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Archive for March, 2009

By Yannai Kranzler

First Lady, Michele Obama, Digging out the Obama's New Veggie Garden, Together with Fifth Graders from the Bancroft Elementary School

I’m pretty sure there’s still no planned war against the species of Corn. But it turns out that the Obama family actually is turning the White House Lawn, or at least a chunk of it, into an organic garden, contrary to an article I published before the weekend. Spearheaded by First Lady Michele, the garden involves replacing 1000 square feet of grass with 55 species of veggies, herbs and berries.

To quote the NY Times article that printed the story last week:

While the organic garden will provide food for the first family’s meals and formal dinners, its most important role, Mrs. Obama said, will be to educate children about healthful, locally grown fruit and vegetables at a time when obesity and diabetes have become a national concern.

“My hope,” the first lady said in an interview in her East Wing office, “is that through children, they will begin to educate their families and that will, in turn, begin to educate our communities.”

Brought in as special advisors to the project were twenty three fifth graders from Bancroft Elementary School in Washington. Their school has mantained its own garden since 2001, and they will now till and tend at the White House.

If only I could be wrong like this all the time! What can I say- I guessed a giant kitchen garden at the Executive Mansion too good to be true.

Obviously, the global significance of the new garden is mostly symbolic. But symbolism is a powerful tool for change, and the Obamas’ new garden is a powerful symbol that hopefully will inspire change. Michael Pollan cites Eleanor Roosevelt’s famous Victory Garden as an example, when the first lady planted veggies on the White House Lawn during World War II, spawning a home gardening movement throughout the country that ended up supplying 40% of American-grown produce during the war.

At a time when the food industry accounts for more greenhouse gas emissions than anything else we do, a White House full of homegrown, local food can prove very meaningful indeed.

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By Yannai Kranzler

The American Army has yet to declare war on the species of Corn, despite Michael Pollan’s warnings that it is plotting to take over the world. But despite failing to convince the military to attack a vegetable, there is little doubt that Pollan has had a remarkable influence on the way people think about food.

Michael Pollan

Michael Pollan

In Pollan’s newest book, In Defense of Food, he suggests, among other things, reclaiming time-tested traditional menus of the past. Much of modern man’s eating disorder, says Pollan, stems from ditching mom for food science, cultural wisdom for the back of a cereal box, in order to determine the day’s menu.

Although Pollan, despite his Jewish roots does not mention it, this approach is a classically Jewish one: The Hebrew word for progress is Hitkadmut. Oddly enough, the root of the word Hitkadmut is Kedem, which means, “Before.” Moving forward well, our language is telling us, is contingent upon consulting our past. As we charge speedily ahead, we need, every once in a while, to backtrack and pick up the pieces we’ve left behind.

The following are Pollan’s rules for better eating, as written in In Defense of Food, based on the well-known Pollan mantra, “Eat Food. Not Too Much. Mostly Plants.” (Click Here to buy the book from Amazon.com) I’ve stuck these rules onto our fridge at home (Right next to the magnet with the number of the pizza delivery guy). Feel free to do the same. Beteavon! (Hebrew for Bon Apatit).

1. Don’t eat anything your great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.

2. Avoid food products containing ingredients that are, A) unfamiliar, B) unpronounceable, C) more than five in number, or that include D) High Fructose Corn Syrup.

3. Avoid food products that make health claims.

4. Shop the peripheries of the supermarket and stay out of the middle.

5. Get out of the supermarket whenever possible.

6. Eat mostly plants, especially leaves.

7. You are what you eat eats, too.

8. If you have space, buy a freezer.

9. Eat like an omnivore.

10. Eat well-grown food from healthy soils.

11. Eat wild foods when you can.

12. Be the kind of person who takes supplements. (Although don’t necessarily take supplements).

13. Eat more like the French. Or the Italians. Or the Japanese. Or the Indians. Or the Greeks.

14. Regard non-traditional foods with skepticism.

15. Don’t look for the magic bullet in the traditional diet.

16. Have a glass of wine with dinner.

17. Pay more, eat less.

18. Eat Meals.

19. Do all your eating a a table. No, a desk is not a table.

20. Don’t get your fuel from the same place your car does.

21. Try not to eat alone.

22. Consult your gut.

23. Eat slowly.

24. Cook and, if you can, plant a garden.

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A Review, by Rabbi Julian Sinclair

I am really not the right person to be reviewing “Nature’s Due.” It is based on some quite complicated biology, a subject that I haven’t studied formally since I was 14. James Murray-White from Green Prophet sent me the book in September, and I’ve only just finished it now, after several tactful reminders from James. As you can infer from that, it’s been a bit of a struggle.

