What does it mean to be a “Sustainable Jew” (CJN Sept 2010)

This column was originally published in the Canadian Jewish News – September 22, 2010

Have you ever thought of Sukkot as a holiday which celebrates the Sustainable Jew

In ancient Israel, Sukkot had a major agricultural focus. The celebration was a thanksgiving for the fruit harvest and the blessings of nature in the year that had passed. Today, Sukkot is a Jewish Festival where we step out of the comfort of our own homes, and enter temporary dwellings where we are exposed to the vagaries of the weather while performing the mitzvah of “Leshev Bsukah”.

As you sit in the Sukkah, think about the roof. The "Sechach" must be made from some product of the earth, which is no longer attached to the earth. Wood of all kinds, including bamboo poles, leafy branches, branches of pine trees are considered good for “Sechach”.

Another aspect of Sukkot is the bringing together of the Etrog, Lulav, Hadassim and Aravot. According to the Midrash , each of these 4 represent different mixes of aroma and taste, and in a way represent the different mixes of Torah observance and good deeds of Jewish individuals. When we bring these four items together they represent a communal whole.

Sukkot is also connected with water. The Talmud teaches that during the festival of Sukkot, Hashem judges the world over its water. On the final day of the holiday special prayers are offered, imploring on High to provide rain and sufficient water.

All of this ties together harvest, lulav, etrog, hadassim, aravot and water; they are all part of a natural system which takes carbon dioxide out of our air and converts it to oxygen. The plants that we use to supply the sukkah’s Sechach and which make up the lulav / etrog combination ,depend on water and are not destroyed in the process, but continue to grow and regenerate year after year.

From year to year, the weather we are in contact with over the Sukkot period changes, depending on the timing of the arrival of the holiday. This small slice of outdoor weather started me thinking about the climate we are living in, and what going into a Sukkah would mean in the years to come.

Are we as a people, in the Diaspora or in Israel, taking actions which minimize our impact on the environment and leave this world a better place for our children?

Do we know what is happening to our environment and why? Do we know the actions we can take that can make a difference? Do we know and act? Do we know yet fail to act? Do we act without knowing the reason why? Do we do nothing?

Are we as Jewish individuals, families, communities or as a people doing what we can to influence others to live a more sustainable life, through knowledge and actions?.

I began to think more about this question since returning from a 10 day family adventure to the American Rockies. The trip provided some hands-on experiences to explore some themes on sustainability with my family.

For years, I have regaled my family with stories of my late eighties business trips to Vail and Boulder. I convinced them of the value of enjoying the fresh mountain air and seeing the snow capped mountains and glaciers, even in the summer. When we finally reached the 14,000+ foot mountains, my family was struck by the lack of snow and the small size of the few remaining glaciers. I’m sure those of you who have made multiple trips to the National Parks in the Canadian Rockies have seen a similar glacial retreat at the Columbia Ice fields.

My youngest son, Zev, wanted to know what happened and where all the snow went. The simple answer to an 11 year old was,” It melted”. The simple comeback of an 11 year old, raised on the Discovery Channel and Mythbusters and his other four siblings who were raised on Bill Nye the Science Guy, was “Why?”

“It melted” was not going to satisfy them but asking them to watch “An Inconvenient Truth” in the van was not going to successfully compete with other more enjoyable “Punch Buggy” and “Cruiser Bruiser” competitions.

It took a visit to the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR)in Boulder, Colorado to put the answer into perspective. The scientists at NCAR were part of a team of 300 scientists, representing 160 research groups in 48 countries who contributed to a report titled “State of the Climate in 2009”.

This report documented measured decreases in snow cover, sea ice and glaciers, and increases in air temperature, humidity, ocean heat and temperature, sea level and temperature both land and sea. The report also lead to the July 29, 2010 Globe and Mail headline “Signs of warming earth are unmistakable” and an August 30, 2010 Maclean’s magazine cover story.”Extreme Weather Warning”.

When the NCAR tour guide found out that I was recently trained by Al gore to be a volunteer presenter for the Climate Project, she asked me to explain the issues behind global warming to the 30 people on the tour. An NCAR exhibit on the second floor enabled me to explain the reasons behind the melting glacier

With the storyboard as my background, I began to explain how the sun emits radiation and how most of this radiation is absorbed by the earth and warms it. Some of the energy is radiated back into space by the earth in the form of infrared waves and some of this outgoing infrared radiation is trapped by the earth’s atmosphere and warms it. Increased levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere end up trapping more infrared radiation, causing a further increase in temperatures.

The answer was more than enough to satisfy the curious, but not enough for my eldest daughter, Tamara, “Cousin Jeff says that all of this is occurring due to natural and not man-made causes”. “What are these greenhouse gases anyway?” added my 17 year old son, Marc.

