Choosing Life: The Spiritual Challenge of Climate Crisis and Environmental Racism

The greatest existential challenge of our time is how to join together to choose life. Judaism and spirituality in general are enormous resources for the mission.

Even a 3-year-old looking around can tell whose life matter. When I travel through the great city of Philadelphia, I move from neighborhoods of greenery, estate homes and fresh air, to neighborhoods that are full of trash, toxic dumping, high carbon emissions and vacant, boarded-up industrial and residential lots.

The life expectancy from one ZIP code to the next varies in this city by as much as 20 years.

The same neighborhoods that face blight also have high rates of asthma, heart and lung disease, and diabetes. They are the same neighborhoods that are food deserts with no fresh produce for miles around. They are the same neighborhoods that were redlined, that are up to 20 degrees hotter in the summer because of the lack of trees and that live with energy cutoffs during the heat of the summer and the freeze of the winter because of unaffordable energy bills. They are the same neighborhoods that are drastically over-represented in COVID hospitalizations and deaths. The same ZIP codes have unacceptable rates of high-school graduation and huge rates of incarceration.

Anyone paying attention can see from a very young age that some people are in contexts that allow them to have the resources and to internalize entitlement to make dreams come true. Some people are in contexts that deprive them of resources for thriving and cause them to internalize disregard.

This is environmental racism. When communities of Black, Brown, immigrant and underpaid people are dehumanized and disregarded, are treated like throw-away people in throw-away places — as sacrifice zones — we are seeing environmental racism. The EPA has designated these communities across the country as Environmental Justice communities. (1) Here in Philadelphia, the city’s Office of Sustainability has mapped out the areas of high environmental impact in our city which overlay precisely the areas that face blight, disinvestment in public education and workforce development, over policing and the effects of systemic and personal trauma on individuals, families and whole communities. (2)

These local observations are nestled into an extremely challenging global picture of climate crisis in a world of extreme inequality. Have you noticed the increase of cascading and overlapping challenges of civilizations in crisis? Pandemics, extreme and frequent disastrous storms, war, flooding, rainforest destruction, mass migrations, melting ice, rising ocean waters, salinity and depletion, drought, water and energy conflicts, and more paint the picture at macro level while cumulative burdens from the same forces shape experience at the micro, local level. While people at the bottom of the hierarchy of privilege in the world and in this city are hit the hardest, everyone — no matter your race or class status — is experiencing more and more of the brunt of climate crisis even as entire species and ecosystems are obliterated from the map.

I direct the Climate Justice and Jobs program for POWER Interfaith. One day a little more than a year ago, a small group of us were planning the agenda for the next team meeting. Hurricane Ida had recently raged through town, and we thought maybe someone would have a story to tell about their experience during the Hurricane. When we opened the meeting, every single person had a story to tell of cowering in a basement, flooding, uprooted trees or terror. Some of the people lived in upper-class dwellings, some lived in impoverished, flood-prone, low-lying areas of the city, but everyone had been impacted by the storm.

That is the truth of what is true. Escalating disasters on every front, with some better equipped to face the challenges and some forced into greater desperation. But we are all facing the reality of a world on course for chaos and destruction in our own lifetimes, and certainly in the lifetime of our next generations.

In my own heart and mind, existential questions arise about how to meet this moment. Questions arise for me about how to protect my loved ones. Questions arise about my spiritual leadership for the Jewish community and beyond. How should I meet this moment? When I truly see what is unfolding, what am I called on to do? Questions of spiritual leadership arise about how to help the people I serve as rabbi to meet this moment. Young people come to me saying, “I don’t know how to build my life. Should I be learning survival skills or preparing for a career? Should I learn to forage, or should I go to graduate school? Is it right to bring a baby into this world?” And if they aren’t asking those questions, I wonder whether I should be raising them.

I want to stay awake to the truth of what is true, and I want to support others also in facing reality. It has helped me to remember that there is more to the truth of what is true than a dire trajectory towards disaster. There is also another realm of reality.

All around us the sun shines, the earth beckons, there is breath, we have choice, we are here, and there is love.

That is also the truth of what is true.

It’s important to me to hold both those streams of truth. I want to pay attention to the reality of crisis in the world, and I also want to say Yes to life, Yes to love, Yes to nature, and good food, and music and enjoyment. What is the purpose of working hard to address these interlocking crises? It’s so that we can LIVE. So I want to live, and I want to support others to live. Our tradition says again and again, “Choose Life!” To me, it is human to bring a baby into the world if that’s what you want to do; let’s be human even as we face unprecedented global challenges.

