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EVANA Interview with Dr. Richard Schwartz

'Our best minds should look into all types of societies, seeking wisdom that can avert the catastrophes that the world is rapidly approaching'

Richard H. Schwartz, Professor Emeritus, College of Staten Island has written Judaism and Vegetarianism, Judaism and Global Survival and Mathematics and Global Survival and over 140 articles (at JewishVeg.com/Schwartz) and is also the President of the Jewish Vegetarians of North America and associate producer of A SACRED DUTY: Applying Jewish Values to Help Heal the World.


April 2012

EVANA: Very recently you published, along with Rabbi Yonassan Gershom, "Who Stole My Religion? Revitalizing Judaism and applying Jewish values to help heal our imperilled planet". What is the main point that you want to bring out in your new book?

Richard H. Schwartz: I wanted to increase awareness that the world is rapidly approaching climate, food, water, and energy catastrophes, and that applying the values of Judaism (and other religions) is essential to efforts to avert these devastations. I hope to convince Jews to become actively involved in working toward global survival and Jewish renewal, working for radical changes that will lead to a society where there is a major reduction in oppression, violence, hunger, environmental destruction, poverty, and alienation. As the sub-title indicates, my intention for writing the book has been the wish to help revitalize Judaism and assist in shifting our imperilled planet to a sustainable path.

Who is your intended audience?

This may sound ambitious, but I believe my book can be of interest and value to every adult: to Jews who are alienated from Judaism because of the failure of much of the Jewish community to adequately respond to current threats, by discussing Judaism’s powerful teachings on peace, justice, compassion, and environmental sustainability; to Jews who are committed strongly to Judaism but are unaware of or downplaying Judaism’s teachings that can play valuable roles in averting current crises; to Jews who are unaware of current environmental and other threats, in the hope that they will get actively involved. Also, since other religions have similar problems and concerns, I believe that many non-Jews will also find this book interesting, challenging, informative, and valuable. Several of the commendations (blurbs) presented for the book are from Christians and one is from a Muslim.

What is your hope of generally changing Jews’ attitudes towards responsible stewardship’ of our planet?

The threats are so great that it is essential that there be attitude changes that lead to positive actions, not only for Jews, but also for people of other religions and for secular people as well. Many climate scientists are warning that we may be very close to a tipping point when climate change might spiral out of control, and if we do not avert a potential catastrophe, nothing else will matter much.

How will you respond to the criticism you are likely to get?

To those who will attack some ideas in our book, I would like to say: Yonassan and I are not claiming that there is only one acceptable way to view Judaism and world conditions today. We are trying to seek common ground and solutions to current problems through respectful dialogues. For those who will be sceptical of our analysis of how serious climate threats are, and think that it is a liberal attempt to increase the role of government, I plan to refer them to the website of the conservative group Republicans for Environmental Protection (www.REP.org).

Due to the ongoing climate change, more countries are now confronted with dangerous droughts, even USA and parts of Europe. What is the situation in Israel?

While Israel thankfully had heavier than usual precipitation during the winter of 2011-2012, it needs many more such winters to recover from a 7-year drought, one of the severest in her history. Also, one of Israel largest environmental groups, the Israeli Union for Environmental Defence, has warned that climate change will cause in Israel, unless major changes are soon made, an increase in temperature of 2 – 11 degrees Fahrenheit, an average decrease in rainfall of 20-30 percent, an expansion of deserts, and an inundation of the coastal plain where most Israelis live by a rising Mediterranean Sea.

Israel is considered as one of the most veggie-friendly countries. Is this a result of religious leaders having shown the way, also in the interest of a healthier environment?

I think it is mainly based on Jewish teachings. As I argue in my book, Judaism and Vegetarianism, Jewish basic mandates to preserve human health, treat animals compassionately, protect the environment, conserve natural resources, help hungry people, and pursue peace point to vegetarianism as the ideal diet for Jews today. Also, Jews are to imitate God, Whose “Mercies are over all God’s works (including animals) (Psalms 145:9). Jews are to be rachmanim b’nei rachmanim (merciful children of merciful ancestors).

The past decade has been one of unprecedented weather extremes linked to human activities. Do you see still hope of turning the danger around or have we already passed the point of no return so that damage limitation is the only thing left to do?

Yes, some climate experts, including James Hansen of NASA, think we are very close to a tipping point when climate change may spin out of control. It is extremely frightening that climate experts think that 350 parts per million (ppm) of CO2 is a limiting value to avoid a climate crisis if kept up for some time and we already are at 392 ppm and increasing by about 2 ppm per year. Yet, I believe that we must not give up and must do everything possible to avert a climate melt down, as well as looming food, energy, and water catastrophes.

Could artificial meat bring at least some relief?

Since current livestock agriculture is such a major contributor to climate change, deforestation, soil erosion, air and water pollution, the inefficient usage of water, land, energy, and other resources, and many environmental problems, I think the production of artificial meat should be very carefully considered, but not produced on any large scale until it has been thoroughly tested.

People who insist on meat consumption state that this is a personal decision. Is it really? Not only does their choice involve animals being killed in astronomical numbers, it also channels enormous percentages of available harvests into factory farms while a billion people are starving, ruins the environment, puts enormous pressure on the public health systems etc. With all these implications in mind: What would you say to those without any intention to reconsider their lifestyles?

