Building a “Fence” around Fossil Fuels

An Editorial from the Summer 2015 issue of Jewish Currents

birds-cleaned-die-gulf-spillBUILDING A “FENCE AROUND THE TORAH” (s’yag l’torah) is a rabbinic prescription that urges the creation of a buffer zone between our behavior and the possible violation of what is sacred. In religious circles, this adds up simply to an intensification of behavioral regulations — but in fact the principle is rooted in a Talmudic story about a human being killed falling from a rooftop because of the lack of a building safety code. S’yag l’torah is, in other words, a Jewish precautionary principle, urging us to protect life from our ignorance and neglect, our greed, our hunger for livelihood, even our innovations, by exercising restraint.

Such a principle was echoed by the United Nations in its 1982 World Charter for Nature, and reiterated by the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992: “Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.” But the precautionary principle is now drowning off the coast of southern California, where more than 100,000 gallons of oil have despoiled one of the most fertile coastal zones of our country. The principle is also being recklessly violated by the Obama administration’s granting of exploratory oil drilling rights to Shell Oil in the Arctic Ocean, where scientists and environmentalists warn that disasters will almost inevitably take place, no matter what technological advances have been put into place since the BP oil inundation of the Gulf of Mexico five years ago.

FowlTechnological advances do not themselves preempt the precautionary principle because human corruption, greed, laziness, and political conflict are at work, too, when it comes to regulation and profit-making. The leaky Santa Barbara pipeline, for example, turns out to have been ‘regulated’ by a federal agency, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, which has barely more employees than the American Battle Monuments Commission yet is called upon to inspect 2.6 million miles of oil and gas pipelines, including offshore. The agency, according to Politico, “grants the industry it regulates significant power to influence the rule-making process, and…  has stubbornly failed to take a more aggressive regulatory role…”

 

IN THE SUMMER 2015 ISSUE of Jewish Currents, our environmental column highlights the fossil-fuel divestment movement, and its unfortunate lack of Jewish organizational participation so far. We urge readers to find ways to get involved in this movement, individually and organizationally. As consumers, we can’t entirely boycott oil, coal, and natural gas industries (although solar energy is now perfectly affordable if you live in a sunny spot); unlike retailers and other ‘brand-name’ industries, fossil-fuel companies are not really dependent on consumer goodwill. Nevertheless, as stockholders or participants in investment funds, we can at least deny those companies our capital, and help raise the alarm.

Building a ‘fence’ around fossil fuels then depends on action by large institutions and governments. Obama’s policy of cultivating a green economy while simultaneously permitting the increase of offshore oil drilling and earth-rattling fracking will not do; it is the policy equivalent of building a foot-high fence to confine a pack of hungry dogs.

It’s well past time to pull out the stops on environmental activism.

Global climate change is happening now. Oceans are warming and acidifying now. Fisheries are collapsing, droughts are lingering, species are being extinguished, all now. Divestment, now! is the least we can do.