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By Rabbi Julian Sinclair

The Copenhagen Summit in December is a gathering of world leaders that aims to bash out a successor agreement to the Kyoto protocol that will limit CO2 emissions going forward. It is widely seen as a critical moment in the global effort to address the threat of climate change.

There is a remarkable groundswell of concern and activism in the world that is building in advance of this event. People everywhere are raising their voices, demanding that, this time, our leaders do right by the earth and by our children. In the Jewish community too, there is an awakening of passion and activism around this issue. The Shabbat of Parshat Noach, October 23rd-4th has been declared Global Climate Healing Shabbat and Hazon and Jewish Climate Initiative will shortly be going public with a Seven Year Plan for the Jewish people to address climate change and sustainability.

How can the current period in the Jewish calendar help us to understand what’s going on and what’s at stake?

We are in the middle of the three weeks that are bounded by the fasts of the 17th Tammuz until Tisha B’Av. Let’s first note they are two out of several fast days in the Jewish calendar. In their purpose, these days fall on a spectrum between Teshuva, repentance, and mourning. These purposes are not the same. Teshuva is about examining our lives individually and communally asking ourselves what needs to change and resolving to be better from now on.

Mourning is about experiencing and grieving for a loss. These purposes may overlap but they are not the same. Yom Kippur is a fast of Teshuvah but not a day of mourning. On the other hand if someone close to us dies, our main response is one of mourning, not of Teshuva.

The Mishnah (Taanit 26a-b) teaches that on the 17th Tammuz the process of destruction began. Specifically, the offering of the daily sacrifice was suspended in the first temple, the wall of the city was breached in the time of the second temple, Apustamus the wicked burned the Torah during the time of the second temple, and an idol was placed in the sanctuary.

Evonne Marzouk of Canfei Nesharim points out that these events were warning signs. They were portents of much worse things to come that could still have been averted. So too with the environment Evonne teaches. We are seeing massive levels of species extinction, melting of the polar ice caps and increasingly lethal floods and droughts worldwide. These are warning signs of potentially far worse consequences to come that we ignore at our peril. So these three weeks are a very apt time to examine our lives and make changes that reflect the warning signs that confront us.

And then there’s another level of connection too. The framework of Jewish fast days was developed in response to climate disasters, in particular the absence of rain in the Land of Israel. In Masechet Ta’anit the Talmud devotes most of a tractate to exploring the interaction of human and Divine influence in producing the weather that is needed to sustain human life.

The Mishnah begins by describing the prayers for rain that are said daily throughout the winter (1:1), goes on to prescribe a series of public fast days of increasing severity in the eventuality that the rains fail, (1:4-6) and outlines in detail the rituals of communal fasting, prayer and penitence to be followed in the event of full-blown climate catastrophe (Chapter 2).

It is clear to the Talmud that, through Divine mediation, the weather is profoundly sensitive to human action. Not only can our fasting and prayer help end drought, but our actions may cause drought. Withholding support to the poor and the Levites, slander, gossip and neglect of Torah study are among the sins that the rabbis identify as causing the Heavens to shut up. (Ta’anit 7b).

In a fascinating unpublished article, Eilon Schwartz of the Heschel Centre for Environmental Learning and Leadership calls Climate Change, “the first post-modern disaster. . . At its core sits the reintegration of nature and human beings, and the blurring of the modernist divide between the “is” and the “ought.”

In climate change, the physical consequences of ethically problematic human behavior (burning too much fossil fuel without

The Heschel Centers Dr. Eilon Schwartz

The Heschel Center's Dr. Eilon Schwartz

heed for its effects on the natural world, the poor and future generations) have become part of “nature.” Is climate change a “natural” or “man-made” disaster? It’s both. Are its causes primarily scientific or spiritual? The two categories have become intertwined.

Schwartz calls it “the Return of Biblical Cosmology” – with a difference. As in the Bible, climactic disasters are a consequence of human misdeeds. (Schwartz does not shrink from using the word “sin.”).

But unlike the way we always understood the Bible, nature today doesn’t seem to be a mere tool in the hands of the Divine, exacting punishment for human acts that are independent of it. The natural climactic systems are responding to trillions of human actions (driving, flying, overheating, overeating, wasting, etc.) that we are coming to understand as deeply harmful. These actions are creating their own retribution.