However, I’m really glad that James stayed on my case about his, because “Nature’s Due” is a fascinating and important book. It’s one of those books that can furnish you with a couple of serviceable building blocks for a worldview.

Goodwin’s guiding question is: what would it take for our culture to interact with the world in a mode of engaged, evolutionary participation rather than in a mode of dominance and control?

He lists the familiar litany of environmental failures engendered by the dominance and control model (GM crops, degraded food supply, ugly, dysfunctional cites etc.) and asserts that the root cause of this cultural attitude is dualism: our predilection for seeing nature as inert stuff to be acted on and transformed for our benefit through the agency of human will and subjectivity.

Sometime shortly after the Renaissance, claims Goodwin, we disenchanted the world. Consciousness, intelligence and freedom were arrogated to the human realm, while the physical world was conceived as a mere machine.

So far, this is all fairly standard green cultural criticism. Cartesian Dualism has always placed in the top three of any list of the usual suspects in Western thought for creating the spiritual conditions that have allowed us to wreck our physical environment. Goodwin’s originality is to propose a reframing of our worldviews based on cutting edge research in biology that has emerged over the past 5-10 years.

Brian Goodwin

Brian Goodwin

The first prop of his argument is a body of work that has attempted to bring the study of qualities, including human affective and emotional responses within the domain of scientific study. For example, it turns out that there are high degrees of agreement when you ask people to ascribe emotional states to a pig. Intersubjective consensus can provide a basis for studying qualitative phenomena that cannot be measured. One small blow against the subject-object division.

Much more interesting, and central to his argument, is the work that Goodwin surveys in contemporary genetics. Throughout the second half of the twentieth century, most biologists thought of DNA as a sort of computer program. It was the code that instructed organisms how to grow. This belief drove the development of the epic genome mapping program that was finished in 2001.

However, as the genome project neared completion, biologists realized that it was not so much fulfilling their expectations as transforming them. It turned out that genes do not condition the structure of living things in any deterministic way. We now know that a gene can be “read” (my quotation marks) by a cell in hundreds of different ways, each one resulting in a different protein. “For example, in the hair cells of t

he inner ear of a chick there is a gene that can be translated into 576 different proteins each one altering the tuning of cells to sound frequencies.” So if genetic structure does not allow us to predict morphology as we had hoped it would, what then have we learned from the whole genome project?

Goodwin argues that a different metaphor for the genome is emerging from the work of biologists like Evelyn Fox Keller and Anton Markos. Rather than understanding DNA as a computer program, we should instead conceive it as a kind of a “text” containing a range of developmental possibilities that is “interpreted” by cells through interaction with their environments. Cells “read” their genes so as to realize the possibilities of growth that will tend towards the creation of complex, efficient, coherent and aesthetic biological forms (beauty being a characteristic of efficiency, complexity and coherence.) He ascribes the term “meaning” to the object of organisms’ search for such elegant solutions to the problems of survival.

Thus Goodwin claims that other living things may be said to possess language and culture of a kind that is analogous to ours.  Their cultural resources are an inherited stock of genetic information that enables them to “choose” effective ways to live and grow through interaction with their environments.

If this is true, Goodwin concludes, then not only are we wrong to believe that language, culture and the search for meaning are uniquely human attributes; we should alsorecognize what a lousy job we are doing of utilizing those gifts in comparison to other creatures. “Compared with our biological cousins, we have become extraordinarily clumsy in the creation of our artifacts. We do not use resources and energy efficiently as organisms do, and we often fail badly in the aesthetic quality of our artifacts.” As Goodwin puts it, “the human is the only creature who doesn’t know what he is supposed to be doing.”

So Goodwin’s prescription for change is that we should be humbly willing to learn from the rest of creation, which does seem to know what it’s supposed to be doing.  Through bio-mimicry, natural design, architecture and city planning based on natural forms, we may return our culture and its artifacts to harmonious balance with the natural world.

My main criticism of this thoughtful and well-written book is that, if biology is not my area, then it seems probable that philosophy is not Goodwin’s. He himself alludes to the problem of early educational specialization based on the dualistic division of knowledge into “arts” and “sciences.” It appears that we have both suffered from it!

I have placed “text”, “interpret” and “culture” in quotation marks where they are applied to the activity of genes and organisms, but Goodwin doesn’t. The analogy, though plausible and thought-provoking, is nowhere near proven. It would take a far deeper discussion than Goodwin offers of what human “texts”, “interpretations” and “cultures are to justify removing the inverted commas.

