This is a guest post from Rabbi Michael Cohen, Director of Special Projects for the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies and a 350.org ally.
Forty years ago this year, in 1968, Hanukkah and Ramadan ended on the same date. The next day was Christmas Eve. That evening, one quarter of the world’s population saw, for the first time, images taken by the Apollo 8 astronauts of the earth from a lunar orbit. The earth, a beautifully colored marble ball floating across the black backdrop of the universe looked lonely and vulnerable. Those pictures captured the imagination of the world, triggering something in the consciousness of humanity that gave birth to the environmental movement and, two years later, the first Earth Day.
To frame that moment, a shared historic moment that would transcend all the divisions of the world, the Apollo 8 crew read from the beginning of the Bible, the first ten lines from the Book of Genesis. The opening chapters of Genesis not only include the account of the creation of the earth, but over and over tell us of the importance of diversity.
All of creation is called “good,” reminding us of the value of the multiplicity of the world that we live on. The text also teaches us, by describing everything that is created before humans as “good;” that all things have intrinsic value in and of themselves beyond any value that we may place on them. Once humans are created, “very good” is the adjective applied by the text. An anthropocentric reading of the text would say this is because the world was created for our needs, and once we are in place we can do what we want with the world. A biocentric reading of the text says that “very good” only means that creation as described in the text was complete and that we humans were the last piece of the biological puzzle.
This reading is supported by the reality that if humans were to disappear from the face of the earth all that had been created before us would go on quite well, actually better, without our presence. The timely remake and release this month of the 1950s film classic The Day the Earth Stood Still makes that same point. If a stratum of the diversity of life that had been created before humans were to disappear, we, and all that had been created after it, would no longer exist. In a bit of Heavenly humor on Darwin’s survival of the fittest, it is actually the smallest and least physically strong species, like the butterflies, bees, and amoebas that hold the survival of the world in place. Unlike the other species of the planet, we have the power to commit biocide if we do not protect and preserve those smaller forms of life.
The importance of diversity is emphasized a few chapters later, in the story of Noah, where Noah is told to bring pairs of each species onto the ark so that after the flood they can replenish the earth. After the flood, God places a rainbow in the sky as a reminder to never again destroy the world. It is both a symbol and a metaphor; a single ray of light refracted through water, the basic source of all life, produces a prism of colors. As with the Creation story, we are again reminded that the foundation of diversity is that we all come from one source. On its most profound level, this understanding should give us all the awareness that we have a relationship with and are connected to the rest of humanity and creation.
Immediately following the story of Noah we read about the Tower of Babel. The whole account takes up only nine verses. The conventional reading is that its message is one against diversity; the babel of languages at the end of the story is understood as a punishment. The Israeli philosopher and scientist Yeshayahu Leibowitz presents a different reading of the text. For Leibowitz, Babel represents a fascist totalitarian state where the aims of the state are valued more than the individual. In such a society, diverse thought and expression is frowned upon. The text tells us that everyone “had the same language, and the same words.”
We read in the genealogies that link the Noah and Babel stories before the building of the Tower that the “nations were divided by their lands, each one with its own language, according to their clans, by their nations.” Leibowitz sees the babel of languages not as a punishment but a corrective return to how things had been and were supposed to be.
That is still our challenge today. Diversity is not a liberal value; it is the way of the world. We know that the environment outside of our human lives is healthier with greater diversity, coral reefs and rain forests being prime examples. It is also true for humanity. We are better off because of the different religions, nations, cultures, and languages that comprise the human family. The Irish Potato Famine was caused because only one variety of potato was planted. Without diverse crops, the disease spread easily on a large and deadly scale.
In one of his State of the Union addresses, former President Bill Clinton reminded us that within human diversity there is also a deep common connection. He said “This fall, at the White House, one of America’s leading scientists said something we should all remember. He said all human beings, genetically, are 99.9 percent the same. So modern science affirms what ancient faith has always taught: the most important fact of life is our common humanity. Therefore, we must do more than tolerate diversity — we must honor and celebrate it.”
The opening of the Bible understands diversity not as a noun but as a verb; diversity is the basic action for life as we know it on this planet. Its importance is underscored by the fact that three accounts in its opening chapters highlight diversity as a foundation of the world we live in. Such an orientation is essential for our survival as a species.
Vermonter and environmental prophet Bill McKibben has been speaking of late to remind us that unless we reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere back to 350 parts per million we will cause huge and irreversible damage to the earth, including the further destruction of the diversity of life on earth to unprecedented and dangerous levels. He launched a new organization this past spring www.350.org to draw attention to this critical goal for humanity and our biosphere.
When Apollo 8 gave us our first view of our earthly home from space forty years ago this week the level of carbon dioxide was 322 ppm. Over the past four decades we have allowed that level to increase the present 387 ppm; well over the 350 ppm redline. If we wish to celebrate not only the diversity of life, but much of life itself on earth in another forty years we must act now to reduce those levels.