Yet the Talmud offers us hope that just as we humans may be responsible for disrupting the weather, so too we can be part of repairing it. For those of us with a traditional theology it holds out hope that those same practices of prayer and penitence can help. For others who don’t think in those terms, penitence of a more naturalistic kind; massive shifts in human behavior and in our relationship with the planet that sustains us, can still prevent the direst consequences.

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As we enter July (hot hot times here in Israel!), we wanted to bring you a roundup of our posts from the last month, just in case you missed one or two. As always, we’d love to hear your feedback on any of our posts, and on the blog in general. And feel free to let us know your thoughts around the US House of Reps (just) passing the Waxman-Markey Climate Change/Energy Bill- Is it too little? Too much? Just Right? Click Here to leave a response.

Last Month’s Posts:

Envy Based Economics and a Forgotten Tenth Commandment: Rabbi Sinclair challenges an economic system based on the systematic violation of “Thou Shalt not Covet.”

Shavuot is the Green Festival: Dr. Michael Kagan on Shavuot as the bridge back to the Garden of Eden.

Sally Bingham’s “Love God, Heal Earlth”: A Review of Bingham’s Compilation of Essays by Religious Leaders for the Environment.

Video: Founder of Heschel Center, Dr. Eilon Schwartz on what Jews can do about Climate Change: Important Questions and Useful Answers from one of Israel’s most Accomplished Environmental Activists.

Video: Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem, Naomi Tsur, on how Grassroots Organization can Help Fight Climate Change: From her new post in the mayor’s office, Ms. Tsur still believes meaningful action starts from the bottom.

Global Climate Healing Shabbat: This Parshat Noach: Save the date! In the wake of the Copenhagen Conference to Replace Kyoto, Jews around the world will focus Shabbat around global warming and the climate crisis.

A Green Pope, Fatwas on Illegal Mining, an Evangelical Climate Initiative and the JCI: Zoe Cormier explores the potential for religion to succeed where science and politics have not.

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Pass it on! This coming October 23rd-24th is Global Climate Healing Shabbat. A press release this week from a group of American Jewish organizations announced:

A number of Jewish  groups, including the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (the national umbrella group on public policy)  today  called for October 23-24, 2009, to be declared a “Global Climate Healing Shabbat.”

That Shabbat is in Jewish tradition Shabbat Noach, when Jews around the world read the Torah  portion about the Flood, Noah, the Ark, and the Rainbow. This reading lends  itself to focusing on the danger of destruction of life on our planet, and  also on the actions we need to take to prevent destruction and preserve the  web of life in which the human race has emerged and created  civilization….

The international observance of “Global Climate Healing Shabbat Noach”   is a prelude to the crucial United Nations conference on global warming  scheduled for Copenhagen in December, 2009. The Jewish groups are urging that  there be many global climate-related educational events that are consistent  with the laws and spirit of Shabbat on that day.

“Almost daily reports  of widespread droughts, floods, storms, wildfires and melting polar ice caps,  mountain snowcaps, and glaciers indicate that we are already in a  lot of trouble. So much trouble that I feel the words ‘global warming’ give  people a false sense of comfort, and I call the danger ‘global scorching’  instead,” commented Rabbi Arthur Waskow, director of The Shalom Center.”

The Climate Shabbat is part of a groundswell of initiatives leading up to the Copenhagen Conference. We at Jewish Climate Initiative are proud to endorse it.

The press release calls on people to mark the day with:

“Sermons,  lectures, debates, panel discussions, resolutions, special kiddushes and  meals, nature-walks, invitations to public officials and environmental activists, stories for children, and much more.”

As the date gets closer we’ll be posting ideas and resources for communities who want to be a part of this global initiative. It’s a great opportunity to awaken the Jewish people to the urgency of climate change and to make our voices heard at this pivotal moment.

Spread the word!

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As featured on Hazon’s The Jew and the Carrot.

By Nina Budabin McQuown.

