Climate Change is a Sin—Here’s How to Repent For It

Today is Tu Bishvat, the Jewish “New Year of the Trees.”  Originally a quasi-economic date, used to calculate the ages of fruit trees (and thus their suitability for tithing), the day was turned by Kabbalists into a celebration of the cosmic “tree of life,” and later, in the twentieth century, into the Jewish eco-holiday.

These days, while not well known outside the Jewish world, Tu Bishvat (the name is simply the date, the 15th day of the month of Shevat—it’s also sometimes spelled Tu B’Shevat) is widely observed by hipster Jews, spiritual Jews, eco-Jews, and the other subcultures of American Jewry that are renewing the Jewish tradition. It’s too early to tell whether such renewers (of which I am one) will have enough of an impact to staunch the tide of Jews leaving their Judaism behind, or whether we are just interesting subcurrents. But this is one of our big days.

Yet the observance of Tu Bishvat calls out the shortcomings, as well as the attractions, of progressive religious observance in the twenty-first century. On the one hand, it’s pretty cool.  Here’s a traditional religious resource that speaks to contemporary concerns about the environment, and bringing together the spiritual and the ecological. The variety of liturgies and rituals for Tu Bishvat is significant, and inspiring.

On the other hand, so what? So a bunch of already-converted liberals get together and reaffirm their commitments to what they already believe. A few will decide that being vegan isn’t enough, and that they’ll stop eating honey as well. Some will sign a petition. Meanwhile, nothing will happen to slow climate change, preserve biodiversity, or save the oceans from floating islands of filth.

In the past, I’d generally ascribed this political impotence to the wishy-washiness of progressive religion. We’ve heard this critique before. Religious conservatives get all fired up about sin and damnation, while progressives sing mealy-mouthed songs about peace and love.  Conservatives are motivated more by fear than progressives are by love.

I’m not sure that’s exactly right, however. One of the better insights of Jonathan Haidt’s popular book on moral intuitionism, The Righteous Mind, is that progressives have some of the same concerns about sanctity and purity as conservatives—we just express them in different ways. To oversimplify, conservatives worry about sex and progressives worry about food.  We’re both concerned with contamination, with pure and impure, and with the Grave Impact of seemingly innocuous personal choices. It’s just that conservatives get upset by homosexuality, and liberals by GMO’s.

In fact, I think the grammar of sin—without its vocabulary—is alive and well in progressive religious circles. Consider how progressives respond when we learn that someone we know is racist, or sexist. If you’re like me and every other progressive I know, you probably recoil in disgust. That moral disgust—which neuroscientists tell us activates the same parts of the brain as physical disgust—is, in Haidt’s understanding, the quintessential reaction of a purity violation. It is also a lot like what I encounter when talking to religious conservatives about homosexuality.

It’s not that progressives are unlike conservatives—it’s that we’re like them. Like religious conservatives, religious progressives gather in flocks and talk only to one another.  (Here I part company somewhat with my colleague Elizabeth Drescher, who recently argued in these pages that liberals’ sense of uniqueness undermines our ability to congregate. Quoting King Missile, “I want to be different—like everybody else I want to be like.”)  We out-pious one another: you eat organic, but I eat local. And outside our echo chambers, no one else hears a word we say.

The mistake isn’t that progressives don’t see climate change as a sin. We do, even if we don’t call it that. The mistake is that we respond to it the wrong way.

Climate change is a sin, but it’s a special kind of sin. It’s not a personal failure but a societal one. We sin collectively (interestingly, in Jewish liturgy, almost all confessionals are in the first-person plural), and if we are to repent, we must repent collectively. That means re-engaging with the people we can’t stand—including people who talk about “sin”—and finding ways to communicate with them, rather than preach to the already converted.

Climate change specifically is perhaps the most challenging case of all, because of the billions of dollars that have been spent to lie to Americans over the last twenty years. As I’ve explored elsewhere, there really is a vast right-wing conspiracy to lie about climate change, and it has worked. Half of Americans don’t “believe” that climate change is real, despite a 99.5% (!) scientific consensus—with the .5% being, unsurprisingly, scientists in the employment of industry.

This is what evil is: lying, in a way that causes harm, in order to enrich oneself. Progressives may not like the language of good and evil (so much judgment!) but it is a public religious language that communicates exactly what the “Merchants of Doubt” (the phrase is the title of Naomi Oreskes’ fantastic exposé on the climate-con industry) do. They lie, they harm, and they do it to make money. Pure evil.

It really doesn’t matter if you use paper or plastic, or if you bring your canvas bag from home.  Personal actions are a tiny drop in a huge bucket. We need systemic change and political change, and we’re not going to get that by turning inward on ourselves, finding additional ways to be personally and pointlessly pious.

Climate change is a collective sin, and it requires collective repentance: alliances with the evangelical-led “creation care” movement, recasting the issue in public moral terms rather than the language of progressive cul-de-sacs, and a de-partisanization of moral good and evil. It is not enough to be the change you want to see in the world. You also have to fight for it.