Human Rights and Ecology

By Seidenberg, David | Tikkun, July/August 2008 | Go to article overview

Human Rights and Ecology


Seidenberg, David, Tikkun


The Problem

THE INTERSECTION BETWEEN ECOLOGY AND HUMAN RIGHTS IS A DEEP ONE. IT'S NOT only found in opposing the building of a toxic waste incinerator near a poor community, or fighting the exposure of children to endocrine-disrupting pesticides. It goes beyond issues of environmental justice, or the impact of pollution on people's quality of life, beyond those places where human rights and the environment are obviously congruent.

Nor is it in the perceived moments of conflict between human rights and the environment, such as the false choice between making jobs and saving a forest, as in the fight between Redwood activists and Pacific Lumber. Most of the time, these conflicts arise from economic assumptions that don't account for the real value of an intact ecosystem.

A deeper intersection is found in the great human tragedy that could accompany global warming. If predictions hold and the rising sea creates millions of refugees from coastal areas (God help us), then shelter, which should be a right, will become an impossibility. Any government trying to protect the most basic human needs and rights would find itself in extreme crisis under such circumstances, and many governments will be tempted to discard human rights in the name of national emergency. It is this kind of scenario, this kind of vanishing point in the distance, that makes me think: How can anyone ever talk about human rights without talking about the earth? But this is not the deepest connection.

Where we find the deepest depths, so to speak, is not the places where human rights and ecology coincide or conflict, but where human rights, in its most general formulation, makes us blind to our place in the earth-it's not the effect of global warming, but, on the spiritual level, its cause. It is this: Human rights are grounded in the essential equality of human persons ("All men are created equal," or the less familiar UN Declaration, "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights"). This notion of rights, beautiful in isolation, appears to rest on the essential inequality of all other species and non-human individuals, of ecosystems, even of the earth itself, making everything else subservient to human desires.

In Jewish terms, this problem is embodied by the concept of God's image. If we read the Torah on the simple level, it looks like only we humans are "created in God's image." In that view, it sounds like no other species or need has value compared with human life: "One who saves a human life saves a complete world"; "Every person should say: For my sake the world was created."

The root of this perspective on humanity is one of the great contributions of Judaism: we are called to affirm the sacredness of every person, Jewish or not, enemy, friend, or neighbor. That is the world I want to live in, a world that respects human rights, and grounds them in what makes each of us human-but what is it that makes us human?

Our Humanity

MANY OF US DOING ECOLOGY THINK ABOUT THE QUESTION THIS WAY: OUR HUMANITY emerges from our relationship with all life-not just with other human beings-and from our connection to the earth. One can experience this in the inspiration we feel from other animals, in our love (our biophilia, as E.O. Wilson calls it) for the diverse beauty of all living things, even in the human capacity to live in almost every ecosystem existing on this planet. "Fill the earth and connect with her," one might say.

Human diversity arises from ecological diversity. The reason why there are different human cultures and religions is not only or primarily political, it's that each society finds unique ways to teach the generations how to live in harmony with a particular place through rituals and stories. Hence, lulav (palm branch) and sukkah (temporary structure) on the fall full moon. Hence, the teaching that adam (person) is so-called because the human was created from the adamah (earth or soil). …

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