The Jewish festival of Chanukah commemorates the miracle of the oil that was enough for only one day, but miraculously lasted for eight days in the liberated Temple in Jerusalem. Hence, this holiday is a good time to consider our own use of fuel and other resources.
Like Chanukah’s miraculous extension of scarce resources, vegetarianism also allows the increasingly scarce resources of our contemporary world to go much further. This is no trivial matter, since it is expected that many future conflicts between nations will involve scarcities of oil, water and other resources. Seeing that the Hebrew words for bread (lechem) and war (milchamah) come from the same root, the Jewish sages deduced that when there is a shortage of grain and other resources, people are more likely to go to war. History has borne out this conclusion, whether it is in struggles over water in biblical times or struggles over oil in modern times.
Far less oil, water, land, topsoil, chemicals, labor, and other agricultural resources are required for plant-based diets than for animal-centered diets, and far less waste and pollution are produced. To produce one pound of steak (500 calories of food energy) requires 20,000 calories of fossil fuels, most of which is expended in producing and providing feed crops. It requires 78 calories of fossil fuel for each calorie of protein obtained from feedlot-produced beef, but only 2 calories of fossil fuel to produce a calorie of protein from soybeans. Producing grains and beans requires only two to five percent as much fossil fuel as beef. The energy needed to produce a pound of grain-fed beef is equivalent to one gallon of gasoline.
It is interesting that the ratio of eight days that the oil burned compared to the one day of burning capacity that the oil had in the restored Temple is the same ratio (8 to 1) that is often given for the pounds of grain that are necessary to add a pound of flesh to a cow raised in a feed lot.
Based on the oil lasting an additional seven days, the Shalom Center, a Jewish environmental, social justice, and peace organization (www.shalomctr.org), set a goal to “by 2020, cut US oil consumption by seven-eighths and replace that amount of oil as an energy source by conservation and by the use of non-fossil, non-CO2-producing, non-nuclear sources of renewable, sustainable energy.” The Shalom Center, Jewish Vegetarians of North America, of which I am president, and some other groups are increasingly considering the adverse and dramatic impacts of animal-based agriculture on energy usage, climate change, and other environmental issues.
Reducing our use of oil by shifting away from the mass production and consumption of meat and other animal products would make our oil supplies last longer and would free us from our dangerous dependence on oil, and on oil-producing authoritarian governments. It would also be consistent with basic Jewish mandates to improve human health, treat animals with compassion, protect the environment, and reduce hunger. Surely this would be a fitting way to celebrate the miracles of Chanukah, while simultaneously helping shift our imperiled planet to a sustainable path.