Indeed the places where he does offer a philosophical basis for this view of science are the weakest in the book.  Chapter 6 proposes that the little-known scientific work of the great German writer Johann Wolfgang Van Goethe prefigured a way of doing biology that can

John Wolfgang von Goethe

John Wolfgang Von Goethe

integrate quantitative and qualitative facets in a holistic and spiritually inspired vision.

Again, Goodwin offers enough to make this idea intriguing but not nearly enough to render it convincing. Bizarrely, almost half of the chapter is devoted to Goethe’s biography, and in particular, to his extravangant romantic life, (with extensive quotations describing one lover’s “large black eyes of the greatest beauty”, and her “easy Zephyr-like movements.”) Discussion of the philosophical basis of Goethe’s thinking is thin. This is a pity. The German Idealist tradition of philosophy to which Goethe contributed, with its non-dualistic merging of nature and spirit and its evolutionary conception of consciousness seems to be a potentially fruitful source for grounding an ecological vision of science.

One of the many problems with Goodwin’s swift elision of the differences between human culture and potential biological analogues is that it ignores the healing possibilities inherent in the immensely greater complexity of human culture. Suppose we accept Goodwin’s analogy and conclusions: the very fact that human culture can become so massively dysfunctional in its modes of adaptation to the physical world, in a way that other organisms appear not to be able to match, is itself tribute to the sophistication of human thought.

The immensity and ingenuity of the cultural and scientific information that we have amassed in printed and digital forms has created the technological instruments with which we are degrading the biosphere. The human capacity for reflection on, development of, and conscious selection from our cultural resources is surely unique, even if one agrees with Goodwin that other organisms undergo analogous processes. And it is just these capacities for extremely rapid cultural evolution that give us hope that we can change course in time.

Survival is unlikely to lie in simply admitting what pathetic evolutionary failures our creations are in comparison with, say the elegant, functional beauty of the honey bee’s. It will also come from our ability to reach deep within our cultural memories, including our religious and spiritual traditions, and to rapidly actualize the wisdom that lies there for how we may live beautifully in an interconnected world.

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By Rabbi Julian Sinclair

Dear Bibi,

It was great to read about your 100 day plan in last week’s Jerusalem Post. It certainly grapples with some of Israel’s main challenges: Iran’s nuclear program, terrorism, the economy, stemming job losses and “interfacing” with the Obama administration. Good luck with all of that. You’ll certainly need it.

Incoming Israeli Prime Minister, Binyamin Bibi Netanyahu

Incoming Israeli Prime Minister, Binyamin "Bibi" Netanyahu

But there was one major issue glaringly absent from the plan; one that you must deal with if you are to effectively address every other item on the list. Energy is at the core of Israel’s – and the world’s – most urgent geo-political, environmental, economic and security challenges.

Continuing reliance on oil from oppressive Middle Eastern regimes is no longer an option. The world must move rapidly to clean, renewable energy sources. Israel can, and must be at the heart of that transformation.

Let’s see how energy policy is intertwined with every one of your target issues. Take Iran and terrorism, the first two points on the list. Iran has reached the threshold of building a nuclear bomb, which you identify as an existential threat to Israel, using the proceeds of decades of petrodollars. Hamas and Hezbollah are financed by the same dirty sources of funding. Hezbollah was able to provoke the 2006 war that laid waste to Southern Lebanon because oil-funded Iranian largesse then rebuilt the country and bought off its enraged inhabitants.

Long before most people, you grasped the connection between the undemocratic nature of Arab regimes and their continuing conflict with Israel. But there’s an equally fundamental connection that you may have missed, the one between the undemocratic nature of those regimes and their huge oil revenues.

States with access to huge monopoly rents from exporting oil and natural gas have money to buy off interest groups and potential opponents. They have no incentive to invest in education for their people or to foster economic and occupational diversity. According to Larry Diamond of Stanford University, of the twenty three nations in the world that derive most of their export income from oil and gas, not one is a democracy. It’s no coincidence. Helping the Western world to kick its oil addiction is probably the single most important and practical thing we can do towards creating a more democratic and peaceful Middle East.

And we can help, in a big way. Israel has world-leading renewable energy companies like Solel, Sunday, Ormat, and Project Better Place. An Israeli firm, Brightsource-Luz2 just landed the largest ever contract for solar energy ever signed with a utility provider. (1.3 Gigawatts with South California Edison.)

What’s more, they have achieved these extraordinary successes not thanks to, but despite, the policy of successive Israeli governments. Speak to senior executives at some of Israel’s clean energy companies; you’ll hear stories of brilliant innovators waiting a decade for zoning permission to build a solar field or of encountering nightmarish administrative delays when they want to connect renewable energy generation to the National Grid.

