Archive for September, 2008

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair

What does this amusing video clip have to do with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year? Read on…

Teshuvah, the innate ability we have to change our lives for the better is one of Judaism’s most central beliefs. We are not slaves to our pasts but can shake ourselves free of old, bad habits and remake our lives as we, in our best moments, and God, all the time, would really like them to be. Rosh Hashanah is the time of the year when we look at our lives from the perspective of those moments.

It takes a mental and moral leap for most of us to see our carbon footprints, the personal contribution that we make to global climate change, as something that calls for Teshuvah. Yelling at the kids, ignoring your spouse, kicking beggars in the street; these are all things that we can clearly recognize as wrong. We understand that they require reflection, regret and a determined effort to change. But everyday behaviour…? Driving, flying, buying food shipped from around the world…that’s just normal Western living. Can these actions fall within the purview of such an exalted ethical concept?

Yes, they can.  There is an egregious and outrageous moral wrong about the way that carbon-hungry lifestyle’s in rich countries are already contributing to drought, hunger and extreme weather conditions in the world’s poorest nations. We just don’t see the silent, odorless web of interconnectedness that links cause and effect.

It is this fact of interconnectedness that can make the challenge of climate change feel so overwhelming and disorienting. The demonstrable phenomena  that a coal-fired power station in Michigan can contribute to starvation in Mali, or that the car I choose to buy in Boston may be somehow implicated in floods in Bangladesh (or, for that matter, tornados in Texas,) fundamentally challenge our views of how moral agency and responsibility work.

We intuitively understand the solid-bodies physics of how an SUV, if driven without care, can flatten pedestrians. Knowing this, we are generally careful to make sure not to do so. The atmospheric physics of how careless driving of a different kind can contribute to flattening somebody’s mud hut in the Maldives is beyond most of our scientific ken and so outside our frames of conceptual and moral reference. After all, very few people would knowingly and deliberately drive their SUV into a mud hut. And if we did so by accident, most of us would certainly say sorry, and offer to pay.

In Judaism, individual responsibility is the fundamental unit of social change. Teshuvah starts with me and you, (as my friend Jess Gold in England points out.)  “Great is Teshuvah, because through a single person repenting, the whole world may be forgiven,” says the Talmud (Yoma 86b). This is the redemptive flip side of interconnectedness; the deep, sincere transformation of one person can change everything.

The most common reason for individual inaction on climate change is that the problem is too huge; it will take governments, laws and lots of money to solve.  This argument doesn’t wash in Judaism. Certainly; the problem will require governments, laws and lots of money. But governments are our agents, not our alibis. They won’t make far-reaching policy changes that will require us to alter our lifestyles until they see that we are ready to change and are not going to throw them out of power for requiring us to do so. As the Rambam says: “A person should always see himself and the whole world as equally balanced between merit and guilt…; if he does a single mitzva he can tip himself and everyone over to the side of merit and save the world.”  (Hilkhot Teshuvah 2:4)

In this connection we at JCI have been working on a carbon-offsetting guide. (Should be out right after Rosh Hashanah.) As you may know, here’s how offsetting works:

First, calculate the quantity of carbon you emit by flying, driving or using electricity. Second, pay for a

carbon calculator

project that reduces carbon emissions by this same amount. These might include generating electricity from solar, wind and hydroelectric sources instead of fossil fuels, or reducing fuel use by increasing efficiency. Since greenhouse gases circulate freely in the atmosphere, this project can be located anywhere in the world.

There is a fundamental critique made against offsetting; that it is simply unethical. Critics argue that we need to radically reduce our carbon emissions; offsetting your flight to Australia will, at best, neutralize the extra carbon you spewed into the atmosphere whereas what is required is to produce less of the stuff. Some have compared offsets to a child shifting her spinach to the other side of the plate and pretending that consequently there is less of it.

Underlying this is the idea that if some act or behavior is wrong, paying to do it won’t make it right. The spoof website http://www.cheatneutral.com (see video above) makes this point in a funny but sharp way. You can’t offset marital infidelity by paying someone to be faithful on your behalf. So too, if living a high carbon life-style is immoral then buying offsets doesn’t make it OK.

This critique can be supported by Jewish sources. Somebody who physically damages another person is required to pay five categories of damages; damage, pain, loss of earnings, medical expenses, and embarrassment. (Bava Kamma 83b) Does this mean that if you beat someone up and then pay all the expenses that the court asks of you you’ve made everything alright? No. Beating people up is wrong. You’re not allowed to do it even if you fully intend to pay damages afterwards. Money alone cannot make it right. (Bava Kamma 91b, Maimomides, Hilkhot Hovel u’mazik, 5:1).