Rabbi Julian Sinclair is an author, educator, and economist. He is also the co-founder and Director of Education for Jewish Climate Initiative, a Jerusalem based NGO that is articulating and mobilizing a Jewish response to climate change.  Before starting JCI, Julian worked as an economist advising the UK Government and for a British political think tank.  Meanwhile, he authored the book Lets Schmooze: Jewish Words Today and is working on completing a Phd in the mystical thought of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook.  Phew!

Sinclair lives in Jerusalem and has been featured on NPR and interviewed for the New York Times by our own Leah Koenig.  Hazon is delighted to invite Rabbi Sinclair as a presenter at this year’s Hazon Food Conference, December 25-28, 2008.

Get a sneak peek at what Julian has to say below the jump.  And find out more/ register for Hazon’s Food Conference, here!

How did the Jewish Climate Initiative begin?

RJS: It began from a conversation between Michael Kagan, a friend of mine, and a friend of his, David Miron Wapner. Michael and David both come from a business/ clean technology background. Michael is a scientist and inventor who is currently involved in an algae-for-biofuels start-up. He is also a Jewish spiritual teacher. David works on US-Israel science and technology partnerships and sits on the JNF board. They suddenly realized three things: that climate change was huge, that the response out there was nowhere near adequate, and that the Jewish people had something potentially unique to contribute. Then Michael started talking to me, I got inspired by the idea.

For a long time I’ve thought that Judaism had immensely relevant wisdom to offer on environmental and economic question: Shabbat, Shemita, the detailed talmudic system of environmental law and much more. When I was working as an economist in the UK government and studying at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard fifteen years ago, I was very, very excited about these connections. As I got more into Jewish life and learning, eventually becoming a rabbi and educator, this passion took a back seat. It just wasn’t where most of the Jewish world was at. But I always felt I would come back to it. Then when the opportunity came along to co-found JCI, I realized that this was my chance to put the pieces back together. A few months later I quit my job and started working full time for JCI.

You pose this question as the basis of one of your talks: “Jews are 0.002% of the earth’s population. Even if we all trade in our SUV’s tomorrow it will barely make a dent on the problem. What then do have to contribute to the world’s most pressing moral challenge?” How does the Jewish Climate Initiative address this issue?

RJS: I think that originally it was Nigel Savage‘s question. We address it by identifying three areas in which the Jewish people have contributed way out of proportion to our numbers. 1. Torah. Jewish teaching has quite simply been the basis of ethics and spirituality for the entire Western world. 2. Activism: Jews have been at the forefront of the big movements for social change (feminism, environmentalism, Civil Rights) in a way that is totally disproportionate to our numbers. 3. Science and Technology. 20th century science was advanced to an incredible degree by discoveries from Jewish scientists. Today that remarkable creativity is continued by the hi-tech sector in Israel, a country of six million people that is the biggest tech hub outside Silicon Valley. Each of these three interconnected areas in which the Jewish people have excelled is crucial for overcoming climate change.

The section of the Jewish Climate Initiative’s website that is devoted to ethics is large. Why is ethics such a focus of the Jewish Climate Initiative?

RJS: The practical answer is that this is the area in which JCI elected to begin working. The principled response is that climate change is an ethical issue. The lifestyles of those in the rich world are already contributing to famine, drought and devastating weather conditions in countries that have done least to cause the problem. If that’s not an ethical issue, what is?

Certainly, the solution will require governments, laws and lots of money. But 70% of the American economy is accounted for by consumer spending. The seemingly huge problem of climate change is actually made up of billions of little decisions about the way we move around, heat and air condition our homes, and eat. Each one of those is an ethical question on which Judaism has much to teach.

You spoke on NPR about the controversial Shemita year ruling in 2007. How did life change for Jews in Israel (in terms of agriculture) during this past year?

RJS: It wasn’t a transformative spiritual experience for most people. At the beginning there was a round of politicking about produce certification, then Shemita receded from general consciousness. For the religious, it was one more thing to look for on food labels. Next time around, may Shemita in Israel reach its potential as a year of economic, agricultural and spiritual renewal. For that to happen, we will need to start thinking and planning now.

What other issues face Israelis in particular as consumers of food?