The feed-in tariff for solar energy recently enacted by the outgoing government was a good idea, and should be implemented. But what would arguably help the renewable energy industry even more would be the ability to compete with fossil fuels on a level playing field. If you declare renewable energy to be an Israeli national security priority and blast through the bureaucracy, the ingenuity of our inventors and entrepreneurs could do the rest.

Turning to the next two items on your shopping list, the potential economic and employment benefits of encouraging Israel’s clean technology sector are huge. The world energy market is currently worth $ 5 trillion. With the prospect of a global carbon capping agreement from 2012, a large and increasing proportion of sum will be spent on renewables. This represents a huge economic opportunity for Israeli companies. Bold government policy could help Israel enterprises to capture a large share of this enormous market.

What is more, it would bring high-tech, high skill, high wage jobs to Israel. Currently there are leading Israeli clean technology companies that do their R and D in Israel but send their construction and manufacturing abroad to avoid bureaucratic entanglement. With recession cutting into the local employment base, these jobs need to come home.

And what of Obama? We all know that behind the brave talk about unshakable friendship based on deep common interests, there are major ideological gaps between the new American and Israeli governments. It’s not just about the Palestinians, but extends to broader social, geopolitical and economic policy too.

In 1996, you wowed the Republican congress with your passion for tax cuts and deregulation. Positioning yourself as the last dinosaur of Reaganite Neo-liberalism won’t win you many friends in post bailout Washington DC today. Throughout the Bush era we were considered America’s necessary ally in the War on Terror. The new administration appears to believe that there is no such thing.

But energy is one area that cries out for deep cooperation between Israel and the US. For Barack Obama has, correctly (in my opinion), identified global climate change as a major threat to the world, and pledged that the United States will take the lead in addressing it. He has accepted the challenge of revolutionizing the way America produces and uses energy. To this end, he has committed billions of dollars towards increasing energy efficiency, promoting solar and wind power and reducing the country’s reliance on oil and goal.

We need you to accept this challenge too. Lead our country towards a future of safe, clean, renewable energy, and help us to lead the world there. Then you will be able to justly claim that Israel is America’s indispensable strategic partner in the most important economic and technological transformation of our time.

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Purim is coming! This year, you can make it a “green Purim” by reducing waste in your Purim activities.

Canfei Nesharim has great NEW resources for Purim, including great ideas for healthy, low-waste, beautiful and eco-friendly Mishloach Manot* packages for you to give out this year.  Canfei Nesharim has created five model mishloach manos packages to explore, and you can order the suggested products right on their website!  The organization is also offering FREE Yummy Earth Organic Lollipops and FREE “Appreciation for Creation” wallet cards to give out in your mishloach manos packages (order by March 1 – US only); as well as Printable Purim Donation Cards (a great no-waste option!).  Check it all out on their NEW Purim Site!   http://www.canfeinesharim.org/learning/holidays.php?page=19585

Best wishes for a joyous and meaningful Purim,

The Climate of Change Team

*Mishloach Manot are gift packages of food, customarily given from friends to friends every Purim. The Jewish holiday of Purim takes place this Monday night/Tuesday, and Tuesday night/Wednesday in Jerusalem.

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By Rabbi Julian Sinclair

Here’s a short quiz. Read the following quote and then answer the simple question below.

This country, with God’s help, can be self-sufficient in energy. The problem lies in the failure to utilize God’s gifts to their fullest…  There is one energy source which can be made available in a very short time. Solar energy is non-polluting, cheap, and inexhaustible…it can power individual homes as well as giant factories. The United States has been blessed with plentiful sunshine, especially in the south… God has blessed this country richly, and it is our duty to use those riches to their fullest.”

Who said this, and when? Was it:

a)Al Gore in 2006.
b)Barack Obama in 2008.
c)Nigel Savage in 2009.
d)Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the 7th Lubavitcher Rebbe, in 1981?

The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson

The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson

The answer is d). Rabbi Schneerson spoke at length about the imperative for the United States to move over to solar energy at a gathering of Chabad Hassidim in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, on April 11th 1981.

Incredible, no? Seven years before Professor Jim Hansen first alerted the world to the threat of global climate change in his testimony to the US Senate, a Hassidic Rebbe (albeit one with a degree in engineering) was informing his followers that America needed to go solar.

There are, of course, those who will tell you that the Lubavitcher Rebbe was a prophet and a genius, and that that’s why he was able to anticipate global leaders and experts on this issue by a quarter of a century.

