Q. What does Judaism say about environmental preservation versus human development?
A. Judaism, through the Bible, was the originator of the idea of a duty towards the environment. Jewish ethics cannot therefore view with unconcern the danger of widespread environmental devastation, and it is characteristic of Judaism that a major Jewish organisation – the Jewish National Fund – works so energetically to ensure the health of nature and the environment.
The Biblical principle begins with Deut. 21:19:20, with its command against the wanton destruction of trees; from this derives the general rule of bal tash’chit, which prohibits any form of wanton destruction, including stopping up a spring, demolishing a building or smashing household goods (Kidd. 32a).
However, there must be a balance between the needs of nature and those of man, and if they clash, human needs, if responsibly defined, must prevail. It would be ludicrous if the wish to preserve the environment at all costs were to result in a world in which human beings felt excluded and irrelevant.
The world has been made for man, not man for the world; man is not an intruder, and God’s work of creation is clearly stated as reaching its culmination in the creation of human beings, with the right to inhabit, enjoy and utilise nature and its facilities. Genesis 1:28 empowers man to “subdue” the earth, though not to abuse or disregard it. The Midrash relates that God told Adam, “See how lovely and worthy of praise are My works. They have all been created for your sake. Take care not to spoil or destroy My world” (Ecclesiastes Rabba to 7:13).
The question we have to ask is, in what circumstances should man’s needs prevail in a clash with nature? The answer must be that whatever is essential for normal living must be accepted as the highest priority, though “normal living” does not mean mere commercial advantage or a wish for power, domination, success or status.
Constructive human activities which are generally viewed as indispensable for life do not infringe the prohibition of bal tash’chit even if there is some cost to the environment. Every attempt must be made to accommodate the claims of the champions of the environment, but not at the expense of human need.