RJS: One good thing is that in a small country that grows a lot of its own food, most Israelis are locavores. We don’t eat stuff that has been trucked thousands of miles across the country like most people do in the US.

How does climate change affect the sustainable agriculture movement?

RJS: According to Michael Pollan and many others, the food you eat is the largest single contributor to the average American’s carbon footprint. When you factor in the fossil fuels in chemical fertilizer, the excess methane emitted by belching, farting cows that are force-fed corn and antibiotics when they were designed to eat grass, and the gas used in transportation, it amounts to a whopping 20-25% of individuals’ greenhouse gas emissions. It’s incredible that such a basic human activity as eating can be done in a way that is so destructive. Once this fact sinks in widely, and we start to see government policy that put a price on carbon emissions, sustainable agriculture should receive a huge boost.

In your life, where does your role as an activist against climate change intersect with your role as a consumer of food?

RJS: I have started shopping at the Shuk in Machane Yehuda more. The fruit and vegetables in the market just pulsate with color, freshness and health, and the packaging and transport needed to get it there and then for me to take it home is minimal—we’ve begun bringing cloth shopping bags from home. It’s not a huge step, but at least it’s something.

Mahane Yehuda Market

Mahane Yehuda Market

What lessons can the sustainable foods movement learn from the climate change movement?

RJS: I actually think that more lessons can be learned in the opposite direction. One thing that the climate change movement does very well is apocalyptic rhetoric. Apocalyptic rhetoric is great for getting headlines, but poor at motivating action. People just become closed down and paralyzed. Maybe the sustainable foods movement needs its “Inconvenient Truth” to bring home the scale and seriousness of the issues. But more importantly, the climate change movement needs to learn positive ways of influencing people. It’s an easy-sell to show people that local, organic food is healthier, yummier and will enhance their lives. In analogous ways, climate change activists need to make the case that simpler lifestyles with less running around, less commuting and less hassle will bring better and more fulfilled lives.

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By Rabbi Julian Sinclair

What does Teshuvah, the power to change our lives for the better that we attempt to actualize at this, the highest moment in the Jewish year, have to do with reducing one’s carbon footprint? Isn’t connecting the two just a way of hitching a ride for one’s pet cause on the Jewish calendar?  

I raised this question in a blog two weeks ago introducing Jewish Climate Initiative’s Carbon Offsetting Guide, and want to continue pursuing it here. 

The place where the world is most stuck in combating climate change is at the point of connection between big and small, global and local, individual and government. The most common reason for individual inaction is “it’s pointless for me to change my lifestyle/lightbulbs; I’m just an infinitesimally small part of this. It will take government, laws, and loads of money to deal with this.” 

True it will, but the “big problem” is made up of billions of everyday decisions about how we choose to eat, shop, to heat our homes, and move around. Consumer spending represents 70% of the American economy. Somehow we have, as a civilization, contrived to so mismanage these primal areas of human life that the viable continuation of our civilization is in question.  

The stuckness comes from both directions. 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 I wrote then,  

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 the world.” 

I really think that’s true. But how can you put it across in a way that moves people to act? Let me introduce an idea that, I believe, will help.

Rabbi Israel Salanter, the great nineteenth century founder of the mussar movement coined a famous saying: “My neighbor’s physical needs are my spiritual needs.” When I feed, clothe or shelter my neighbor, I am also fulfilling my deepest spiritual imperatives. 

Let’s be clear: Rabbi Salanter was not saying that, actually, it’s all about my spiritual needs. He didn’t believe that my neighbor is merely an incidental bit-part player in the great drama of me. Rather, he was pointing out that the world is so set up as to inextricably connect reaching out to sustain his material life with my spiritual growth. 

Today I believe it is no less accurate to say: “the planet’s ecological needs are my spiritual needs.” When I engage with “ecological” issues, I fulfill some of the most basic and profound spiritual needs that Judaism identifies. This is true in manifold ways. I want to point out just one that has to do with Teshuvah the perennial power to fix and uplift  our lives  – surely one of the deepest spiritual needs that we have.  

An absolute prerequisite for Teshuvah is taking responsibility for harm we have caused. Maimonides says it unequivocally in chapter 1 of the Laws of Teshuvah: there’s no forgiveness for sins against others until you ask forgiveness from those you have hurt and make good damage you have done. 

