Torah and the Origins of Sustainability

Torah & Sustainable Development

Bill Kramer

How can the world find ways to raise billions out of poverty without destroying the ecosystems on which all of depend for survival? Is the “consumption economy” always and in every way antithetical to sustainable development?  How do we balance personal comfort and planetary health?  As my work for the last decade or more has been about finding approaches to truly sustainable development, I am always searching for new answers.  This little talk has given me the opportunity to draw on the Jewish tradition for some guidance.

So, let’s start here:  The Bruntland Commission in 1987 defined sustainable development as that which  “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.”  The first link.  L’dor v’dor.  And the limits of l’dor v’dor?

Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai used to say,: “If you have a sapling in your hand, and someone should say to you that the Messiah has come, stay and complete the planting, and then go and greet the Messiah.” – Avot de Rabbi Nathan, 31b

The point is unambiguous: Our responsibility to future generations never ends.

Sustainable development is to some degree about economic growth and development.  Messiahs lie thickly on the ground of academic economic development.  Theories are handed down, as from heaven – in this case, mostly Oxford and Cambridge (England or Massachusetts, take your pick).  And from the 18th century forward, we have become increasingly susceptible to technology-based messianic thinking, quick fixes that demand only use, not serious engagement or meaningful ownership.  But, these “development from above” theories have proven to be largely an illusion: transitory, ineffective, and destructive.  Why?  The answer is in another question:  who owns it enough to take responsibility?  Here’s an ancient take on this, from Ezekiel:

“Is it not enough for you to graze on choice grazing ground, but you must also trample with your feet what is left from your grazing? And is it not enough for you to drink clear water, but you must also muddy with your feet what is left?” Ezekiel 34:18

No sense of inter-generational responsibility; no sense of ownership of the policy. A sharp reminder on human nature itself, and, by the by, the need for regulated markets, too.  Flaws in the Mosaic Mt. Sinai top-down model were evident early on. Ezekiel wrote in the 6th c. BCE, around the time of the Babylonian conquest and exile.  So, these are not new issues.

There is an alternative.  A bottom up model.  Development from below speaks to, rests on, and demands engagement from, the individual, and from there, on the human connection to the natural – and spiritual – worlds.

Midrash tells us, ‘Three things are of equal importance: earth, humans and rain.  Without earth, there is no rain, and without rain, the earth cannot endure, and without either, humans cannot exist.’”– Midrash, Genesis Rabbah, 13:3

Systems thinking.  Not bad for a pre-scientific era.  Understanding these inter-relationships, and valuing them, fosters responsibility, as well as authority.  Only now are many companies seeing the virtue of systemic thinking around sustainable business.  At Colorado State University we are about to launch an executive education program that emphasizes systemic thinking and the very same principles as Rabbis Shimon Bar Yochai and Levi ben Hiyyata acutely observed many centuries ago.

“God led Adam around the Garden of Eden and said, ‘Look at My works. See how beautiful they are, how excellent. See to it that you do not spoil or destroy My world – for if you do, there will be no one to repair it after you.” – Midrash, Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:13

No need to tell you that we are fast approaching the time when there may be no one to repair the world after us.  Success in my line of work depends on a lot of firms figuring out that there is not much future in a world without customers, and by the way, you can thrive by operating sustainably.

The spiritual essence of poverty – and I mean for the word ‘poverty’ to apply to us, the comfortably middle class, as well as the financially poor – is to be divorced from the decision-making that affects us, and also from community.   Rabbi Ira spoke often of “the 3 Bs” – belong, behave, believe – in that order.  One must first belong to a society; its rules impose particular behaviors, norms and expectations; then, in time, behaviors become beliefs.  This is as true in economic society as it is in spiritual society.  Consider what Torah says about agriculture, the backbone of early society:

“When you reap the harvest of your land, you will not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard. You shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I am the Eternal your God.” – Leviticus 19:9-10. And, “When you enter the land that I assign to you, the land shall observe a Sabbath of the Eternal.  Six years you may sow and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather in the yield.  But in the seventh year the land shall have a Sabbath of complete rest.” – Leviticus 25 2-4.

Stop and consider how profoundly rooted in a broad social contract these ancient teachings are.  In these norms are found both the essence of poverty alleviation and of inter-generational care for the natural world.   Consider then how far we are not just from that time, but even from our own American revolutionary history, when the colonists fought to liberate themselves from the English Parliament and English corporations which ruled from above, without their consent, from afar. Focusing for a moment on our contemporary backbone – the business company, the founding fathers understood corporations to be necessary private means to the commonwealth’s broad ends – entities to be carefully ring-fenced and controlled.  The consequences, here and elsewhere, of losing control of the social contract (“taxes are theft”) and the firm (“too big to fail”, or in other words, we work for the corporations, not the other way around) are dire – four billion poor people dire.  I spoke a moment ago about the essence of poverty.  In my work at World Resources Institute, we came to a startlingly biblical understanding of the base of the economic pyramid – a lack of access to goods and services, paying more for less, and cut off from the protections of the polity.   Torah teaches

“Justice, justice you shall pursue” (Deuteronomy 16:20).

To be sure, achieving justice, especially in the economic realm, is a Sisyphean task, but we are not absolved from engagement.

“It is not upon you to finish the task, yet you are not free to desist from it, ” said Rabbi Tarfon. Pirke Avoth 2:16.

Myself, I was able to find a path from the world of retail commerce to a world where I can try to influence others whose businesses affect millions.  Working with senior executives of a few big companies back at WRI, my colleagues and I helped to create new business models that engage with, rather than act upon the poor, models that empower rather than exploit.  Today, the canvas is even larger – creating new business models that reflect truly systemic sustainability: environmental and social, as well as financial.  We’re only just beginning; there’s no question that I will not live to finish the job.  Or even see a serious dent made.

But we all share in the job.  We belong to a community that emphasizes practical, and very worldly, issues of equity and justice.  Mordecai Kaplan wrote:

“A theology which is not a plan of social action is merely a way of preaching and praying. It is a menu without the dinner.” (Not So Random Thoughts)

Any theory or practice of economic growth that does not account for inter-generational responsibilities, or for equity, inclusiveness, and justice is the menu without dinner.  Not only is it likely to fail at terrible human and natural cost, it is inconsistent with our teachings and our purpose in life.  While we may scan every quadrant for inspiration, we can only succeed from the bottom up.   And that means starting with ourselves: staying connected to our community, struggling to shape shared norms, owning our beliefs.

Let me leave you with a passage from Maimonides that I find particularly profound.  Rest with it a moment, and you may find, as I do, that it applies to the business world, and human relations, as well as the natural world.

“It should not be believed that all the beings exist for the sake of the existence of humanity.  On the contrary, all the other beings too have been intended for their own sakes, and not for the sake of something else.” – Guide to the Perplexed 3:13

Thank you, and hag sameach.


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