Nevertheless, Jewish Climate Initiative is in favor of offsetting. (We’re producing a handy guide, to come out next week.) Here’s why.

1. It’s much, much better than doing nothing. As long as we continue to fly, drive big cars, etc. offsetting mitigates some of the effects.

2. The kind of people who offset are usually the kind of people who are also trying to shrink their carbon footprints. They are offsetting in addition to reducing emissions, not instead of it.

3. It gives a boost to ecologically friendly projects, communities and technologies, which has positive knock-on effects.

4. Offsetting through the projects in our guide supports green initiatives in Israel.

5. Judaism recognizes that change takes time. The process of transforming one’s life, Teshuvah does not happen all at once, but one step at a time (People who do become deeply observant overnight often revert to their former life-style just as quickly.)

The world is entering a process of Teshuvah,  positive and profound, transformation, in the way we all use energy; it needs to happen pretty darn fast, say within a decade or two, but still it will take time. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, in his work “Orot Hateshuvah advised Baalei Teshuvah, to acknowledge the things they don’t yet have the power to fix in their lives, and pray for the ability to repair them in the future. Offsetting is one way to repair a little of the damage we still do to the earth and its most vulnerable citizens in our everyday use of fossil fuels, even as we all work towards a new energy culture that is in harmony and not at odds with the planet.

Climate of Change and JCI wish you and yours a happy, healthy and blessed New Year.

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By Yannai Kranzler

I was in the shower the other day and had an idea: A “Green” reality show, or Survivor-like competition.

This, I was sure, would be a mighty success.

I’ll allow that I was pretty excited: redemption for the world, riches for me.

And then I searched “Green Reality Show” on Google and yielded two million hits. And fast as a Google search engine, my riches went “Poof!”

The Redemption, though, that world where our innate sense of good gets free rein, seemed hopefully close by. “And I shall spit out to you unceasing blessing!” declared God (Malachi, 3, 11). And I watched in awe, as Google spat out its unceasing list of bettering-the-world entertainment initiatives.

Planet Green, as just one example.

Planet Green is a cable TV channel, dedicated entirely to eco-tainment and education. Programming includes Leonardo Dicaprio’s Greensburg, documenting a Tornado-destroyed town’s mission to sustainable rebirth, Greenovate, on energy-saving home-living, world class chef Emeril Legasse’s organic/local food cooking show, environmental newscasts, and even some sort of eco-competition between rapper Ludacris and rock hero Tommy Lee.

To me, ecological sensitivity’s “Thing to be” status is exhilarating. Popular entertainment can only sell content that excites us, and if sustainability excites us enough to be the meat of an entire TV channel, than all I have to say is go us.

So if you’d like to share in the tidings of joy, I urge you to visit planetgreen.discovery.com/tv/, and see a better world well on its way.

Here’s an intro clip into Planet Green. Enjoy!

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By Rabbi Julian Sinclair

What are the stories that we tell ourselves to make sense of such a mind-bogglingly, epically huge challenge as climate change?

Which are the narratives with the depth and resonance to inspire action? Are those stories all ultimately drawn from the sources of myth and religion? Are we telling the right stories?

If not, which one’s should we be telling instead?

That’s the fascinating conversation that we’ve been having with Michael Shellenberger since we reviewed his and Ted Nordhaus’ book “Breakthrough,” a couple of weeks ago.

We were dead chuffed (that’s an English expression – it means “gratified” or “appreciative”) to get this warm response from Michael to our review.

Thanks for this very thoughtful review of our book. I really appreciate the comparisons and contrasts you drew between DOE and Break Through, and your admonition that we take the ties between religion and politics seriously…

Michael Shellenberger

Michael Shellenberger

As for religion, we support a secular politics, not a religious one… We also think that gratitude toward creation, reverence, and awe are powerful motivators for a progressive politics. This is perhaps the least developed part of book, but it may also be, as you suggest, the most important one.

You ask, ‘Will a secularized version of this narrative, built around clean tech investment, have the mythical power to move America to act on climate change? Or will a deeper and even more resonant story be needed, say of the earth as the God’s wondrous Creation that we are bidden to cherish and love?’ I hope it’s both. To date the religious discourse greens have used has overwhelmingly been one of a fall from nature that ends in apocalypse.”

