Scripture tells us that we hold the Earth in trust for future generations

August 12, 2006
The Bright Sun Blue Sky Clouds
Published in The Times, 12th August 2006

Sweltering in the summer sun last month, you could feel global warming, not just think about it. It is one thing to read about melting glaciers in mountains far away, and crumbling ice packs in the Arctic and Antarctic. It’s another to experience the suffocating impact of the hottest July in England since records began in 1659.

It was a reminder — if we needed reminding — of the fine limits within which we live. In the known Universe there are a hundred trillion galaxies, each with a hundred billion stars. Yet thus far we know of only one planet, Earth, capable of supporting any living organisms, let alone that gifted, wayward species Homo sapiens, to which we belong. We are damaging the atmosphere, on whose delicate balance we depend, at reckless speed.

At a conference in California recently, the former US Vice-President Al Gore set out an overwhelming case for the impact of global warming. Experts have long debated whether it really exists, but the accumulating evidence is hard to deny. Seven of the eight hottest years on record have occurred in the last decade. In 2003 the heat wave across Europe claimed 30,000 lives.

Carbon dioxide emissions create the so-called greenhouse effect by which heat is trapped in the Earth’s atmosphere. As ice and snow melt at the poles, less sunlight is reflected back. Freak weather, including hurricanes and tornados, becomes more common. Sea levels rise. Life becomes uncannily reminiscent of the story told in the Bible about Noah and the Flood — an echo of which can be found in many ancient literatures. We face a global risk that cries out for a global response.

It’s here that we need to pool our religious wisdom as well as our scientific expertise. The Hebrew Bible contains some of the world’s earliest environmental legislation. Don’t destroy trees under the pretext of waging war, says Deuteronomy. Let fields lie fallow once in seven years, commands Leviticus. Several otherwise mystifying prohibitions — such as mixing milk and meat or sowing mixed grain — can now be seen as substantive or symbolic environmental warnings whose message is: respect the integrity of nature. Don’t transgress boundaries. Each life form has its part to play in Earth’s complex ecology.

One of the most powerful of all consciousness-raising institutions is the biblical Sabbath, the weekly reminder that we are not just creators: we are also creations. The prohibition against work sets limits to our freedom to manipulate and exploit natural resources. Observant Jews do not drive on the Sabbath, nor do they switch on electrical devices. The Sabbath is a tutorial in ecological self-restraint.

There is a highly significant phrase in the second chapter of Genesis that gets lost in translation. It says that God “took the man and placed him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it”. In the original Hebrew, these two verbs are technical terms designating specific types of responsibility.

The word translated as “to work” in fact means “to serve”. It is the term the Bible elsewhere uses to describe the relationship between humanity and God. It means that within the created world we are servants not masters. The verb translated as “take care of” has the legal sense of guardianship. We do not own the world. God has temporarily placed it in our care as trustees for the benefit of future generations.

The history of human habitation of the Earth is marked by chapter after chapter of ecological destruction: of species hunted to extinction, land worked to exhaustion, and resources used to depletion. The damage is not new, but its pace and impact are unprecedented. It reminds me of the fabled speech of the politician who said: “Yesterday we stood at the edge of the abyss, but today we have taken a giant step forward.”

Fifteen centuries ago Judaism’s Sages said that when God made the first man, He took him to see all the trees in the Garden of Eden. He said to him: “See how beautiful are My works. All that I have created I have made for you. But be careful that you do not ruin My world, for if you do, there is no one else to put right what you have destroyed.”How fatefully those words echo now. We are today consuming our children’s tomorrow. Before it is too late we must learn environmental habits of reverence, responsibility and restraint.