecting animals; it’s about protecting people. “We are eroding the very foundation of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide,” he writes.
Back to Renki’s haunting question: One million species are heading toward extinction, and it’s our fault. How can we possible live with that truth?
How can we live with that truth as global citizens, as American citizens, and as American Jews, on this Yom Kippur, when we confess not only our personal sins, but our communal sins?
Did we not recite al het shehatanu: for the sins we have sinned against You:
For poisoning the air and polluting land and sea
For deceiving ourselves and others with half-truths and denials
For using the sins of others to excuse our own
How can we live with that truth when our Torah tells us that “the earth is the Lord’s” and we are here “to till it and tend it.”?
How can we live with that truth when our Talmud teaches us that “just as my ancestors planted for me, so I will plant for my children”?
It’s important to note that all the scientists involved in the report argue that only transformative change will make a difference. Only a global “Green New Deal, if you will, a vast, multilateral agreement. Anything else, they say, is like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.
So on this Yom Kippur, I am going to add to our list of “al hets”—for the sins we have sinned against You:
On this Yom Kippur forgive us:
For pulling out of the Paris global climate accords.
For turning back the clock on automobile emission standards and fossil fuel industry regulation.
For downsizing the precious lands we have set aside for preservation.
For thinking nationalistically rather than globally.
For building walls rather than bridges.
For thinking about today at the expense of tomorrow.
Is it too much to demand from our political leaders that a responsible Green New Deal is an ecological and economic imperative for this nation and for the world?
Is it too much to ask that the United States turn from protectionist and obstructionist policies and become the world leader in energy conservation and innovation?
Is it too much to hope that as we enter the third decade of the 21st century we finally awake to the perilous future of our planet?
I close, as I opened, with another picture that broke my heart and those of people around the world. In 2007 photo-journalist Brent Stirton was in Virunga National Park, along the border of the Congo, Rwanda and Uganda. The Virunga Mountain range is the last remaining habitat of the magnificent mountain gorilla. Stirton captured the ghastly image of a funeral procession for seven of these animals, murdered by poachers—the most unforgettable image of tearful park rangers bearing the body of Senkwekue, the massive male silverback who had tried in vain to protect his family.
There are only some 800 mountain gorillas left in the world today. That is actually a significant improvement—when Diane Fossey worked with them in the 70s and 80s they were less than 300. But of course, one virus or another civil war could wipe them out in a flash. Males take 15 years to maturity; females 10 years, and a single baby is born to a mother once every 4 to 8 years.
The mountain gorilla has never successfully been kept in captivity—what you may have seen in a zoo is a western lowland relative. The mountain gorilla is our closest primate relative, sharing 98.6 percent of our genome. Not surprisingly, their intelligence is surpassed only by our species, sometimes.
The mountain gorilla remains on the list of critically endangered species. What a loss to the world if they become extinct.
This summer Debby and I trekked through the Virunga mountains of Uganda and had one unforgettable hour to quietly observe these fierce looking but peace-loving, family oriented, vegetarian eating, so human-like primates.
What a loss to the world if we lose these gentle giants of the jungle, and those gentle giants of the sea, and all those creatures, great and small, all those wild things wise and wonderful, all those beings bright and beautiful that share the planet with us.
What a loss to the world if my children, and their children, will visit the Galapagos devoid of those turtles in the ocean and those tortoises on land, never mind the marine iguanas and the blue-footed boobies.
What a loss if they will trek to Africa devoid of those gorillas in the mist, never mind the black rhinos and Rothschild giraffes
An African proverb states: Let us think of our world not so much as inherited from our ancestors but as borrowed from our children.
Amen to that. Amen.