Choosing life is something that our ancestors have done again and again. In Mitzrayim (Egypt) people had babies; during the 40 years in the desert, babies were born; during pogroms and inquisitions and in camps and in tenements, our ancestors literally chose life. Assata Shakur, who became pregnant when she was imprisoned, put it to words:

We said how could we even think about bringing a child into this world? But then what other world is there to bring a child in? … You know, we just decided that we were going to live. We were going to live, we’re going to struggle, and we’re not going to kill our own hopes. We’re not going to kill our own life, we’re not going to kill our right to live. And so we just decided to be human beings, to be people. (3)

Because I understand that every single human being is created in God’s image, betzelem elohim, is worthy of all the blessings of life, I also want these gifts and choices to be accessible to everyone, to my neighbors all across this city and to people around the world. As I understand Judaism as a religious civilization evolving more and more towards universal interconnection, life has to work for all of us — not just for an elite privileged few. It’s not that I want others to have the blessings that I want for myself and my loved ones only because I’m altruistic and kind; it’s that my life and my children’s lives also won’t work well when chaos, disease, hunger and destruction reign. We all have skin in the game. Politically, economically and medically, we really are all in this together: We breathe the same air, share the same pathogens, need the same functional food chains, rely on the full ecology of workers from frontline builders to masters of high-tech.

We as Jewish community members, leaders and fellow travelers get to hold all of the complexity of what is true and nourish ourselves and the people we work with in the full range of truth — in waking up to climate crisis and its unequal impacts, and also in waking up to the beauty and connection of the moment.

The future of life on Earth requires both of these streams of truth. Our ability to be in the stream of each truth requires the other truth to be strong. Without webs of connection and care, we won’t be able to face what we need to face in the world right now. And without strenuous analysis, organizing and action, we won’t have a world of sun and breath and love. We need to support ourselves and challenge ourselves; accept the moment wholeheartedly and change the future with relentless effectiveness.

We need to do this as part of a global community of diversity with commitment to the whole because we literally need all the places and all the people IN for collective survival: We need the elders, the children, the immigrants, the frontline workers, the intellectuals. We need the rain forests, the oceans, the savannahs, the wetlands, we need Black, Brown, White, urban, rural, rich, poor or anywhere in-between.

Spiritual leaders are uniquely situated to guide humanity at this existential and perilous juncture. Some people put all faith in human technical ingenuity — in the technical fixes they imagine will save the day such as seeding the clouds for rain or carbon capture for the runaway from the unchecked burning of fossil fuels that are overheating the planet and threatening life on earth.

True, humans are enormously creative and inventive. Yet we have little reason to believe from past history that we have the moral wisdom or the political gifts to unite humanity around essential solutions. We need spiritual leaders to help us turn towards each other in compassion, with inclusion and for justice. Each one of us can reach out to others, growing a movement of people who are deepening capacity to be with what is and to make change.

For years, I immersed myself in feminist and anti-racist justice movements and I thought “environment isn’t my issue.” I was a founding member of POWER Interfaith more than a decade ago, and for years, I worked in the trenches on economic dignity issues, equitable funding of public education, uprooting racist policy. I worked alongside people of faith from all backgrounds, ZIP codes and races in Philadelphia.

During those same years, some of us began to hear about climate crisis, but I didn’t want to get involved. The changes I could make seemed too insignificant, and the big issues seemed too overwhelming and depressing. I knew that without a strong circle of support, I would not be able to take in and respond to the reality of climate crisis and environmental destruction, and find a way forward. So I checked out a program at a local synagogue about how to join a global network of people connecting and awakening to ecological distress.

The symposium was at Mishkan Shalom in Philadelphia, and out of that, a group of 11 community members formed an affinity group for study and action. We called it “Be the Change.” (4) Now, for well more than 10 years, we’ve been meeting, typically every other week on Shabbat afternoon, to read, discuss, strategize. We ask ourselves how we can meet this moment. What does all this mean for each of us? We call each other into action and explore fears and hopes, always deepening our understanding and our abilities to show up. We keep each other rooted in what Joanna Macy calls “active hope,” knowing that there is so much yet to be revealed about the future and that our actions can help tip the scale of justice one way or another. (5)

During those early years of “Be the Change,” I was helping build POWER, working on other justice issues. So one day, I turned to three comrades, all dedicated African-American church ladies, and said: “What do you think about climate crisis? Does it have any relationship to the justice work we are already doing on living wage, and ending stop and frisk, and funding our public schools fairly?”

