Last fall, my family made the decision to buy an electric car. It was the first new car we’d ever purchased; in the past, we’ve bought used cars. But government rebates brought electric cars into our price range, and considering both environmental concerns and economic interests, we decided to have a closer look.
Today, many people are choosing electric or hybrid cars to save on gas prices. But how do electric cars help the environment, if they still use energy? Consider that modern society runs on two separate energy systems: fuels and electricity delivered from the energy grid. We do not have any way to run fuel-based cars without burning carbon-emitting fossil fuels. On the other hand, our energy grid is already shifting to renewable energy; in fact, my electric car runs primarily on clean wind and solar power, which my home can access from my local grid. By shifting our vehicles and homes to use the energy grid, and transitioning that grid to renewable energy, we can significantly reduce our carbon emissions – which we must do, to address climate change.
Personally, I care deeply about the need to conserve and protect our planet’s resources for my children and future generations. But even so, it can be hard for me to focus on climate change. The problems of the world seem overwhelming, and I often feel helpless to make any meaningful difference. Perhaps this is why, although scientists around the world are ringing alarm bells about it, I rarely hear my friends discussing climate change, in social media or in person. But we must talk about it, and there are things we can and should do now.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the United Nations body on science related to climate change, reported recently on solutions to climate change. For land-based transportation, the IPCC concluded that electric vehicles using low emissions energy offer the largest potential benefit. These scientists also urge us to reduce fossil fuel use, deploy low-emission energy sources, and use energy more efficiently. The cars we choose to buy, the energy we seek for our homes, and the policies we support can all help move the world in the right direction.
With gas prices soaring and fossil fuels financing violence such as the invasion in Ukraine, some have called for the United States to produce more of our own oil – even though the U.S. is already the largest oil producer in the world. But even if domestic drilling could be ramped up fast enough (it can’t), burning fossil fuels damages our global climate no matter where those fuels come from.
Climate change is hurting people now, with devastating cyclones, rising sea levels, and prolonged droughts harming our most vulnerable global neighbors. This alone should bother those of us concerned with justice. But we who have managed to avoid these impacts so far cannot consider ourselves “safe in the palace,” as Mordechai warns Esther in the Megillah. As more carbon dioxide continues to pour into the atmosphere, multiple climate events will occur at the same time, compounding risk and spreading the impacts across regions over time. And so the time to act — to reduce our use of fossil fuels, increase renewable energy, use energy more efficiently, and transition to electric vehicles — is now.
In Jewish tradition, we have a mitzvah prohibiting waste and needless destruction, bal tashchit. The Talmud makes clear that wasting energy violates bal tashchit. Based on these sources, the Ben Ish Chai, a major halakhic authority of 19th century Iraq, concluded that people should not use more oil than they need. (Rabbi Yosef Chaim ben Eliyahu, Torah Lishma, section 76). Certainly, buying low-emission and electric vehicles is consistent with this mitzvah.
Burning fossil fuels doesn’t merely waste resources, though; it drives a kind of harm that could devastate the future of life as we know it. In times like these, Jewish wisdom speaks even more directly. When I feel too small, individually, to make a difference, I draw strength from this lesson:
“It is not your responsibility to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” (Pirkei Avot 2:16)
And the source that cries loudest to me that we must act now is from the Midrash:
“When Hashem created Adam, He took him and showed him all the trees of the Garden of Eden and said to him, “See my works, how beautiful and praiseworthy they are. Everything that I created, I created for you. Be careful not to spoil or destroy my world–for if you do, there will be no one to repair it after you.” — Midrash Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) Raba 7:1
Evonne Marzouk strives to bring the light of Jewish wisdom into the world. She was the founder and director of Canfei Nesharim (now merged with GrowTorah), and co-edited Uplifting People and Planet: Eighteen Essential Jewish Lessons on the Environment. Her first Jewish novel, The
Prophetess, was published by Bancroft Press in 2019.