2019-2020 University College London CAMERA Fellow Aaron Seitler

Wander into UCL’s Student Centre and it is unlikely you will anticipate the “Outstanding” rating for sustainability performance. Trained eyes may appraise the “highly durable” infrastructure or even the “efficient sanitary fittings”. However, the “ground source heat pump system” and other subterranean environmentalist features are more likely to pass unremarked. As I set up the Israel Society Tu’bishvat stall in the naturally ventilated lobby area, and began arranging clusters of free fruit and Tu’bishvat information brochures, it struck me that imparting an authentic “green message” could prove quite a challenge. 

Tu’bishvat is a minor Jewish festival and its links to the environment are not manifestly clear, even amongst the practitioners. Many Jewish students approaching the leafy green stall expressed curiosity. Why tout an obscure day of the Hebrew calendar, marked by munching on mildly exotic fruits, to the whole student body?  

Let’s begin with some historical background. Commanded to preserve their fruit trees for three years, come Tu’bishvat, Jewish farmers donated their choicest portion to the Temple priests. After that, they could tuck in (Leviticus 19:23-25). Admittedly, the ancient Tu’bishvat rite disappeared two millennia ago after Rome destroyed the Jerusalem Temple, dooming the agricultural system. Jews commemorate this practise however, symbolically planting trees and tasting fruit.

Token though it sounds, Tu’bishvat warrants export beyond Jewish collective memory. Entwining humanity and nature is a common thread weaving both religious tradition and modern science alike. The Old Testament Hebrew for the first man, “Adam” mirrors the word for soil, Adama. In scientific research, LUCA, the last universal common ancestor is widely accepted to represent our shared biochemical origin with plant life.

It is perhaps no surprise therefore, that religion and science converge once again around the importance of conserving our environmental heritage. In one poignant example, popular Israeli author Yuval Noah Harari warns about the “frightening pace of climate change” reaching a “tipping point”, echoing rabbinical exhortation to preserve God’s works “for there will be no-one to mend what you have destroyed”.

Handing out fruit, I settled on this joint message of human appreciation for the living world: to dispel one-track environmentalism, declaiming and promoting Tu’bishvat’s reminder of ecological imperative suffusing a richer history.

This message is not only confined to the past. Modern Israel awakened a 3000-year-old biblical legacy by entering the 21st century as the only country in the west to see a net gain in its number of trees since 1900. Protection of Israel’s wildlife manifests in an aggregate 155 nature reserves. Israeli smartAID tech mitigates the effects of environmental catastrophe from as far afield as Australian wildfire to cyclones in Mozambique. Recent breakthroughs in wastewater renewal and desalination technology have been of environmental benefit more locally as well. Almost 90% of Israeli sewage is treated for drip irrigation and desalination plants churn enough fresh drinking water from the Mediterranean to supply almost half of homes in the region. As the world population grows apace, we relate to nature through conservationist concerns.

“Protection of Israel’s wildlife manifests in an aggregate 155 nature reserves. Israeli smartAID tech mitigates the effects of environmental catastrophe from as far afield as Australian wildfire to cyclones in Mozambique.”

Unfortunately, strained relations with neighbouring Syria pre-empted any dialogue about the regime’s poor water management, which possibly contributed to its civil war. Arab-Jewish science initiatives in Israel, such as the 2018 “Water Knows No Boundaries” conference are a belated sign of change. Yet these are drops in the ocean.

Countering the spectre of drought set to torment countries in coming decades will take more than one-track environmentalism. A sincere appreciation of our world and the impetus to manage it jointly are notions with strong precedent, while simultaneously long overdue.

All of this is perhaps a little distant from UCL’s student centre, and difficult to portray in a tangerine. Nonetheless, as London’s “global” university, Tu’bishvat presents a ripe opportunity to give our collective future some deeper fruit for thought.

Originally published in Pi Media.

Contributed by 2019-2020 University College London CAMERA Fellow Aaron Seitler.

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