There is no real Teshuvah for damage we do to people or their property until we identify and acknowledge the harm, and then do whatever we can to repair it. 

Back in the days when that meant redressing the damage of my ox goring my neighbor’s sheep; it was easy enough. I would say sorry to my neighbor, buy him another sheep and tie up my ox tighter in the future. 

But today the harm we can do every day is far more complicated and – scary. The vehicle I drive may be implicated in storms in Bangladesh or droughts in Mali; the food I put in my supermarket cart might have been produced with pesticides that poison water supplies and wreck eco-systems, before being trucked thousands of miles across the country to reach me. The manufacturing decisions made in the name of my everyday choices may, with or without my knowledge, cause havoc to the environment and to the lives of people far away. 

Striving to fix these things is not “environmentalism” or even “environmental teshuvah.” It is simply teshuvah. It is about redressing hurt and damage that we have caused in our daily lives just as if we had failed to repay a loan or smashed someone’s vase, or broken their leg in a car crash that was our fault. Whether or not we did these things knowingly and deliberately, once we do know about them; teshuvahmeans taking responsibility for putting them right. 

Today, the planet’s ecological needs coincide with each of our basic spiritual need for teshuvah; becoming aware of and repairing damage that we have done, and resolving to act more reverently and lovingly towards our surroundings from now on. And so we will each become part of the planetary fixing. As the Talmud says: 

Great is Teshuvah because it brings healing to the world… 

     Great is Teshuvah because it brings closer redemption…

      Great is Teshuvah because through an individual who does Teshuvah, the whole world may be forgiven.” 

   Talmud Yoma, 86a-b. 

     Click Here to download JCI’s Carbon Offsetting Guide

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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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By Rabbi Julian Sinclair

Last month Al Gore gave a rousing speech on climate change. He threw down an audacious challenge to the American people. By 2020, Gore declared, let America be powered 100% by renewable sources of energy.

Gore appealed to the Apollo Project as the model for an enterprise of such grandeur.

In 1961 President Kennedy announced his goal that America put a man on the moon within a decade. Kennedy’s challenge captured America’s imagination and galvanized the American computer, aeronautics and space industries. As wildly ambitious as the aim at first appeared, the United States reached it with 15 months to spare. Today, Gore announced, we need a new Apollo Mission for energy.

Here’s the video of the speech:

Painting a vision of this magnitude represented something of a departure for Al Gore in his thinking about how to move people on climate change. He has done more than anyone to raise awareness of the issue, but at first he appeared to think that simply laying out the inconvenient truth about global warming would be sufficient to mobilize action. When it didn’t, he started musing about the inconvenient evolution of the human fear gland that was designed to respond to immediate, emotional stimuli rather than cognitive and scientific input.

In his Apollo speech, Gore was adopting the approach of two renegade activists, Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger. Their 2004 essay “The Death of Environmentalism” argued that environmentalism was too fear-based, too narrow and too policy wonky to ever make a real difference on climate change. The piece set off a firestorm of controversy in the green movement. After all as former Sierra Club President Adam Werbach observed, “nobody likes to be called dead, especially when they think they are still alive.”

Breakthrough: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility” is the updated book length version of Nordhaus and Shellenberger’s thesis. It’s an important book as it encapsulates a body of thinking that has done much to reorient the US environmental movement’s response to climate change, from Al Gore downwards.

In “Breakthrough,” Nordhaus and Shellenberger expand on their critique of classic environmentalism and broaden it into a new vision of progressive politics.

The starting point of their critique is that the doom-mongering discourse of climate change doesn’t work. It just paralyzes people. They quote the most quoted lines of their earlier essay:

“Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech is famous because it put forward an inspiring, positive vision that carried a critique of the current moment within it. Imagine how history would have turned out had King given an “I have a nightmare speech” instead.” (p.1)

Shellenberger and Nordhaus

Environmentalism has for forty years been giving “I have a nightmare” speeches. As the nightmares have become more lurid and terrifying, culminating in the four horseman of the apocalypse predictions on climate change, people have stopped listening.

