Broadly speaking, it's about rectifying the disproportionate impact that pollution and other environmental issues have on poorer and minority communities in the industrialized world, as well as on hundreds of millions of people in developing nations who would inevitably suffer most from the effects of global warming.
This year, with the national holiday celebrating the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Jewish holiday of Tu B'Shevat happening to fall on consecutive days — Jan. 21 and Jan. 22, respectively — several local groups organized programs that combined aspects of the two occasions.
In fact, they've explicitly linked the two days and the themes of racial equality, social justice, and protecting the planet and God's creations.
'A Form of Violence Upon the Vulnerable'
But Tu B'Shevat and MLK? Isn't that a bit of a stretch? After all, while the environmental movement was only in its early stages in the latter years of King's life — he was killed on April 4, 1968, at the age of 39 — the civil-rights leader had far more pressing concerns at the time.
"The legacy of King is increasingly dovetailing with the environmental movement," affirmed Rabbi Jeff Sultar, director of the Green Menorah Program of the Shalom Center in Philadelphia. "While we can't say exactly what he would be doing if he were alive today, … it is a logical extension of the work that he did, as exemplified by the fact that his son sees environmentalism as a major concern."
On Oct. 18, 2007, Martin Luther King III testified before a House Select Committee hearing on "Energy and Global-Warming Solutions for Vulnerable Communities."
"I am here to tell you that global warming is a form of violence upon the most vulnerable among us," said King, who runs the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta. He claimed that were his father still alive, he would be at the forefront of the effort to combat climate change.
On Monday, the Shalom Center held a protest outside the federal Environmental Protection Agency's office in Center City; just a handful of people attended. In keeping with a Tu B'Shevat theme, those gathered staged a symbolic tree-planting ceremony on 17th Street. The demonstrators were supporting actions taken by Pennsylvania and California, which have joined with 14 other states in a lawsuit against the EPA.
In December, the EPA denied California's request to enact fuel-emissions standards that state officials and lawmakers deem more stringent than those set by federal law. California passed a law requiring global-warming emissions from new vehicles to be cut by 30 percent by 2016 — federal guidelines call for the same by 2020.
The EPA has claimed that states do not have the right to set their own guidelines. Pennsylvania also has adopted California's standards, but will not enact them until California is allowed to do so.
But if environmental justice is about calling attention to economically disadvantaged communities that suffer from more pollution and environmental hazards, how can it be linked to fuel standards, which affect communities equally?
Sultar replied that this was part of King's essential message — that injustice concerns everyone, and that the environment, perhaps like no other issue, is something that crosses all boundaries.
Another event linking King's birthday and the Jewish New Year of trees also encouraged people from different faith communities to became engaged politically in the environment.
On Tuesday, Kol Tzedek in West Philadelphia co-sponsored a program with the Jewish Graduate Student Network and several non-Jewish organizations, including the Calvary United Methodist Church, called "Climate Justice: Fighting for Human Rights and a Healthy Planet."
"The climate crisis is the biggest challenge facing humanity," said Mitch Chanin, a Kol Tzedek member who organized the program. "Who knows what Martin Luther King would be doing if he were alive? Anyone that pretends to know is making it up. But I could see him embracing this view."
While Kol Tzedek has, in the past, sponsored programs focusing on how individuals can reduce their own carbon footprints, this event was aimed at galvanizing people toward public advocacy.
One of the speakers, Joy Bergey, director of the Pennsylvania Interfaith Climate Change program, said prior to the program that she hoped to convey that Pennsylvania is one of the worst polluters nationwide. Part of the reason, she explained, is due to the number of coal plants statewide.
"I want to change the public conversation," said Bergey, a Protestant, adding that she's asking people to push their state and federal legislators to address the issue.
Another event, the Neighborhood Interfaith Movement's 25th annual service celebrating the life of King, focused on environmentalism, but didn't mention Tu B'Shevat. Rabbi George Stern, the group's director, said that the Jewish holiday had not inspired the event.
Rather, Stern pointed to King III's testimony, along with the July/August issue of the NAACP's magazine The Crisis, which focused on climate change and environmental justice, as factors that led organizers in this direction. He added that while combining the two might make sense in a Jewish setting, he wasn't sure it was a great idea in an event geared to an interfaith audience.