Maybe. The Rebbe was certainly a great Jewish leader. I don’t want to pronounce on the nature of his powers. My point, however, is that he didn’t need to be a prophet or a genius to figure out in 1981 that there was something very wrong with the way that the United States was acquiring and using energy.

America was in the middle of a recession triggered by the second big oil price spike and was just recovering from the Iran hostage debacle when the newly born Islamic Republic had held the United States, literally, over a barrel. (Or more accurately, over tens of millions of barrels.) At that moment, there was something very clearly crazy about leaving our economies dependent on a fuel whose price was incredibly volatile and which was located mostly under the land of authoritarian regimes that despised us. There had to be a better way.

So why did Rabbi Schneerson get it twenty eight years ago, when so many other smart people didn’t? The date of his utterance, April 11th, 1981 provides us with a clue. The Lubavitcher Rebbe gave his speech on solar power three days after the last Birkhat Hahama celebration.

Once every twenty eight years, this rarest of Jewish holidays gives us the opportunity to reflect on and celebrate the blessings of the sun.  As the key Talmud source on Birkhat Hahama describes it:

“One who sees the sun at the beginning of its cycle…should say. ‘Blessed are You who makes the works of creation.’ And when does it happen that the sun is at the beginning of its cycle? Abbaye says, ‘every twenty eight years, the cycle begins again and the Nissan equinox falls in the hour of Saturn, on the evening of the third day, the night before the fourth day (of the week.)’” Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot, 59b.

Birkhat Hahama is a once in a generation chance to give thanks for the source of the energy that feeds all of life, that makes plants grow and which, in fossilized form, drives our cars, heats our homes and powers our industries. As Rabbi Arthur Waskow points out, it is also an occasion on which to ask, “Has our generation used these gifts wisely?”

Speaking days after the last Birkhat Hahama, Rabbi Schneerson was doing just that. He was challenging his listeners to use that day, an obscure but precious resource from our tradition, to think about whether their generation was using the sun’s blessings wisely.

The next Birkhat Hahama will be in five weeks time, at sunrise on April 8th, 2009. What have we done with the sun’s gifts in these last twenty eight years?

We have used them to wreck the biosphere.  Combustion of billion year old fossilized sunlight in the form of oil, coal and gas emits greenhouse gases. Our unabated addiction to burning fossil fuels in our cars, homes and factories is causing famine and drought in Sub-Saharan Africa, flooding Bangladeshi peasants out of their homes and rates of species extinction that haven’t been seen on Earth for tens of thousands of years.  If we don’t change course soon, unprecedented weather extremes threaten to wreak havoc on our children’s lives.

If the economic and geopolitical foolishness of continuing to depend on fossil fuels was dawning on a few people twenty eight years ago it is as clear as daylight today.

Unlike the sun, which is good for at least another billion years, oil, gas and coal are finite. We need, really soon, to develop renewable energy sources that will be in place and ready to power the world the day after oil. Otherwise, the catastrophic consequences of that moment on the global economy will make the current recession look puny.

America has fought three Middle Eastern wars since 1991, at the cost of thousands of lives.  Iran has used decades of petrodollar income to reach the threshold of building a nuclear bomb. The idiocy of forking over trillions of dollars in oil revenues to oppressive terror-funding regimes has at last become too egregious for anyone to avoid.

Last Birkhat hahama, the Lubavitcher Rebbe was one of the only people to seriously confront the question “Are we using the blessings of the sun wisely?” This time around, we all must.

We need to ask ourselves, our communities and our leaders: Are we using energy as efficiently as we could be? Are we making every effort to switch to clean, renewable fuel sources derived directly from the sun’s energy? Are we doing everything we could be to persuade our governments and industries to invest in solar and wind power?

Will we continue to encourage regimes that happen to be sitting on top of stocks of fossil fuels to concentrate vast wealth in a few hands, while abusing their populations and neglecting to develop their human potential?  Will we continue to fight bloody wars over the right to control the land beneath which the dwindling supplies of fossilized sun are stored? Will we continue to actively cause global climate change?

Or will we choose a path towards energy that will be widely distributed, non-polluting and eventually, almost free. Will we invest in the development of the sophisticated technologies and learning organizations that can harness an inexhaustible plenitude of sunlight and the related, sun-driven, natural processes of wind and waves?

If we can give honest answers to these questions this April 8th and act on them, then, God willing, next Birkhat Hahama in 2037 we’ll be able to look back and say that we used the blessings of the sun to help bring peace, prosperity and healing to the Earth.

For more on Birkhat Hahama, visit www.blessthesun.org.

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