They said: “We don’t think this is our issue. But we love you, and we’re willing to learn together and see what it looks like.”

So we met for a year once a month in my living room to learn together about climate crisis. One of our activities was to use a map of all the ZIP codes in the city of Philadelphia and to overlay information about the various burdens that I discussed above.

This project was massively illuminating. That’s how we noticed that life expectancy changed by 20 years moving from a highly privileged neighborhood to a deprived neighborhood. We could see the cumulative burdens of toxic emissions and waste, poverty, dis-invested schools, over-policing and low tree canopy. Our map correlated directly with race. The least burdened communities were vastly more White. The most burdened neighborhoods were almost entirely Black, Brown and often immigrant communities. When the Covid pandemic hit, the neighborhoods with the most hospitalizations and deaths fit right into the pattern. (6) People already impacted by poverty and toxins were the most devastated in the pandemic. Researchers began to show the correlation of who got sickest with systemic racism and inequality.

One of the church leaders, Miss Frances Upshaw, said: “This is the same old thing all over again. We thought we were looking at an environmental issue, but this is just racism and economic inequality all over again.”

We dug deeper and realized that racism is impacting all of us however we are categorized by color because it is a wedge that is driven to keep us apart and to keep us from getting what all people need: clean air to breathe, clean water to drink, good livelihoods, education for our children, safe homes. Not only is racism harming people at the bottom the most — both through material disadvantage, psychological targeting and through failure to open the gates of opportunity for the Great Turning towards the necessary renewable energy future. But racism also keeps us from building a strong movement to win what we all need because it is used to divide and separate people.

We realized that we are part of a system of Patriarchal/White Supremacist/Late Stage Capitalism and that we could not address environmental crisis without directly transforming these root causes. So we started to learn both at POWER and also in “Be the Change” about how a destructive system that is literally threatening life on earth maintains itself. We realized that the climate crisis is not at all only about levels of carbon in the atmosphere; it is caused by a much more pervasive and entrenched way of life that is not serving any of us well.

Patriarchy sets the stage with binary, dualistic thinking and social organization: We are either men or women, better or worse, everyone measured, graded and ranked and treated with unequal resources and unequal dignity. Someone or something is always “Other.” At the bottom of the entire hierarchy is the Earth.

Racism, starting in this country with genocide of indigenous peoples and enslavement of Africans, still to this day ensures a “bottom” level that is both a carrot and a stick “If you don’t comply, you too could be targeted like that,” and “At least you have higher status than Them, even though you don’t have what you need or deserve.” White Supremacy is the systemic nexus of policy, law and history that maintains a dis-advantaging and over-burdening of Black and Brown people.

Capitalism seals the structure in place by paying for political representatives through campaign financing, lobbying and the perpetuation of privilege that maintains the system for profit above people and planet. Capitalism by definition requires unending expansion, growth and more, more, more consumption, on a planet that is finite. Capitalism prevents democracy from thriving and from regulating capitalism itself. Therefore, we see a crumbling democracy that is incapable of addressing the major issues of the day with effective change.

Christian hegemony has to be added to the list of systems that are not serving humanity well. The Catholic Church set forth to conquer and rule native communities around the world historically. Christian conquest set a pattern of colonial extraction and domination. In this country, even today, Christianity is contesting strongly for a White Christian Nationalist ideology that holds a degrading, dehumanizing view of the future. (For instance, see the 2022 Senate and governor electoral campaigns in Pennsylvania.)

We realized that the environment is everything; it’s how we eat, breathe, transport, heat, cool, dwell, earn livelihoods, relate …

The nexus of interlocking systems shaping our environmental experience is not sustainable. Patriarchal/White Supremacist/Capitalist organization is not turning out to be good for living beings. This organization of life is traumatizing — witness the high rates of anxiety, depression, addiction, suicide and murder and annihilation of species. Humanity has eight years before exponential environmental “tipping points” will be reached that are already affecting every area of life from nutrition to health to community stability to species preservation.

