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Pandemic Ethics

Stewarding Earth

The danger unleashed by the novel coronavirus demonstrates that human welfare is intertwined with the lives of other species and with the health of our planet. The Torah charges us with responsibilities for stewarding the earth and its creatures. Even as the pandemic demonstrates human vulnerability, it also illustrates the power of collective action to make transformational change. To respond to the virus, we have made drastic changes in our day-to-day lives that would have been unthinkable before it struck. What can we do to build on this newfound collective will to change? How can we avoid a return to our worst abuses of the environment?

Traditional sources

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Current thinking

Has coronavirus made us more ethical consumers?

By Katherine Latham — January 14, 2021

With Covid-19 and the resulting lockdowns increasing work burdens and financial insecurities for many, one might think that ethical and environmental concerns would be neglected. However, numerous reports and studies have in fact shown that coronavirus has focused people on helping to create a better, healthier world. 

“The coronavirus has brought our food and farming systems sharply into focus, exposing the fragility of our food production systems, and inflexible supply chains.”

Back to Church, but Not, Let’s Hope, Back to Normal

By Bill McKibben — July 6, 2020

Bill McKibben, founder of the grassroots climate campaign 350.org, writes that we should not return to ‘normal’ even as life starts to back up. The cities and communities should massively shift their budget priorities that advance environmental and racial justice.

“One way to think about this pause in our lives is as a rare—likely a once-in-a-lifetime—opportunity for a reset. We actually stopped, the one thing our societies have never heretofore done. Things ground to a halt, offering us the chance to examine our lives and our institutions. And now, if we want it, we have a chance to rearrange them.”

The End of Meat is Here

By Jonathan Safran Foer — May 9, 2020

Author Jonathan Safran Foer argues that factory farming perpetuates climate change, racism, the exploitation of workers, the suffering of animals and the threat of more illness. Since three out of four new or emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic and factory farms are a breeding ground for pandemics, the author calls for an end to eating animals.

“With the horror of pandemic pressing from behind, and the new questioning of what is essential, we can now see the door that was always there. As in a dream where our homes have rooms unknown to our waking selves, we can sense there is a better way of eating, a life closer to our values. On the other side is not something new, but something that calls from the past — a world in which farmers were not myths, tortured bodies were not food and the planet was not the bill at the end of the meal.”

We have to wake up: factory farms are breeding grounds for pandemics

By Jonathan Safran Foer and Aaron S. Gross – April 20, 2020

Author Jonathan Safran Foer and Jewish ethics scholar Aaron S. Gross show how the history of recent pandemics, such as the swine flu or the bird flu, reveals a link between animal and human health. They argue that to reduce risk of pandemics for ourselves, our attention needs to turn to the health of animals. This is in clear contrast with the growing number of factory farms. Although the piece was not written from a Jewish perspective, it promotes the Jewish imperative of tza’ar ba’aley hayim, the value of prevention of pain to animals.

“What can we do? The link between factory farming and increasing pandemic risk is well established scientifically, but the political will to curtail that risk has, in the past, been absent. Now is the time to build that will. It really does matter if we talk about this, share our concerns with our friends, explain these issues to our children, wonder together about how we should eat differently, call on our political leaders, and support advocacy organisations fighting factory farming. Leaders are listening. Changing the most powerful industrial complex in the world – the factory farm – could not possibly be easy, but in this moment with these stakes it is, maybe for the first time in our lifetimes, possible.”

Climate Change, Pandemic, and Religion in COVID-19

By Anna Peterson — April 14, 2020

Anna Peterson, a scholar of religion and social change, observes that major behavioral changes undertaken in response to the pandemic have had significant effects on the environment. She proposes that the most important lesson of the pandemic is that people can indeed change their behavior and attitude towards the environment.

“We are going to spend a long time thinking about – and living with – the consequences of the pandemic, in every sphere of our lives. It can be an opportunity, as the owner of a hotel in Venice suggests, “to reflect and see how we can be more organized in the future to find a balance” between humans and nature. Such reflection, hopefully, will lead to the conclusion that there is no deep conflict to be resolved between environmental and human health. If COVID-19 has taught us anything, hopefully, it is that human life can be sustained only if we dramatically reduce the harm we are doing to the planet.”

Caring for Creation: Ancient Wisdom in Time of Crisis

By Hava Tirosh-Samuelson — April 14, 2020

For Dr. Hava Tirosh-Samuelson, Director of Jewish Studies and Irving and Miriam Lowe Professor of Modern Judaism at Arizona State University, the pandemic is a prompt to attend to the interdependence of humans, the Earth, and all its inhabitants. The unprecedented crises of our time accentuate the need for a return to ancient religious teachings and virtues.

“As we face an unknown future, we should not be deluded by technoscientific hubris to believe that we can design the future. What we can do is act rightly with care, concern, and loving-kindness, ensuring the well-being and health of other people, other creatures, and ourselves. To flourish, creation (in Hebrew, beriah) requires health (in Hebrew, beriut) of all creatures (in Hebrew, beruim). A healthy human society requires investment in health systems as well as investment in the health of all ecosystems, the foundation of human life.”