As evidence of human-made climate change mounts, so too do the denials from the Religious Right. Despite historically elevated atmospheric levels of CO2, rising global temperatures and the melting of glaciers, a new vanguard of conservatism has emerged to repudiate scientific fact with biblical evidence.
“The earth will end only when God declares it’s time to be over,” said GOP Congressman John Shimkus at a hearing of the U.S. House Subcommittee on Energy and Environment in 2009 after reading from the Book of Genesis. He continued: “Man will not destroy this earth.”
Shimkus joins the ranks of prominent fundamentalists such as Rick Santorum, Senator Jim Inhofe and Pat Robertson in his faith-based skepticism of climate change. As the denials grow louder and more bizarre (Robertson recently pointed to the lack of SUVs on Mars as evidence disproving man-made global warming), persons of faith across the country have begun to push back, calling for religiously mandated environmental action.
In Bloomington, Rabbi Brian Besser has taken up the cause. With much of central Indiana ravaged by drought this summer, Besser confronted the issue during a recent service at the Beth Shalom Temple, referencing a chapter in Deuteronomy in which God threatens to close up the rains if human beings begin to serve other gods.
“Gods of ambition, the gods of greed, the gods of short-term gain,” Besser explains. “It sort of sends shivers up my spine in terms of what’s happening in the Midwest this year.”
It comes as no surprise, then, that Beth Shalom is home to the Till and Tend program, an initiative in which members of the congregation are called upon to reduce their energy use at home. To date, nearly half of the congregation’s households have signed on, heeding the warning of a popular Midrash: “Take care lest you spoil and destroy my world, because if you do, there is no one after you to make it right again.”
The origins of Till and Tend lie eight thousand miles from Bloomington in the western highlands of Kenya. While working with a savings and loan program to help alleviate poverty in the region in 2006, Madeline Hirschland discovered how the pernicious effects of climate change—drought, flooding, and hotter temperatures—impacted the world’s poor. Soon, though, Hirschland realized that these effects had also been brought to bear on the American Midwest, and she decided to return home and make a difference from Bloomington.
“Ground zero for climate change is, among other places, Indiana,” Hirschland said.
So, in 2007, Hirschland met with other members of the Beth Shalom Congregation and formed what would become the Till and Tend energy reduction initiative (the group derives its name from a passage in Genesis in which God commands Man to look after the Garden of Eden). Two years later, during the Sukkot festival of 2009, the committee drew up a pledge committing its signers to reduce energy consumption. The timing was no coincidence. In remembrance of the 40 years that the Israelites spent wandering the desert, Jews live outside in temporary structures during Sukkot, their bodies exposed to the elements.
“Mother Nature will come along and humble us at some point, and I think Sukkot reminds us of that,” Rabbi Besser said.
With wood and thatch sukkahs as their backdrop, the Till and Tend committee members signed the pledge to reduce their home energy consumption by one-seventh (a nod to Shabbat, the day of rest, as well as the seventh day of the Jewish week), and eventually enlisted nearly half the congregation in the effort.
But would anyone really turn off the AC?
Despite the enthusiasm of the committee, the program was initially forced to overcome considerable internal resistance. According to Lana Eisenberg, co- chair of Till and Tend, some members of the congregation did not sign the pledge because they did not think they would be able to reduce consumption, while others simply refused to be troubled. As the months passed, however, Eisenberg witnessed a powerful force put to use: “Peer Pressure,” she said, pointing to “a growing sense that if not everybody, a lot of people were doing this.”
In order to reduce energy, Till and Tend offered concrete and, indeed, rather minute tasks to reduce energy: improving home insulation, lowering the thermostat during the winter, and drying laundry on low heat. With such a roadmap in place, 90% of signees were able to meet the goal established in the pledge. Such remarkable success led Interfaith Power and Light to
award the congregation a $1,000 prize last year for inspiring action in the congregation, and Beth Shalom is currently working to reduce the energy consumption of the temple itself.
The effects of climate change, however, persist. And as the planet becomes less hospitable to life, fear remains a powerful motivator for at least one member of Till and Tend to make a difference.
“I fear for the future of the planet,” Eisenberg said, a few moments after outlining the program’s goals for energy reduction. “I fear as a mother and a grandmother, I fear as a person who loves life.”
In 2011, Beth Shalom joined Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Sikh and Unitarian congregations in Indianapolis to form Hoosier Interfaith Power and Light. Committed to reversing the negative effects of climate change, HIPL is a regional branch of Interfaith Power and Light, a national organization that works across faiths in order to encourage responsible stewardship of the environment.
Earth Care, HIPL’s Bloomington branch, aims to simplify energy reduction with its “Task of the Month Toolkit,” a monthly guide offering practical tips on energy conservation.
“It’s so hopeful,” said Madeline Hirschland, a founding member of Earth Care. “A lot of members of my community significantly reduced their energy use. It’s possible. We can all do this together.”