Manchester’s new Lord Mayor was welcomed at a special civic service at Manchester Cathedral this month. it was a particularly multi-faith event with members of the Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, Jain, Muslim and Jewish communities there to witness the inauguration of Councillor Abid Latif Chohan, a human-rights lawyer.
Rabbi Reuven Silverman address centred on the ecology and the environment, which are the theme of Erev Shavuot and the Eco-Synagogue Project.
It’s a great pleasure and privilege to be addressing you, and on behalf of my community. I thank Dean Rogers and the Canons for according me the honour and I wish the new Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress a fruitful term of office. My synagogue in Jacksons Row is the only City Centre synagogue in Manchester. Last summer we had some new neighbours. A family of migrants made a temporary home near the synagogue. We saw them mostly right next door to us in the disused car park of the old Bootle Street Police Station which closed a few years ago. They kept a very low profile, so unobtrusive that hardly anybody was aware of their existence. Apart from a photographer taking photos of them day after day. When he drew our attention to them, my wife and I were very excited because these migrants were in fact among Britain’s rarest breeding birds – and we are keen birdwatchers. I’m talking about Black Redstarts. You can find a picture of the male on the back page of your programme. About the size of a Robin, the male is black & grey, the female and fledglings are brownish and on both you see a brilliant diagnostic red tail giving them the name Redstart meaning Red Tail. There are estimated to be only about 100 pairs in the UK. Extremely rare – they appear in City Centres: London, Birmingham and Manchester. Originating in rocky areas, they forage in brownfield sites and like to be close to water, like our canal here. They nest in high old buildings and first appeared in London after the 2nd World War. Dubbed the Bomb Site Bird, they became a symbol of British resilience. Following the Arena bombing, they’re a good symbol of Manchester resilience. I see them as something more. They are a protected species.
Biodiversity projects in city centres, including our own, have been keen to nurture them. They symbolize care for the environment in a busy world. Significantly they have established their stronghold over several years running, in the Square Mile of the City of London – which has more than 350 open spaces including many specially created green roofs.
Concern for the smallest creatures is an indicator of our values of care and carefulness over our environment. Biodiversity is an indicator of its health.
I’m proud to be living in a city which is leading on green strategy. I’m constantly learning more about the aims that are being put forward and hopefully pursued. For example the encouragement of Green Roofs and green spaces generally, which in addition to providing wildlife habitats, will also help the city adapt to climate change.
The common metaphor is the canary in the coalmine. The Black Redstart was an ecological gap phenomenon; as the ‘bomb site bird’ it marked the aftermath of wilful damage (though not of our making) to the total environment, material and human. The homeless on our streets, likewise, are a barometer of society. For society to flourish there has to be holistic thinking. Biodiversity is but one facet. There needs to be socioeconomic-psychospiritual- biodiversity.
When individuals search in vain for a home, it’s for individual reasons but also because society provides the risk factors:
housing costs and non- availablity, job loss, low wages, low benefits, health care issues, poverty, discrimination… which prevent those needs being met.
I am particularly interested in seeing the development of co-operative ventures which establish housing by community land trusts where former street homeless can combine with local communities. There is a lot of creative thinking and work going on among the faith communities of Greater Manchester in this direction now – with the social cohesion benefits of ethnic communities working together – with pride in Manchester solidarity as our driving force. Working on green spaces could create employment opportunities through market gardening e.g. – Businesses are already experiencing access problems to seasonal staff from the EU even before Brexit. I believe that new Co-operative Communities of the former homeless, side by side with established neighbourhoods, self- governing, along the lines of the Israeli Kibbutz model, could provide positive outcomes for both the material and the social environment.
To quote the Manchester Climate Change Agency Annual Report of last year: Q p.10 “By 2050 we want everyone in Manchester to have access to the basics: quality housing, great education, and rewarding jobs, healthy food, clean air, good quality green spaces and protection from the potentially dangerous impacts of future climates such as flooding and heat stress…. people look after and care for the environment when they feel connected to nature, creating green neighbourhoods and energy efficient homes, saving residents money and contributing to overall health and wealth outcomes.”
Every angle is being considered in that report. Most urgent are sustainable energy projects: like green gas, provision of charging-point facilities for electric cars, and so on.
Most serious of all is how the massive expansion of Manchester Airport with all its important advantages especially employment, can be made compatible with reducing emissions and meet the city’s plans to be carbon neutral in less than 20 years time. Do we have that long? The UN Report has forecast tipping-point in 12 years.
We know that it is a difficult conflict to solve; it’s not Manchester’s alone; it’s global, but somehow it has to be addressed. It is a major example of the unintended consequences of progress. The least we can do is to place limits upon our air travel.
Our local action has global effects – something I suggest to bear in mind when we cast our vote in the EU election this coming week.
Manchester has a history to be proud of as a centre of excellence in industry, education, social justice and cohesion….The bees are our most fitting symbol because of their co-operativeness.
In environmental terms, they represent the pollinators. But intensive farming threatens them the same way as the sparrows that used to flock in our streets. The greatest danger to us is the loss of pollinating species through loss of habitats. We need to create new narratives about the birds and the bees. Innovative thinking as to how to balance economic growth against the loss of nature’s resources here as elsewhere, has to be done. Most probably also, sacrifices and a revising of our values to replace a consumerism that destroys environment and a commoditisation of people that destroys quality of life in society.
Let’s revisit the text from the Hebrew Bible read earlier in the service. This is one of the central scriptures of everyday Jewish life.
It is the second paragraph of the Shema, a prime Jewish text which begins “Hear O Israel the Eternal is your God the Eternal is One, you shall love God with all your heart soul and might. ” It recited by individuals and congregations twice a day, morning and evening and it is kept in the tiny capsule called a mezuzah on the doorposts of all Jewish homes. And also, since ancient times, within city gates, where the courts of justice were traditionally located. You can see a giant mezuzah for example in each gateway around the walls of Jerusalem.
You can easily apply it to our times. Let’s look again at the text on page 7 of your programmes. And please follow me as I paraphrase it for you, and try to draw out some implications for our time: “This will happen if you listen carefully to the imperatives of the Eternal your God – whatever concept of God you have – or let me suggest, if you don’t subscribe to a Creator-God concept – the imperatives of sustaining life ? – “with all your heart and all your soul”.
Then all interconnected nature will continue to work, and you will reap the good harvests – with grass in your fields for your cattle and you will eat and be satisfied. One of our rabbinic commentators was struck by the order of those phrases. The cattle are put first. The imperative priority there is the feeding, the care of the animals first, before you feed yourself.
Take care….not to stray to other gods: the gods of wealth, power and greed, the addiction to produce and consume regardless of the cost to our blue planet. For if you do; if you abuse the earth, air and water, they will not function; the protective layer of the atmosphere will cease to shield you; the ice will melt, the sea levels will rise, the cyclones will combine with storm surges and flood your land, the extremes of heat and drought will scorch your soil….
If you fail to take care how you work with nature, many more species will disappear and the survival of your own will face extinction.
Teach them to your children and talk about them – Educate them, but not merely in the hope that they will undo the damage done by their forebears. – Here the Hebrew is ambiguous. It can also mean talk with them – talk with your children; listen to them – it’s their future which is at stake. Talk continuously about this, at home, in the street– nothing is more important now – inscribe them on your homes – and your city gates – make your homes and your cities microcosms of the world – taking care of biodiversity down to the smallest creatures, encouraging holistic thinking for the human environment, envisaging ways of addressing homeless and environmental projects together, working on green spaces, green roofs, working towards electric road transport, limiting air travel…Then you and your children will live long on the land – as long as there is a sky over the earth.”