The question Michael asks raises something we’ve thought about quite a bit at Jewish Climate Initiative. I wrote back:

…Yes, I too hope it’s both. It is uncanny how many secular environmentalists have reached (perhaps unwittingly) for a narrative of climate change in which future hellfire and damnation are the wages of sin; a story rooted in religious myth and a completely unhelpful one for inspiring action. The stories that we tell about this, the good ones and the bad, tend to be
traceable back to spiritual narratives. One of the things we’ve learned from your book is the importance of finding those religious stories related to climate change that can empower and inspire. I too very much hope we’ll continue the conversation.”

It really is uncanny. I have a Google Alert set up to search for articles containing the words “climate change” and “religion.” The results from Europe are almost all news stories about religious groups mobilizing to combat climate change; the articles from the US, on the other hand are usually near-identical opinion columns by climate change skeptics decrying belief in global warming as “the new religion.”

Annoying as these pieces are, the grain of truth within them is that many climate change activists have structured their case along mythic-religious lines. Whether consciously or not, they have borrowed a canonical, and readily available myth of Western culture to tell their story.

This is strikingly evident in the books of two very good recent writers on global change, George Monbiot and Mark Lynas. Both use medieval reworkings of the Christian myth of hell-fire and damnation to add a dash of literary panache and moral urgency to their writings. Lynas in his “Six Degrees” quotes liberally from Dante’s “Inferno,” while Monbiot in “Heat” spins a nice little allegory of climate change based on Marlowe’s “Doctor Faustus:”

“Faustus is humankind, restless, curious, unsated. Mephistopheles… is fossil fuel. Faust’s miraculous abilities are the activities fossil fuel permits…And the flames of hell – well, I think you’ve worked that out for yourself.”

Even in post-Christian Britain, where Tony Blair recently admitted that he had kept quiet about his strong religious beliefs while Prime Minister, for fear of being branded a “nutter,” images of fire and brimstone are present enough in the national psyche to be irresistibly handy for global warming writers. Unfortunately, these myths provoke widespread paralysis, denial and despair and are generally not helpful to the public discourse on climate change.

Myth might be described as the deep, structuring narratives of human experience, and their primary source is in the great religious traditions. They are “the music we dance to even when we cannot name the tune”, as Bill Moyers put it, summing up the work of the greatest twentieth century mythology scholar, Joseph Campbell. Like Campbell, when we say “myth” we don’t mean “untrue”; rather we are talking about the deepest levels of psychic and spiritual truth.

Human beings need myth to make sense of the world. However, it is highly questionable whether the myth of hellfire is a helpful one in the climate change context. The implication that we are all sinners, and that we are therefore heading for damnation, may shake up some people, but no doubt pushes many more into despair or denial. We need to draw on all of the world’s great spiritual traditions to articulate different, more hopeful and empowering mythic understandings of climate change.

As a mere starting point, let us look at the most obvious biblical narrative of climate change, the story of Noah and the flood. This is sometimes thought of (for example by the Christian eco-feminist theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether in her book Gaia and God) as an apocalyptic end of the world myth. The rabbis, however read it as a story of human moral empowerment.

Noah heard a warning from God. His world was about to be inundated by catastrophic climate change. This threat was a result of systemic ethical failures. “The earth was corrupted before God, and the Land was filled with violence.” (Genesis 6:11.)

God commanded Noah to build an ark. The midrash asks why this was necessary. Couldn’t God have simply borne Noah up to Heaven? The answer is that the whole purpose of the ark was that it took a long time to build. First Noah had to plant cedar trees, which take a long time to grow. God wanted Noah’s contemporaries to see the construction, take heed of what was to come, and avert the decree by changing their ways.

Unfortunately, the response of Noah’s generation during the hundred and twenty year construction period was to scoff, deny the threat and refuse to change. The flood came, Noah and his family was saved, the rest of humankind perished.

Yet the Torah is implicitly critical of Noah for not having done more to save others. In the Torah text, he is silent. In the Midrash, he tells others,” God intends to bring a flood on the world, and told me to make an ark, so that I and my household may escape.” Noah’s passivity is compared disparagingly to the activism of Abraham, who took responsibility for the fate of his generation.

At the dawn of the twenty first century a new warning has been sounded. Today, there is no ark except the earth, and no prospect of salvation apart from the entire global family. We must hear the call and repair Noah’s mistake of indifference to his neighbors. Climate change challenges us to act like Abraham, and work with the rest humanity to save our common home.

For more on climate change ethics, we invite you to visit our ethics page at JewishClimateInitiative.org.

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