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Archive for the ‘ecology’ Category

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair

How are we doing?

Not as well as you might think, according to the Happy Planet Index (HPI) which released it’s third annual ranking of nearly all the world’s countries last week.

The HPI is an alternative to GDP as a measure of national well-being. A country’s HPI score is calculated by multiplying together its life expectancy and reported subjective happiness survey scores and dividing the result by the country’s ecological footprint per person. The aim is to measure how much life and of what quality a country achieves proportionally to the ecological resources that it consumes.

The results are surprising. Costa Rica tops the table. The US comes in at number 114 out of 143 country’s measured. It’s outstanding wealth does not make Americans outstanding happy and requires an exorbitant amount of the earth’s resources to sustain. Israel is ranked around 70th, just above Britain.

The report’s lead author, Saamah Abdallah of the New Economics Foundation explains the rationale behind it.

“The HPI suggests that the path we have been following is, without exception, unable to deliver all three goals: high life satisfaction, high life expectancy and ‘one-planet living’. Instead we need a new development model that delivers good lives that don’t cost the Earth for all.”

The HPI is one of a number of indices that highlight the limitations of GDP as a measurement of welfare and aim to propose an alternative. Higher GDP is only correlated with increased happiness up to around $10,000 per person. After that point, there’s little connection between income and happiness. Furthermore, consumption of alcohol, drugs and medical care count as GDP gains. So do wars, strip mining, deforestation and commuting to work, although these things do not enhance overall well-being.

These indices are being developed by ecologcial economists, who argue that economics must be embedded with an understanding of the ecological context in which economies function. The Heschel Center together with the Van Leer Institute have such set up a research group in Ecological Economics (which I’m glad to be a part of) to bring this important body of thinking into the Israeli conversation. Hopefully one of the products will be a more accurate measure than GDP of how we’re really doing as a society. Stay tuned!

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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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Hi Everyone,

In the following video, Dr. Eilon Schwartz, founder of Israel’s Heschel Center for Environmental Learning and Leadership challenges us to own up to our own implications in causing climate change, as well as our reservations in fighting it, and makes important suggestions as to what we can do, at Jewish Climate Initiative/Hazon’s Vayehi Or: Values and Vision in Energy and Climate Change Workshop in Jerusalem.

Enjoy!

[blip.tv ?posts_id=2033606&dest=-1]

(If you can’t view the video from this page, click here.)

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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

Tu B’shevat has become the de facto ” Hag Ha’ Environment,” the day on which Jews celebrate nature and showcase whatever in our traditions can be shown to celebrate the Earth and teach us how to learn in wise interconnectedness with our planet.

The connection has always seemed to me a little arbitrary. Forty years ago Jews wanted to find hooks for environmental concerns in the tradition. Enter Tu B’Shevat, an obscure, neglected semi-holiday that marked the date on which we count the ages of trees for the purposes of agricultural laws in Israel. (more…)

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By Rabbi Julian Sinclair

I spent last Wednesday at Wind Dancer Rancher, an organic farm in Northern California. The day was cold, wet and blustery. Together with 25 others, I had volunteered to take part in the slaughtering, plucking, evisceration, koshering and packing of the Turkeys that were to be eaten for Shabbat dinner at the Hazon food conference the following weekend.

Lisa Leonard, the farmer, cradled the first bird in her arms as Roger Studley, the organizer explained the order of the day. Someone asked Lisa her opinion about the intelligence of Turkeys.  “Well, let’s say they ain’t the sharpest tools in the shed,”  she answered. “But they do have personalities. Like this one here, he just hates cell phones. Like he’d attack anyone who he saw using one. “I know the feeling,” I murmured empathetically.

Then we gathered around Andy Kastner, the shochet. Andy is 28, a rabbinical student with curly brown hair and soulful eyes. He learned to be a kosher slaughter because he loved animals, but he also loved

Shochet, Andy Kastner

Shochet, Andy Kastner

meat. He decided that he needed to be able to take responsibility for the way animals were killed if he was to continue as a carnivore.

Lisa’s partner Jim held the Turkey. (Lisa doesn’t like to watch when the birds she has raised from chicks are killed.) Andy said the blessing, gently extended the animal’s neck and with two swift back and forth strokes severed its trachea and main arteries. Blood spurted on to Andy’s white coat and on to the wet ground.  Jim placed the dying bird upside down in a metal traffic cone. It kicked for a few seconds (reflex actions, said Jim) and was still.

Then we hung the dead Turkey by its feet from a bar in an open barn and started plucking. The downy belly feathers came away in clumps in your hands, exposing white, pimply skin. Within seconds the resplendent Heritage Breed bird was starting to look like meat.

When the carcass was thoroughly bald, Rabbi Seth Mandel, the Chief Kashrut Supervisor of the Orthodox Union opened up the body cavity. He removed the intestines, checked them for cuts or lesions, and then examined a lung for signs of disease. “Fine, healthy animal,” he pronounced of the free range, barley-fed bird. Next the turkey was soaked in cold water, salted inside and out, then rinsed, and placed in a polythene bag that was signed with Rabbi Mandel’s seal of kosher certification, and placed in an icebox.

Then we did the same thing 24 more times.

The goal was to produce meat that was not just kosher but also organic and local. Hazon wanted to ensure that the animals it served had lived Turkey-like lives and, so far as possible, met with humane deaths. These birds were pesticide and  antibiotic free. They were not treated with the brutality inherent in the mass production of meat, either in life or in death.

The mass production of meat is a major factor in global climate change. The UN recently estimated that a staggering 18% of greenhouse gases are produced by the meat industry. Pesticides and fertilizers for animal feed together with transportation together emit vast quantities of greenhouse gases. The average item of food on an American dinner plate has traveled 1500 miles to get there. The preparation these turkeys all took place within a 30 foot by 30 foot area of farm. In an industrial system they would have been trucked all over the country to undergo the same process.

Of course, there are big questions about whether this kind of meat could ever be produced on a larger scale. The farmers sold it to Hazon for $6 a pound. The same day (Christmas Eve) turkey in Safeways, San Francisco was marked at $1.50 a pound. The meat we helped make was just about as humane and sustainable as meat can be. Whether it could be more than a middle class indulgence is another question. (I hope to look at that next week.)  But if meat did cost more, we’d eat less of it and that would be a good thing for the earth.

Did I eat the turkey? Sure. Given that I sometimes do eat meat, it didn’t seem to make sense to turn down probably the most eco-friendly flesh I’d ever had. But when I took my first bite, I shuddered involuntarily. The mental mechitzas that we erect between meat and dead animals were ripped away as I alternately recalled and repressed the images of that wet Wednesday morning. And I tried not to leave any of it over.

Bensching, saying grace, on that meal was an entirely different experience. Normally I’m just saying thanks for the food on my plate. Heaven knows where it came from. This time I fervently thanked God for the farm, for Andy, Lisa and Jim, for the wet, muddy ground, for the proud, dignified birds pecking in the dirt when we arrived, for the wind and rain that had flayed my face the whole day and for all of the elements with which I was connected through that one act of eating.

Knowing the costs involved in producing even those most sustainably raised and humanely slaughtered animals will probably lead me to eat less meat in future. And that’s no bad thing.

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