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November 25, 2014 | 3rd Kislev 5775

Green thoughts IV: Ponzi and Heschel

Galilee Diary #434, March 22, 2009

Marc J. Rosenstein

The solution of mankind's most vexing problem will not be found in renouncing technical civilization, but in attaining some degree of independence of it. In regard to external gifts, to outward possessions, there is only one proper attitude – to have them and to be able to do without them. On the Sabbath we live, as it were, independent of technical civilization: we abstain primarily from any activity that aims at remaking or reshaping the things of space. Man's royal privilege to conquer nature is suspended on the seventh day.
   
-Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath (1951)

American immigrants here always used to joke about how the new developments and cultural fads of Europe and North America generally took a decade or two to find their way into our mainstream. Often we had the sense of living in a state of delayed development. We were still carrying reusable baskets and even refillable bottles to the market when America had long changed to disposables; we were still mostly riding the buses when everyone in America had a car. Now, however, the time lag has shrunk considerably, probably to zero. Indeed, I think we were even ahead of America in the use of ATMs and later, of cell phones. So now, the world-wide fad in environmentalism has arrived here pretty much simultaneously with its flowering elsewhere. We too now recycle plastic bottles (though only the 1.5 liter ones); we too now use cloth bags instead of plastic at the supermarket; the elites are even buying hybrid cars and installing solar panels.

I wonder, however, if these admirable actions are not merely band-aids on a cancer. As I suspect is the case elsewhere, it is not clear that these visible fads are associated with a deeper understanding of the fundamental problem. We may put our stuff in cloth bags, but are we buying less stuff? We may be building greener homes, but are we building fewer and smaller homes? We may be using more fuel-efficient cars, but are we driving less? My sense is that these measures, which are certainly good and useful, do not address the deeper cultural phenomenon of consumerism, of the assumption that the goal is to make, have, build, and buy more, that growth is necessary. But if in fact resources of space, and energy, and water, are ultimately limited, then, sooner or later the system has to fail. A few months ago only business historians knew what a Ponzi scheme was. Now the whole world knows. And as a number of commentators have pointed out, the category seems applicable to the entire consumerist system – we keep distributing dividends to ourselves by taking more from the next wave of investors, who in this case happen to be our children; when the oil/water/open space run out, we won't be around to suffer the consequences.

For decades, many of us – and not only the Orthodox – thought that there was something right and appropriate that Shabbat in Israel was an official day of rest, when businesses were closed. That seemed part of what a Jewish state was all about. Of course it led to hardships and inequities and made life difficult for many people, and one could always argue about how rigidly it should be enforced – and about who should have the authority to decide just what should be allowed. Ultimately, over the years, the claim of individual rights has trumped that romantic notion of a Jewish state, and the capitalists and secularists have "won" over the clericalist bureaucrats – many malls are open on Shabbat, and are packed with shoppers, for shopping is, after all, a form of family recreation (at least here we don' t yet see child-size shopping carts with the sign "consumer in training"). So we have a victory for individual freedom – and a sad failure by Israel to demonstrate the power of our tradition to stand against the tide of consumerism, a missed opportunity to find a way to integrate the powerful universal message of Shabbat (as articulated so well by Heschel) into the culture of the Jewish state.

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