Noah's Law

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Yesterday, Thomas Friedman published a column in the New York Times inspired by a recent article about the last two giant Yangtze soft-shell turtles.  "It struck me as I read about that story" Friedman writes "that our generation has entered a phase that no previous generation has ever experience: the Noah phase. . . .We may have to be the first generation in human history that literally has to act like Noah--to save the last pairs of a wide range of species."

Friedman is right, of course.  Today, humanity is relentlessly driving animal and plant species across the globe towards oblivion.  But ours is hardly the first generation to confront the moral obligation created by humanity's unique combination of self-awareness, awareness of other life, and power.

Thirty-five years ago, the United States passed the Endangered Species Act, which, interestingly enough, has come to be known as "Noah's law" (even by its critics) for its hard-edged commitment to save all plants and animals faced with extinction. The Endangered Species Act, in turn, was only brought about because of the work of earlier generations that confronted the terrible legacy wrought by the indiscriminate killing of plants and animals.  From Aldo Leopold's famous essay On a Monument to the Pigeon to Rachel Carson's Silent Spring; conservationists in the United States have a long history of fighting for plants and wildlife.  And it's not just conservationists in United States, as Friedman's column makes clear. 

That's why Friedman's appeal to Noah is so appropriate. Not only because in the story of Noah, which is deeply ingrained in the western tradition, God commands Noah to save "every living thing" and "keep them alive," as Friedman notes.  But also because of the way the story ends.   After the flood, God says to Noah:

And the fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, and upon every fowl of the air, upon all that moveth upon the earth, and upon all the fishes of the sea; into your hand are they delivered. (Genesis 9:2)

Without that last phrase, God could be seen as merely making a prediction; but by the addition of that one, single phrase, God also gives to humanity a profound obligation.  The fate of birds and fishes and animals is not foreordained: it is placed in our hand.

At the end of Noah's journey, God also makes a "covenant" with him, and all living things, and promises never to destroy the world again.  As the Jewish tradition recognizes, a covenant, like a contract, often imposes mutual obligation s on both God and humanity.  I believe that one way to read the Noah story is that one of the obligations imposed on us by Noah's covenant with God is to the obligation to use our power and dominion over the earth to safeguard all of the varieties of life that Noah, himself, saved..

Nor is the western religious tradition the only one with profound things to say about the ethnical duty owed to other forms of life.  The great eastern religions, Hinduism and Buddhism most prominently, contain similar insights. 

That's why Friedman's central point is particularly worth dwelling on here at Switchboard, where we so often (and appropriately) post about global warming and energy:

The world is rightly focused on climate change.  But if we don't have a strategy of reducing global carbon emissions and preserving biodiversity, we could end up in a very bad place....