An End and a Beginning: Tu B’Shevat in The Age of Awareness

Friday, February 3, 2007 / 14 Shevat 5767

Dear All,

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change just issued a report which is front page news in nearly every paper in the world today. The Guardian’s summary is typical:

The report predicts a rise of between 18 cm and 58 cm in sea levels by the end of this century, a figure that could increase by as much as 20cm if the recent melting of polar ice sheets continues.

"Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, as is now evident from observations of increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice, and rising global mean sea level," the summary said.

The report said greenhouse gases were already responsible for a series of existing problems, including fewer cold days, hotter nights, intense heat waves, floods and heavy rains, droughts and an increase in the strength of hurricanes and tropical storms.

The scale of such phenomena in the 21st century "would very likely be larger than those observed during the 20th century", it said, warning that no matter how much humanity reduces greenhouse gas emissions, global warming and sea level rises would continue for hundreds of years.

It is clear that a tipping point in public consciousness has now been reached. The new UN Secretary General plans to call a climate change summit. Wal-Mart is going green, and the chairman of Lehman Brothers argues for carbon caps. In the UK Tesco, the dominant food retailer, just announced that it will label all 70,000 of its manufactured food products with information on how much carbon dioxide is emitted in their manufacture, Marks & Spencer announced that they plan to make all of their stores carbon-neutral, and the Conservative Party – the Conservative Party – announced that as of this year, their annual party conference will also be carbon neutral. Most recently Prince Charles cancelled a skiing trip in Switzerland in order to reduce his carbon footprint.

When three years ago Rabbi Dr Arthur Waskow started talking about “global scorching” (rather than the milder-sounding “global warming”) and when he started talking about “oil addiction” and our need to wean ourselves from it he was, as he has so often been in the past, a prophet, in both senses of the word. Sometimes it takes a long time for the words of prophets to be heeded. Not so these last three years. This morning’s IPCC report I think marks the end of one of phase of our history, and the beginning of a new one: The Age of Awareness, perhaps; an era in which our desire not to face uncomfortable truths has finally been unpeeled.

It’s against this backdrop that we need now to think about the future of the Jewish environmental movement. Events are accelerating dramatically. There are two different issues that need to be addressed. The first is a broad one: what is and should be the purpose of the Jewish environmental movement? The second is a more prosaic one: how should the existing Jewish environmental organizations work together more effectively in coming years? I’m going to say something briefly about the first of these questions today, and expand on both of them over the coming weeks.

For the Jewish community to make a difference on environmental issues, we need brutal honesty to begin with. Jews are now roughly 0.2% of the world’s population; less than the margin of error on the Indian census. If all the Jews in the world recycle their newspapers it will make… pretty much no difference whatsoever. Nor if we put a solar-powered ner tamid in every synagogue, nor, more radically, if every Jew in the world swapped their existing car for a hybrid. (Assume 12m Jews, 4m cars, each one doing 1000 miles a month, and improving by 10 mpg their usage. So we’d save let’s say 15 gallons x 12 months x 4m people, which is roughly 750 million gallons of oil a year. It sounds a lot; but there are 42 gallons in a barrel. So it’s about 18 million barrels a year. OPEC drills more than that in a day.)

I’m not saying that Jews shouldn’t drive hybrids, or change our behavior more generally. I’m not saying that burning 18 million barrels fewer a year wouldn’t be a tremendously important thing to do. I’m simply pointing out that even an accomplishment which seems impossibly beyond our current capacity for restraint and behavioral change is also impossibly small in relation to the impact we need to have to reverse the damage we are presently doing.

Put a different way: when AJWS leads a multi-faith campaign to Save Darfur they don’t know whether they will succeed. But the possibility of Western intervention to stop the killing there is not hard to imagine. So the effort to accomplish it is fuelled partly by our people that we really can accomplish measurable positive change.

And on the issue of climate change and environmental destruction we face the prospect of living our entire lives against a backdrop of accelerating deterioration. To put it mildly, we are not psychologically well-prepared to cope with this scenario.

This is the backdrop against which I want to be clear about the purposes of the Jewish environmental movement at this moment in time.

We cannot by our individual actions effect change; we cannot even, as a people, in our own behavior, directly create the change we would like. But what we can do is play, as we have always played, a vital role in shifting the trajectory of a very long run conversation about the nature of human life on this planet. This we not only can do, we actually must do.

The best way to understand this is through the prism of Tesco’s decision about carbon-labeling its food. It’s a decision which reveals the fascinating relationship between the educational and advocacy work of environmental non-profits, individual consumer behavior, and the workings of the market. I do trust in one sense the ethical sensibility that partly underpins a decision like that; I do believe that there are senior managers at Tesco who care about enabling their customers to have the information to reduce their carbon output. But clearly there’s a different calculation at work also: that carbon-labeling their products will afford Tesco competitive advantage in relation to their competitors. That in turn implies two key presumptions: first, that a significant minority of their existing customers (at least) will want this information; and secondly, that in being, at least for a while, the only supermarket chain that provides this information, they will draw customers from other chains simply because those customers also want that information.

Tesco, in this sense, are responding to a dramatic shift of sensibility and concern within the British population; and that shift has been led by the environmental groups who have steadily brought to all our attention the issues we now need to address.

This is why the Jewish people needs to turn its attention to these issues. As my friend Rabbi Steve Greenberg pointed out at Hazon’s New York Jewish Environmental Bike Ride two years ago, we offer a unique capability to frame conversations in extremely long timescales. And I would add that we offer the world two cultural treasures – Shabbat and halacha – which are more radical in their capability to effect change than almost anything else that exists in the world today. Shabbat is about the notion that, one day in seven, every seventh day, we cease consuming and destroying and simply rest. I don’t care if you keep Shabbat on a Saturday, a Friday, a Sunday or frankly a Tuesday: but the narrow Jewish conversation about whether and in what ways we “keep Shabbat” needs now to play out on a larger stage. So too our experience with the relationship between halacha (Jewish practice) and education. Not everything is about the rights of the individual or the role of the state. Between the two sit the realm of self-restraint, and the role that education and community play in inculcating it. We know a good deal on this topic, and we have not fully understood how important and significant it is.

The elements of Jewish education and Jewish advocacy that we develop around these issues need to be seen within this broader context. We do need to change our behavior, as individuals and as a community, and we do need to stand up in Washington DC, in an organized way, to argue for key governmental and inter-governmental measures that are vitally necessary. But in what we do we need to understand our actions and behaviors in a wider and longer context. And we need to start to think much more deeply about what it means to make a distinctively Jewish contribution to the future wellbeing of the world and its inhabitants.

So… I have much more I want to say. I’m aware that what I have written may be less than clear to many people. But I plan to write more in coming weeks and to expand this. For now, I’ll simply say that Hazon’s broadest purpose is to create a healthier and more sustainable Jewish community, as a step towards a healthier and more sustainable world for all. “Healthier and more sustainable” can mean getting on a bike; it can be about the food you eat; but it can also be about the health and sustainability of multi-generational communities, or the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora, or the development of Jewish thinking over time. Each of the Jewish holidays comes to remind us of something that, ideally, we should be thinking about the whole year round. On this eve of Tu B’Shevat, my blessing for me and you and all of us, in cascading circles of family, community and humanity, is that together we learn to live more healthily and more sustainably, and that in so doing we play the part we can in leaving a better world for those who come after us.

Shabbat shalom


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