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The Acute and the Chronic

Thursday, February 21, 2019 | 16th Adar I, 5779

by Nigel Savage

We’ve been hearing about a “national emergency.”

It makes sense for governments to have provisions for such things. Every now and then – in human life, in organizational life, and in national life – there are indeed emergencies, and thus something must be done, and quickly. 

In human life, emergencies are often acute health challenges. Heart attacks, traffic accidents, going into labor early – these things are emergencies. We phone 911. We call on strangers for help. I had an appendicectomy over Labor Day weekend. One minute I was fine. The next minute I was in pain. Three hours later I was in a hospital. Less than 24 hours later I was being wheeled out of the operating theater, an appendix lighter. It was a classic emergency – happened quickly, needed (and thankfully received) a quick response.

Chronic issues, of course, we must respond to differently. Diabetes, or MS. Asthma (unless you can’t breathe from asthma – then it’s an emergency.) Certain cancers. Celiac disease, and arthritis.

Chronic issues are far harder to deal with. We have a lesser sense of urgency. We must live with them for far longer. Sometimes there are no solutions, or no easy solutions. We face a dual challenge, which is to respond to the issue itself, and to cope with our own attention, which will naturally waver as life pulls us in different directions.

And so here we are, thinking about our changing climate.

The only mechanism we really have for news is a “headline,” which is, by definition, something acute, an emergency – a newsflash. An election result. A school shooting. A scandal. 

But climate change is the most extreme chronic challenge in human history. It is the very definition of chronic. It has been an issue since James Hansen first testified to Congress, but in a different sense since the dawning of the industrial era. And in a wider sense still what we now call “environmental sustainability” has been a rear-view mirror challenge since the very beginnings of human civilization. I commend Jared Diamond’s book, Collapse, from a few years ago. Sobering reading. (By “rear-view mirror challenge” I mean, by the way – we see each civilizational collapse looking backward in time. But living in the present – all any human can do – civilization after civilization over-consumed itself or destabilized itself.)

The acute vs. chronic frame is helpful, in my view, in enabling us to understand better our challenges, and what we must do in response.

First challenge: because it is chronic and overwhelming, we can’t easily define success. How will we “win” against climate change? Given the anthropogenic gases we’ve already put into the atmosphere so many changes are already underway. It’s unlikely we’ll wake up one day to the headline: “GREAT NEWS! CLIMATE CHANGE FIXED!”

And secondly, because we’re all involved in living unsustainably, it is very hard to claim any kind of moral high ground. We don’t really have any. And in general we don’t like this. In opposing apartheid people could say, “oh, they’re racist, but I’m not racist.” Few of us have any equivalent standing in relation to over-consuming the world.

So what are we to do?

I think the acute vs. chronic healthcare frame is immensely helpful. 

If I have diabetes or MS or celiac I don’t not get on with my life. Hopefully I do. Work and play, love, engagement, social life, civic life – one gets on with it. Not every moment of every day is about those things.

But you don’t forget about it. On the contrary. You watch what you eat. You make changes in your diet or your behavior. You read. You take drugs. You work out. You track progress. 

And this is why Hazon exists.

Yes, our retreats at Isabella Freedman are joyous vibrant occasions. Yes, the Hazon Michigan Jewish Food Festival is a wonderful event and our Israel Ride is impactful and inspiring and our Adamahniks are idealistic and passionate. And, yes, we strengthen Jewish life.

But none of these things is an end in itself. 

Can we shift the nature of Jewishness, so that to be Jewish is necessarily to strive to take on these huge huge issues? Can we animate our ancient and beautiful tradition and focus its full force on these issues that challenge us all – and where we have so much to learn and so much to give?

We must change the world by changing ourselves (the hardest possible task that there is) and we must do so with love and joy and commitment. Jewish tradition is deeply hopeful; to be Jewish is to have a wary sense of history, and of human nature, but to balance this with a deep belief in the possible, in the ultimate (at least potential) goodness of human beings. We read Jared Diamond, but we don’t believe in original sin.

In the coming weeks and months our strategic planning process will land, and we’ll strive to focus Hazon, to explicate better how the pieces fit, and we’ll work hard to increase our impact and to build financial reserves.

But the task at hand, underlying all this, is the steady one of focusing attention on the chronic challenges facing human civilization. They are too great for any one person or any one people to fix by ourselves. But the steady task of – for instance – changing how we eat; changing food policy in our institutions; consuming less; connecting more – these are life-long tasks. I’m proud of our staff and board and stakeholders for enabling us to do this holy work. 

There’s an old line – I think focused at the level of organizations – that says “you should never waste a crisis.” Well, I feel that about this “national emergency.” We are indeed in one today. But it’s international and global and local and human, not just national. And it’s not about one little border between two countries. It is a chronic and ultimately life-threatening chronic global health challenge. I pray that we all rise to meet this challenge. Day by day, week by week, we must together do this painstaking, occasionally boring, and yet vital human work. 

Thank you for being part of this.