Focusing on problems has been problematic for environmentalists for other reasons too, the authors claim. It has turned the movement into a special interest group concerned with its own particular category of problem objects, polluted water, air, endangered species etc, to the exclusion of other people’s problems, such as jobs, race, women’s rights etc. Furthermore it has led to environmentalists speaking a jargon of technical, legal and bureaucratic solutions to their problems (CAFÉ standards, cap and trade etc.) as if the American electorate was made up of “one hundred million policy wonks.”

Breakthrough argues that the way forward for environmentalism is to become part of a progressive politics that emphasizes possibilities rather than limits and that recounts an inspiring story rather than a litany of problems and grievances. It needs to recognize Americans aspirations for meaning and fulfillment.
Nordhaus and Shellenberger urge progressives to look across the chasm of the culture wars and learn from what those on the other side are doing right; the Republicans have been telling a story about American national greatness and moral strength that resonates across the income groups and Evangelicals such as Rev. Rick Warren have drawn tens of thousands to their mega-churches by preaching the spiritual greatness and uniqueness inherent in every person.

Nordhaus and Shellenberger exhort environmentalists and progressives to find a way to tap into these rich sources of inspirational and electoral power. In particular, they urge the left to unite around the New Apollo Project, a program for combating climate change that will invest $300 billion in renewable energy R and D. They estimate that the program will create 3 million jobs, undercutting the claim that environmental concern must come at the cost of trade union jobs and so helping to create a broad backing coalition. The Project is wrapped in an uplifting story of how American inventiveness, know how and get-up-and-go will once again come to the world’s rescue.

Some of Breakthrough’s points are spot on; about the enervating effect of doom and gloom, the fragmenting consequences of environmentalists’ focusing on things, and the key role of vision and values in mobilizing action on climate change. It’s a bracing read too, grappling with Fukuyama’s End of History thesis, Paul Berman’s elergy to the sixties generation, “What’s the Matter with Kansas,” John Dewey, and the American Transcendentalist tradition of Emerson and Thoreau, among other sparring partners.

The main weakness of the book is that the authors are fixated on the question “how are we going to get a Democrat into the White House and blue majority in both houses of Congress?” This leads them to discount potentially good solutions to climate change because they aren’t politically sexy. For example, they give Cap and Trade short shrift (p258) because it’s a problem based solution and “politicians who vote against such initiatives won’t pay a price at the next election.” In other words, it can’t easily be explained in a ten second sound bite. Nevertheless cap and trade is indispensable for leveling the energy playing field and bringing renewable sources on stream sooner.

The political slant of the book also leads the authors to reject any approach that might make Americans feel bad about their role in creating the world’s environmental crises. We are repeatedly told that Americans respond to a vision of aspiration and possibility far better than to the old environmental politics of limits and constraints. That may be empirically true, but maybe the fact that the United States, with 4% of the world’s population, has produced 30% of the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere should prompt some soul searching about whether a few limits might indeed be in order. And if politicians can’t do the prompting, then perhaps someone else needs to. Religious leaders, for example.

In fact, anyone who has thought about the intersection of religion and ecology will be struck by the weirdly ambivalent relationship that Shellenberger and Nordhaus have to religion. They admire Evangelical churches for giving their congregants an overarching moral framework, and a strong sense of esteem and belonging and wish that there were liberal institutions that could do the same in a way that wasn’t as patriarchal and reactionary as they find the Evangelicals to be. But the authors are unconvincing about where the progressive counterparts to such values might come from.

At the end of “Death of Environmentalism,” Shellenberger and Nordhaus wrote:

“Environmentalists need to tap into the creative worlds of myth-making, even religion, not to better sell narrow and technical policy proposals but rather to figure out who we are and who we need to be.”

In Breakthrough, they do not repeat this call for a turn to religion as a source for ecological thought. The story of American greatness has become the aspirational myth that can inspire the fight against climate change. But it was a Puritan pastor, John Winthrop who first sketched the vision of the “Shining City on the Hill”, and the “I have a Dream” speech was drenched with biblical references. 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?

“Breakthrough: From the Death of Environmentalism to the politics of Possibility.” Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger. Houghton and Mifflin 2007.

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