We have one home. With seven and a half billion of us and 10 billion species, the earth is our collective ship. Jumping ship is out of the question. So we have to figure out how to make it work here, together.
An ancient Jewish teaching from almost 2,000 years ago helps illustrate this. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai taught about a group of people who were travelling in a boat. One of them took a drill and began to drill a hole beneath himself. His companions said to him: "Why are you doing this?" The man replied: "Why are you concerned about it? Am I not drilling under my own place?" They said to him: "But you will flood the boat for all of us!"
Imagine being a passenger on this boat, and one person, without concern for you or others, jeopardizes your safety and security. The person drilling a hole on the boat may have valid reasons for doing so. Perhaps they want to drop a fishing line because they are hungry. Maybe they want to use the water to cool their feet or wash. Maybe the boat is on a lake and they want water to drink. But no matter how rational the reason, drilling a hole in a boat to fulfill the desires of just one individual jeopardizes everyone’s safety. Rabbi Shimon’s story warns us of the destructive power of letting our selfish desires overtake all other considerations. It's not about whatever floats your boat.
Furthermore, everyone on the boat needs to work together to ensure this type of behavior doesn't continue. The man drilling the hole is dangerous, but it’s equally dangerous to be the kind of person who doesn’t know or doesn’t care what happens. If the boat sinks, it is the fault of the driller, as well as of the others who don't convince him to stop. That's why we need all hands on deck.
On the communal ship we call earth, billions of people are drilling holes. Some dig bigger holes than others. We might measure it by one's ecological footprint, or one's carbon footprint, i.e. the amount of resources each person consumes, and the amount of climate change-causing carbon dioxide, methane, and HFCs (from air conditioners and refrigerators) they put in the atmosphere. Praise the Lord who made a big and durable ship for us to live on. For hundreds of years, the oceans, boreal forests, and rainforests have absorbed tremendous amounts of our carbon emissions. But that resiliency appears to be weakening, especially as human population and consumption continue to increase. If we dig too many holes and disrupt the climate too much—then we and the next generation will pay a steep price for our excess consumption. This is both a theological and a scientific principle.
In my previous post, I wrote about how we cannot simultaneously curb climate change and expand consumer society. At its root, the consumer lifestyle involves drilling holes in the collective ship in order to produce and dispose of consumer products. The drilling metaphor is appropriate today because the main way that we are causing global environmental problems and fueling the industrial economy is through drilling for oil and gas. And while doing so is different than drilling a hole on a boat, if we continue to drill for gas and oil on this planet, and exploit the proven reserves that oil companies have shown exist, then we will likely sink the ship of human civilization.
It is no coincidence that some of the deepest environmental teachings come from people on a ship. A person has a much different level of concern for their personal safety when on a ship surrounded by water than when on land. The people on the ship feel more compelled to act when someone acts out of line because they see the damage directly and sense that their lives are at stake. The ship metaphor conveys the paradigm that a person is supposed to have in living on this planet, one of consciousness, stewardship, and respect.
Yet in our times, the challenge is that the damage is indirect. Even if you are aware of your role in the problem, you don’t see the effect of your action on a daily basis, because the atmosphere is so big and complex. One of our biggest challenges today is addressing problems where we don't see a direct link between our actions and the problem. Turning on a car engine, a light switch, or an air-conditioner doesn’t make the earth suddenly hot or bring an extreme storm. We are drilling, but we don't fully grasp the impact of our actions. If we did, how could we look we our children in the eye and say, 'I am jeopardizing your future, and you will pay the price for my lifestyle'?
The man drilling under his seat may not have realized how his action would impact others. If he had known the facts, he may not have drilled. The more ignorant a person is to how they impact their surroundings, the more likely they are to damage it. It’s a big illusion to think that what you do only impacts yourself. Many Americans continue to deny or be skeptical of the scientific consensus on climate change, thinking that how they live impacts only themselves. Beyond climate change, the unbreathable smog in one country travels the airways to a country with pristine, crisp, clean air. The water heavy with lead and other contaminants will sink into the ground water and make people sick. And the insecticides sprayed on crops reach the hands of those who pick them.
To rise to this ultimate challenge for human civilization, we will have to raise the level of our spiritual awareness and maturity. A person is able to live at varying levels of soul awareness, and a sustainable planet will require that we cultivate ourselves to live at higher levels of consciousness.
To address our challenges in time, we can't take the slow boat to China. As the Jewish sage Hillel said, 'If not now, when?’ With Earth as the home for humanity, we have a shared responsibility for each other. What you do and what I do matter, for ourselves and everyone else on board.