Project Genesis

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“It’s Not Easy Being Green”

Question: It is medical consensus that consuming high levels of mercury directly causes various health problems (e.g. neurological defects in babies, increasing cancer rates in adults, etc). It seems that tuna fish are being found with exceedingly high levels of mercury, and soon that will spread to rising levels in smaller fish as mercury levels in the oceans increase. This increase is caused as a direct result of burning both gasoline in cars and coal in power plants.

With that background, what is the basis in Jewish law to continue burning gasoline into the air, and to consume electricity from-coal fired power plants? Both activities produce mercury, which falls into the ocean to be consumed by fish, which may be eaten by another person – possibly a neighbor!

Answer: The answer is not so simple. Certainly, from the standpoint of Jewish law, one could not be found liable for damages. The Talmud speaks of many analogous cases, and, in brief, there would have to be a quantitative amount of damage linked directly to one’s actions. If more than one person were involved (perhaps more analogous to our case), then the burden of guilt would be on the person who added the amount which “broke the camel’s back”. This would also not be applicable to our case, as no single amount done by one person could, quantifiably, have made the difference. It is irrelevant whether or not one knows the person who may be damaged, or even if the damage is not directly foreseeable (e.g. it would be forbidden to blindly throw a rock over a tall wall, and, if one did so and someone was hurt, he would be culpable).

On the other hand, the Torah does place great responsibility on mankind to protect and conserve our world. Collectively, we share the burden that our actions have placed on the environment and on each other’s health. Admittedly, I know little of environmental science or public policy, and, indeed, the people who make the major decisions that affect our world are relatively few in number. However, it is incumbent upon us to choose leaders that will gather and sift through the relevant information with dedication and responsibility, while we continue to do our best to live responsibly and conscientiously.

All the best,
R’ Daniel Fleksher

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