I have long argued that a shift to vegetarianism (and preferably) veganism, is not only an important personal choice, but that it is also a societal imperative, necessary to end the current epidemic of diseases and to reduce climate change and other environmental threats, and help shift our imperiled world to a sustainable path.

The number of vegetarians is rising fast. Do we have to brace ourselves to increasing hostility because we are seen as rocking the boat too much?

Not if we make the case as to how important it is that there be major shifts to vegetarianism in order to improve societal health, and reduce environmental and other threats. Also, unfortunately, there are still far more non-vegetarians than vegetarians, and this is unlikely to change dramatically in the near future. In addition, people do seem more receptive of vegetarianism today, and many meat-eaters say that they eat less meat, they do not eat red meat, or make other defensive statements.

Under the growing pressure of meat consumption some Indian landlords have already resorted to letting only to vegetarians, which results in noisy protests by meat eaters and frowning by politicians. Can this kind of segregation be a tool to cope with a world hell-bent on meat? Or what other means does a compassionate person have to cope with the awful sight of a steak on the neighbour's plate or the invading odor of flesh burning in his kitchen ?

Well, already there are landlords who will not rent to smokers and bosses who will not hire smokers, so maybe this will be a precedent. Many smokers now ask others if they mind if they smoke. Perhaps a day will come when meat-eaters will ask similar questions about their eating habits.

From an individual to a wider scale: Do you have an explanation for the amazing fact that justified interests of vegetarians are totally disregarded by national and international decision makers? And what can the veggie-community do to make its voices heard?

One reason is that most of these decision makers are meat-eaters. Also, the meat, dairy, and egg industries have very powerful lobbies and they contribute huge amounts to politicians and other decision makers. These industries also distribute massive amounts of propaganda in efforts to convince people that their products are essential for proper nutrition. In response, we have to be more dedicated than ever in increasing awareness of the importance of vegetarianism to reduce threats to public health, the environment and other dangers.

Is there any chance that the recent warning by the Worldwatch Institute Rising Number of Farm Animals Poses Environmental and Public Health Risks’ will catch the attention of our world leaders and make them reconsider their strategy in the interest of vegetarianism? Or at least pave the way for an open-minded, scientific research of the issue - for the benefit of all?

Many recent studies have shown the negative effects of animal-based diets. The vegetarian movement should try to spread these messages as widely as possible. It is essential that our leaders stress that a major change to plant-based diets is necessary if we are to have a chance to leave a decent planet for future generations.

The Bishnois living in the Thar desert of Rajasthan/India learned already 500 years ago that respect for nature and animals, combined with a vegetarian way of life, nudges a barren region to sustain them. Do you see any reason why the United Nations do not send experts to learn from these very first environmentalists instead of developing ways to squeeze more and more out of animals and the environment even though we have already reached breaking point? And why are Bishnois not invited to international interfaith-climate conferences like the one which has just taken place in Jerusalem?

I completely agree with the thinking behind this question. Our best minds should look into all types of societies, seeking wisdom that can avert the catastrophes that the world is rapidly approaching. Some of the problems in making changes include, denial, ignorance, apathy, and conformity.

And now a more personal question: What have been your reasons for becoming vegetarian and when did it happen? How has the reaction of your friends and family been at the time? And now? Did you, like many of us, lose friends because of your food choices?

In the mid 1970’s I started teaching a course for liberal arts students, “Mathematics and the Environment, at the College of Staten Island, which used basic mathematical concepts to explore environmental issues. One semester the class focused on hunger-related issues. At first I thought that so many people suffered from hunger because not enough food could be produced to feed the world’s rapidly growing population. Then I read the book Diet for a Small Planet by Frances Moore Lappe, which pointed out how wasteful animal-based diets are, with, for example 70 percent of U.S. grain being fed to farmed animals. After discussing for several semesters how a shift to plant-based diets could reduce hunger, I decided to give up red meat. I then began studying vegetarianism, and gradually gave up other animal products.

My family was somewhat skeptical at first but became more supportive as time went on. I do not think I have lost friends by being a vegetarian and later a vegan, but I get a lot of kidding, and get invited to join others at meals far less often.

A more complete discussion as to why and how I became a vegetarian can be found here.

What do you think – or say – when you hear the dreaded excuse that is thrown at us almost daily: Oh, I only eat very little meat’ and I can’t make a difference anyway’?

The same kind of excuse is used by people who are too lazy to vote or do not vote for other reasons, or do not recycle. While it is true that one person’s eating habits will make little difference, we have to realize that our collective actions, including trying to affect the political process, can make a big difference.

Richard, I appreciate that you took the time to answer our questions and wish your book great success. Thank you!

My pleasure! Thank you very much for this wonderful opportunity to share ideas with your audience and for the great work that EVANA has been doing for so many years. Best wishes for your continued success.

One final though: Because it is essential that major changes soon be made to avert current climate and other threats, I have made the eBook version of Who Stole My Religion? FREELY available through a link at www.whostolemyreligion.com. Much more information about the book can also be found there. People can contact me at president@JewishVeg.com.

Source: Richard H. Schwartz, Professor Emeritus, College of Staten Island
Author: The interview was conducted by Herma Caelen

Link: A Message From A Republican Meteorologist On Climate Change
Link: Global Warming Close to Becoming Irreversible
Link: IPCC predicts rise in extreme climate events
Link: Meat eaters – you are daredevils or dumb. Or both
Link: Act now or face costly consequences’ - OECD

Date: 2012-04-03

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