The four of us at POWER Interfaith, meeting in my living room, grew into a robust Climate Justice and Jobs team, organizing throughout Pennsylvania for racial and economic justice on a livable planet. (If you can organize the Bingo game, you can organize the revolution.) We run campaigns at the state and local levels, and we win many small victories in a very long haul struggle, even in a state that is hugely in the grip of the fossil-fuel industry.

We create places of connection and belonging as medicine for the alienation and isolation, the hopelessness and helplessness of individuals in Patriarchal /White Supremacist /Capitalist culture. Our work is relational and human. Most meetings start with prayer or a faith reflection and a personal check-in. We make space for grief about how hard and bad the situation is, and also for joy as in sharing a meal or music or a life-cycle highlight. We build shared learning into our monthly meetings. “It has to be fun!” is one of our mantras.

Making places of human connection is an intentional strategy to address climate crisis which is caused by separation: separation of White and Black, separation of those with unearned privilege and those with unearned burdens, separation of industrialized countries from the global majority, separation of humans from the Earth.

We need everyone; all hands in. One of the sweetest spots in our work is bringing together people who are experts in environmental racism because they are surviving it and people who are experts in complicated technical analysis and parsing policy. When we work together, we are so much stronger than when either group stands alone.

But even though we build strong campaigns and we win victories, all of this is too little and too late. We don’t have a “long haul” amount of time to make it right. The pace of our successes isn’t going to get us where we need to be. I just have to hope that millions and millions of people are acting with urgency and creativity and working in their own corners to transform our toxic system. I am hoping that together we build momentum for a better future; that we escalate the pace of our collective work exponentially, moving forward for what we call a Just Transition: a transition away from fossil fuels that overheat the planet, a transition that cares for the fossil-fuel workers and geographic areas that have to make changes, where the costs are shared in ways that make them affordable for all, and that supports healthy, thriving communities.

This necessary transition, transformation, is a portal for getting so much else right this time around: building an inclusive, respectful, resilient energy system that works for all; strengthening democracy so that public participation and co-creation of solutions takes place in a transparent way, ensuring that the communities most harmed in the past, receive the most resources for repair and engagement.

Wherever we start, the issues are so interconnected that we can work towards a comprehensive justice vision. In Philadelphia, gun violence is the single biggest issue on the minds of voters. (We know because we’ve had thousands of conversations with people all across the city.) You care about gun violence? Let us talk about what happens when green investment is infused into neighborhoods for housing efficiency and weatherization, solar panel installation, urban gardens and tree planting, and green jobs. Research shows that gun violence dramatically drops when these green investments are made with public and private money. Let us advocate together for these kinds of investments to reduce gun violence.

Many of my congregants and other people I talk with say, “It’s overwhelming, I don’t know where to start,” and I share with them what I learned. Find a place of connection. Join something. Start something. Belong somewhere and do it together. (Does this sound Kaplanian?) There are no individual solutions. It won’t change anything for you to stop using plastic bags or drive less or even green your synagogue. Those are all good things to do but to make impactful change, it is imperative that you join with others, be part of something bigger than yourself. The systems we are up against are enormous and entrenched. We need places of sustenance and strong people power to change them up. We need each other, across classes and races and genders, in order to make a difference.

On this journey, a major sustenance for me is the treasure of Judaism. I am so utterly grateful for Shabbat. I work really hard, and I rest and replenish deeply during “Shabbat moments” each day and also at the end of a week. I love the rhythm of the Jewish week. I draw from the Jewish teaching that “It is good, it is very, very good.” We know that we are all part of an interconnected web of life — “Shema Yisrael … Yud Hai Vav Hay Ehad” (Hear O Israel, God is One) — so we need to live and organize into that one-ness, caring for ourselves, caring for each other, caring for Earth. Our hands, hearts and heads, whether rich, poor, White, Black, Jewish and non-Jewish, are God at work, co-creating a good world.

2 Responses

  1. Thank you for this deep, meaningful, searching, beautifully-written essay that is a treasure. It is many things including a call to arms. PRIDE has been, and continues to nurture transformation, and I’m wondering what organization might exist in my area. Also I am urged to seek respite in the observance of Shabbat. Thank you, Rabbi Julie

  2. This is wonderful! I wish that all people could/would read just a part of this to understand the truth that is staring at us everyday. And we all can do something about it! In our own little way, every day, we can each be the better person we tell ourselves that we are. We all have Power! Please, please, let us take a moment, focus and figure out where we fit in! The longevity of the world depends on it!

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