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Archive for March, 2008

It’s water crisis time in Israel again. Spring is here, the turtle dove sings, almond trees blossom, and the winter that’s just passed brought a mere 65% of average rainfall.

This is the fifth consecutive winter to yield below average rainfall in Israel. Some are pointing the finger at global climate change, which is projected to reduce rainfall in Israel by 30% in the coming decades and to cause critical water shortages worldwide. It’s too early to be sure of the connection sure, but the trend is alarming.

As water crises go, this is a bad one. As we look forward to six months of cloudless skies, the Kinneret, Israel’s main water source is 60 cm below where it was this time last year. It’s already close to the lowest “red line.” When it falls below that level, pumping any more water from the Kinneret risks seriously polluting it.

Why are we in this situation? After all, Israeli water engineers have been ingenious in maximizing our access to the water sources available. Yesterday I was hiking through Nahal Amud in the Galilee with a group from Hazon and the Heschel Centre, (see next post) and found myself standing in a stone-filled limestone wadi directly on top of the National Water Carrier.

The National Water Carrier is a five feet in diameter concrete pipeline that conveys a third of Israel’s drinkable water from the Kinneret to the centres of the country’s population, and the thirsty Negev beyond. Built in the 50’s and 60’s it was a triumph of Zionist pioneering ingenuity. During its construction, half of Israel’s cement output went into building the pipeline wall. It’s a man made miracle, as awe inspiring in its way as the wadi we were hiking through. Beneath our feet lay the artery which, by pumping precious life-blood to the heart and extremities of Israel has made possible the building of the country.

Today too, Israeli technology enables us to make the most of our limited water resources. Two major desalination plants opened in the past decade and now provide almost a sixth of the country’s water.

But here’s the problem: That’s exactly the amount by which water consumption has grown in Israel over the same period. We now use 796 million cubic meters of water per year, 136 million more than in 2000. As living standards have risen, the gains from new technology have been wiped out by the greater extravagance of our water use.

That’s why technology, though wonderfully helpful, is unlikely to solve this problem alone. We’ll always find ways to consume the blessings that technology yields. To avert future water crises, we’ll have to get into the habit of consuming less.

It can be done. In the face of the water shortage of the early 90’s public campaigns to conserve and reduce water usage cut consumption by 15%.

Everyone knows what to do: take shorter showers, use a bucket and not a hosepipe to wash your car, use the mini-flush lever on your toilet, don’t leave the tap on when you wash the dishes, water the garden at night not at mid day etc etc. All very doable. But when last the crisis passed, water usage bounced back to previous levels and then beyond.

Recently I had the chance to visit the bare and frugal apartment of one of Israel’s leading poskim halakhic decisors) and ask him whether there was any halakhic basis for requiring people to save water.

He looked at me as if I’d just asked him which way was up and answered,

“Of course. We should always consume only as much as we need of the blessings that God puts in in the world.” (He proved this from Mishnah Berurah, Orach Haim 242:4, which says that people should limit their consumption during the week so that Shabbat will be extra special by comparison.)

Most of us cannot live as simply as this rabbi. But we can share his gratitude for the blessing of water and learn to use it with an appreciation of its preciousness.

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The question sounds like the title for a Lunch and Learn session of the sort that I used to give when I was campus rabbi at Cambridge.

The usual format was that hungry students would come and wolf down smoked salmon bagels while I held forth for forty minutes on what Jewish tradition could say about some topic of contemporary interest.

At first sight, the answer to this Lunch and Learn title is “nothing.” There is no “parshat global warming” in the Torah. You’ll search in vain for “tractate climate change” in the Talmud.

But Jews have always been ingenious at applying the eternal wisdom of our tradition to the most pressing issues of every era, at hearing the commanding word of Torah that is addressed to today. What has such extrapolation yielded on the issue of climate change?

So far, almost nothing. If I were a Hillel Rabbi today, giving Lunch and Learn about climate change, I’d struggle to find forty minutes worth of teaching material based on what’s currently out there.

This is odd, seeing as climate change is emerging as the most urgent challenge that humanity faces. Our success in meeting this challenge will determine whether or not we leave a livable biosphere on planet Earth to our children and grandchildren.

Correct us if we’re wrong about this, (and we’d be delighted to discover that we are), but at Jewish Climate Initiative we’re not aware of any serious research that has been done so far to focus the spiritual depth and power of Jewish teaching on this issue.

This is the central challenge that Jewish Climate Initiative has set itself in its first year of operation: to articulate a coherent Jewish answer to this question; a response that’s deeply rooted in traditional Jewish sources, and fully engaged in the reality of contemporary science and policy.

We’ve made a small start in the Ethics section of our website. There we break the question down into several more manageable ones.

What can we say about intergenerational justice, about our role in leaving a habitable world to our descendants?

What can three Talmudic tractates on the subject of damages tell us about our responsibility for stopping and making good the damage we’re doing to our global neighbours through excessive CO2 emissions?

How can the cardinal Jewish principle of pikuah nefesh, saving life, galvanize us into doing something about a problem that could cost hundreds of millions of lives in the next century?

What can we say about a global ethic of consumption that is trashing the planet for the sake of today’s fleeting pleasure?

We’ve barely scratched the surface of these questions. In partnership with scholars, rabbis and teachers around the world we aim to access the wealth of Jewish teaching and develop some compelling answers.

Then we will have a body of wisdom that can serve not just as edu-tainment for Jewish students between lectures. We will have a basis from which we can articulate a Jewish message to the world that addresses humanity’s most pressing challenge

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Why a Jewish Climate Initiative? Surely climate change is a global problem? Isn’t everyone today concerned about it?

We spent quite a few late nights and Espressos debating these questions ourselves.

Our answer is that yes, many people are, and we applaud and support their efforts.

But the scale and urgency of the problem requires everyone to play their part. We have barely begun to imagine, let alone make, the immense shifts in individual behavior, government policy and ethical consciousness that will be necessary if we are to avoid dangerous climate change.

We believe that the Jewish people has a large, unique and until now, untapped contribution to make, through its combination of ethical wisdom, scientific and business know-how and activist passion.

Jewish Climate Initiative aims to be a catalyst to mobilize these strengths for the good of our children and of the planet.

Part of what makes our response distinctive lies in recognizing the holistic nature of the climate change crisis. The challenge of global warming requires a marriage of moral and spiritual vision with scientific and entrepreneurial innovation. Neither well-meaning ethical exhortations nor purely technical solutions will be sufficient by themselves.


One of the many things we believe faith-inspired approaches to climate change can offer is hope. Hope is a scarce resource in the current climate change discourse. Al Gore observes in “An Inconvenient Truth” that many have passed straight from denial that climate change is a problem to despair that we can do anything about it, without passing through an intermediate stage of hope.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks argues that hope is a distinctively (though not exclusively) religious virtue. It is not the same as optimism. Optimism is the belief that things will get better. Hope is the belief that together we can make them better.

We hope that you’ll send us your thoughts, responses and suggestions so that together we can help make things better for our children and grandchildren.

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