Six and a half years ago, while walking in El Salvador with Rabbi Sid Schwarz, the topic of our trip came up. I was among a couple dozen rabbinical students who were there for ten days as part of the second Rabbinical Student Delegation trip of the American Jewish World Service, which focuses on social justice. I hadn't been aware of "social justice" before going to rabbinical school, but in my first semester there, I heard of this neat winter trip to engage with "social justice work" and classical Jewish texts related to it. While there, we spoke a lot about helping people(s) in the world, which didn't resonate much with me, but was an interesting idea (although I found the idea of doing it as Jews an amazing kiddush hashem). The thing that did tremendously interest me was the environment - having heard in school growing up about the terrible things humans have been doing to our environment and how sad it was to see the oceans becoming dirtier, the ozone layer depleting, etc.
So I let him know that the trip was interesting, but social justice just did not compel me, whereas the environment did and I phrased it by apologetically saying, "It's not that I necessarily think plants are more important than people....".
However, I was thinking Thursday night about this exclusion of interest in the planet's health to my interest in helping people around the world and realized, aside from how simply awful it was to see the world changing for the worse, what animated me about this concern - it's really about the condition of the world and worrying about how our living conditions will be in the near future, let alone in our children's and grandchildren's lives(!). By air quality getting worse, it affects our breathing; by water being worse, how much of it can we drink without being adversely affected; with decreasing amounts of fish, how can we feed people as adequately (or fishermen make a living)?
I realized, my concern for the environment isn't instead of people, it's for people. What this means, I believe, is that helping achieve a healthy environment is fundamentally a social justice issue: I believe that humans should be able to live in the world God gave us - it is something that people deserve.