By Yossef Ben-Meir
This article presents the interesting consistency among Biblical Egypt’s actions (described in the Midrash) to avoid climate disaster, Islamic principles of social justice, and viable approaches societies should take today to avert our own environmental crisis.
The actions Egypt took in its survival to avoid an apocalyptic famine as described in the Bible have applicable relevance to help us avoid climate catastrophe in our time. Let’s first remind ourselves of the backdrop of the ancient story.
The King of Egypt dreamt—at that cogent and powerful moment just before waking—that seven robust cows emerged from the river where he stood by the banks. The hearty animals came onto the ground and were followed by seven emaciated cows, who then devoured the seven wholesome ones. After swallowing them, they appeared to have not eaten, without any sign of being nourished.
The King awoke with worry, only to fall back to sleep. Dreaming again standing by the river banks, he saw seven stalks of wheat—tall and flourishing—had come from a single stalk of beautiful quality. Behind them came seven burnt and stunted stalks that consumed the seven thriving ones. They, too, were without improved health.
The King awoke distressed. He dreamed the dreams’ interpretation but forgot. According to the Midrash, their meaning is based on the connotations we give to them. When his advisors provided answers, Pharoah knew they were incorrect.
Following his cupbearer’s advice, the King summoned enslaved Joseph. His explanation foresaw abundance followed by famine. Furthermore, he saw the need for essential preparatory actions in support of Egypt’s survival. Pharaoh appointed Joseph to be viceroy in implementing what he had prescribed.
What did Joseph and the people of Egypt do to save themselves from total climate disasters that can inform the actions societies should take now in preventing our environmental destruction?
Joseph first travelled the entire land of Egypt, from community to community, to catalyse their mobilisation in saving the nation. In the process, the silos of stored grains were localised; members of communities managed the conservation of harvests during the seven years of abundance. The effect of people seeing their stored grain during the time of famine was that there was no public panic. Here we also see that it is most effective to store and preserve grain as close as possible to where it was grown.
Local people’s participation and even control over climate-saving actions are vital for building resilience to withstand severe stresses. Joseph used his awesome position of national leadership to instil this local quality.
One cannot help but wonder how often national leaders today travel to the people where they are, in all reaches of their lands, to inspire community movements for sustainable local development. Merely by their showing up, people assemble, plan, organise around initiatives, plant, and advance on opportunities specific to each location. The local presence of leaders of all varieties, ministers, ambassadors, heads of state, and representatives to all kinds of bodies, animate growth.
Tragically, such leaders who emulate prophet Joseph’s example in this regard are exceedingly rare, and the cost of their dereliction is countless (King Mohammed VI of Morocco is a wonderful exception, as was the late Sultan Qaboos bin Said of Oman). With travel over time comes an everlasting bond with people. Hearing their anguish and hopes is reason enough to go to where they are. And one never quite knows the complete purpose of journeying to any one place, until after one has already gone.
This quality of leadership resulting in inclusive governance resonates with the Islamic concept of Shura, where people express and collaborate on the change they seek in their lives. Decentralised administrations form at sub-national levels in conjunction with the need to manage local silos and affairs. This manner of system is referenced in the Midrash which, too, is similar to the Islamic notion of Ummah. Such societies champion the diversity that exists across their locations, and at the same time the unity of purpose shared by the whole–the integration of both being needed to confront climate crises.
Later, when the seven years of famine and drought came and scorched the land, all the food and seed that was preserved during the seven years of abundance did not seem enough. Desperation came upon the people to sow and harvest again. In that pivotal moment when the people would have agreed to any terms to receive seeds and remain alive, Joseph enabled 80 per cent of the yield to be kept by the people, and 20 per cent for taxes. A flat tax of 20 per cent was established to manage the crisis.
In 2022, of the 500 largest companies in the United States, 26 do not pay federal taxes. The total amount of corporate taxes in the United States is $370 billion, and the $180 billion potential in tax revenue is foregone to companies that do not pay federal taxes at all. Coincidentally, in the United States, there is a recently proposed Billionaire Minimum Tax, requiring a minimum tax of 20 per cent on the top 0.01 per cent earners.
A comparative analysis of the cost of climate action and poverty alleviation in Morocco illuminates the enormity of value handed to the wealthy by subsidising their taxes. Of the Kingdom’s 1,538 municipalities, 1,282 are classified as rural. The $2 million cost to implement a full preparation for climate disaster in one rural municipality in Morocco of 15,000-20,000 people involves building tree and herb nurseries, infrastructure for water (drinking and irrigation), schools, women’s and youth cooperatives for production and sustainability, terraces for cultivation and erosion control, along with skills and empowerment training.
Thus, participatory (shura) and decentralising (ummah) approaches, exemplified in Joseph’s strategy in Egypt described in the Midrash, carried out through all rural municipalities in Morocco, would cost $2.5 billion. In this manner, the lives of many hundreds of millions of people in developing nations would be transformed with $180 billion—the equivalent of one year’s uncollected public revenue from U.S. corporations. We cannot properly address our climate crisis intertwined with global poverty with this kind of lost opportunity—a likely verdict drawn from the immemorial tale of Joseph’s navigating civilisation to survival.
Joseph was held accountable as Pharoah’s viceroy. We must do the same with our leaders in our time (similar to Islam’s baya concept of holding leaders to certain standards). This, too, is an essential part of avoiding global disasters.
A Midrashic lesson from Joseph’s story is that we are obligated to try and fulfil our dreams. It can be so hard, since we may not know what to seek, and if we do our confidence may be low and the alienation we experience for attempting may be high. The pursuit of dreams takes sacrifice beyond what we thought we had to give, and our dreams are specific to each of us. So, as we awaken from them, let’s give them our best energy. We only have every day to take whatever step forward to see their fulfilment so that we can save our world.