No need to answer all of these probing questions right away, as it was time to go see the dinosaur bones at Dinosaur Ridge west of Denver. Perhaps there was a way for my family to discover that both natural and manmade elements can play a role in global warming and species extinction.

Seeing dinosaur tracks in 60 million year old exposed stone took their mind off the problems of melting snow and global warming. “Great move dad” said my daughter Yardena, “All you need to do is scream ‘dinosaur’ to an 11 year old, and all other questions drop”

The pressure was off for a while, or at least until we reached the Field Museum in Chicago. It was Sue the Dinosaur’s tenth anniversary at the museum. For the family, it was the second time seeing Sue, “Dad, did you see the new evolution exhibit, featuring the dinosaurs?” asked my daughter Adira.

Part of the exhibit hypothesized that the changes we have seen on earth over a period of time have been influenced by changes in climate. One of the key displays focused natural cycles of climate change, explained by the Milankovitch Cycles, These cycles are made up of natural variations in the relationship between the earth and the sun; the orbit of the earth around the sun; the degree of the earth’s tilt; and the direction of the earth’s axis of rotation. This phenomenon is part of existing climate science, where the observed cyclical temperature increases are not caused by increases in greenhouse gases, but due to natural warming and cooling cycles.

The current theory is that the end of the dinosaurs was caused by climate change resulting from a meteor hitting the earth, sending so much particulate matter into the atmosphere, blocking the sun, preventing the sun’s radiation from heating the earth, leading to a dramatic cooling of the earth. In this case the Milankovitch Cycles did not have anything to do with the extinction of the dinosaurs.

The end of the Field Museum exhibit identified that man-made and naturally occurring gases can have a similar climate changing impact, but in the direction of heating the planet. This was my chance to explain what greenhouse gases are, why they affect climate in the way they do, and what steps we might want to take to reduce them to ensure that we can sustain life as we know it on earth.

Different human caused greenhouse gas pollutants are increasing the amount of infrared radiation being trapped, leading to these temperature increases. There are six families of greenhouse gas pollutants, which appear in various proportions which are being tracked, inventoried and targeted for reduction.

Human generated activity such as electricity generation, industrial activities, agriculture, landfill, heating and cooling, deforestation and transportation are just some sources of greenhouse gas emissions. These gasses include carbon dioxide (CO2), methane, black carbon or soot, halocarbons, carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds and nitrous oxide.

Measurement comes before management. Yardsticks are needed to size the problem and focus our efforts for improvement at the personal, community and business levels. The National Climactic Data Centre and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have a critical global yardstick we should all be aware of.

If you remember the earlier part about outgoing infrared radiation being trapped in the earth’s atmosphere and warming it. The measure of CO2 concentration in the atmosphere was below 300 parts per million (PPM) in the 800,000 years prior to the Industrial Revolution, when scientist believe that the Milankovitch Cycles operated without the need to accommodate for any other human generated activity.

A CO2 concentration of 350 PPM has been declared the “danger number”. Recent scientific measurements put us at a CO2 concentration of 390 PPM and the growth in the number is accelerating. With more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, more infrared radiation is being trapped, leading to more heating. As the PPM number continues to rise, we are seeing the effects of ice melt and the other factors documented in the “State of the Climate in 2009”.

Various environmental accords setting targets to reduce greenhouse gases to 1990 levels, or to percentages of levels measured in an earlier year, by a certain target date are trying to slow the acceleration of atmospheric CO2 concentration and then if possible reverse it to less dangerous levels.

My hope is that by explaining the facts and facilitating a better understanding of the various sources of greenhouse gas pollution, we can inspire ourselves to take the first steps in personal, community, and business action and become “Sustainable Jews”.

The challenge or opportunity is in front of us all. Can we change energy consumption patterns, alter product supply chains, exploit business opportunities to commercialize scientific discoveries, or find new ways to apply technology to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

There is an immediate problem and an urgent need to act. There are steps you can take and encourage others to take which will have a positive measurable impact. Changing your light bulbs, implementing home and office retrofits of lighting, heating and air conditioning systems can measurably decrease energy consumption and allow coal generated electricity plants to be turned off are just some of the steps you can take now. There are many more.

Going forward, this column will continue to explore how individuals, students, entrepreneurs, businesses and organizations in the Jewish community both in Canada and in Israel are dealing with sustainability. We will look at these efforts from a Jewish perspective, tying them back directly to greenhouse gas reduction activities as well as cost reduction and revenue generation.

As we enter the period of Sukkot, and put ourselves closer to nature by sitting outside under a green canopy in our Sukkah, we should start to think about the type of world we are living in today, what we will be leaving to our children and grandchildren tomorrow and the sustainable actions we will need to take as Jews, as individuals, as a community, as a country, and as members of humanity, to ensure that we leave the world in a better state.

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