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By Rabbi Julian Sinclair

Thanks to Michael Shellenberger of the Breakthrough Institute for pressing into my hands “The Wrong Trousers”, a fascinating 50 page article by British social scientists Gwyn Prins and Steve Rayner that came out a year ago. I missed it at the time, so excuse me for chewing it over on the blog now.

The title, “The Wrong Trousers” is, of course, a reference to the Oscar-winning animated film of that name in which the hapless Wallace (of Wallace and Gromit) is trapped in a pair of automated Techno Trousers which he thought would make his life easier, but in fact take him places where he doesn’t wish to go.

The Kyoto protocol on climate change is a bad case of the wrong trousers according to Prins and Rayner. By now it has a huge institutional momentum and it’s not taking us where we want to go. (more…)

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Since posting, “Go Green-Earn Big: The Nice Guy Finally Wins“, we’ve been engaged in a lively debate on whether products like disposable “Eco-Shaped” bottles and hybrid SUV’s are positive trends representing a genuine fixing, or setbacks allowing people to feel good without giving attention to the real changes that need to happen.

The Heschel Center’s Dr. Jeremy Benstein fueled the discussion with the following comment:

Smaller labels on bottled water? Solar powered oil drills? Pseudo products make you *hopeful*?!

While it is true that sometimes lip service can lead to real commitments– I hate to be a pessimist- but in the commercial-industrial realm, it seems like it’s much more often the opposite. They do things for image, “greenwash” very detrimental things (SUVs, bottled water, etc.) and use it to avoid doing anything real.

If people think that SUVs and bottled water are now green(er)– then they’ll continue using them, feeling ok with themselves that they are now so environmentally-friendly. When in fact they need to do something else entirely: take back the tap, and boycott bottled water altogether; support mass transit, biking etc– and not use any form of SUV.

Let me phrase it as a question: What should we (citizens) or regulatory bodies do to make sure we, and they, the industries don’t stop there? That their image polishing needs to be based on real improvements?

Respectfully,

Jeremy Benstein

Adding to Dr. Benstein’s critique was Ant, who concluded that:

Sometimes we have to sacrifice our conveniences, not alter our conveniences, to make a real difference.

Countering was Sherri:

Just because companies are greenwashing it doesn’t mean people are fooled. Once they start thinking about these issues they’re not going to stop. The companies involved may just be doing lip service to environmental issues, but people aren’t and will think through the real environmental benefits of products rather than buy the hype someone is trying to sell them.

As another commenter, Donna, exclaimed, “Green is the New Black!”- and there is therefore lots of green “Trash” through which we need sift in order to see what really is good for the world, and what is not.

This is a super important debate, and we’d love to hear your opinion, too.

As Dr. Benstein asks,

“[Are these products] a step in the right direction, which will lead people on to bigger and better- or even the right- things? Or does it give everyone “an easy out,” so they don’t have to take the more difficult, but ultimately more meaningful, steps?”

How do you think environmentalists should be responding to an environmentally conscious world?

How do or can superficial feel good changes lead to more meaningful transformation?

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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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Today more and more synagogues, JCC’s, families and individuals are going green. Carbon offsetting is a way of counteracting some of our carbon footprint; it can also be incredibly confusing. How does it work? Is it ethical? Is it Jewish? How can I know if an offsetting program is really helping save the world or whether it’s a scam?

At Jewish Climate Initiative (JCI), we created the following guide to answer all these questions and more, and also to provide information about the main offsetting projects based in Israel. It can also be a small, seasonal step toward teshuvah, positive transformation in the way that we use energy. We hope our offsetting guide will be a useful resource for you and your community and would love to hear your feedback. And feel free to forward it onwards to family and friends!

Click Here to Download JCI’s Carbon Offsetting Guide

(If you’re having trouble opening the page, right-click on the above link and choose “Open in a new window.” If you’re still unable to open the page, either download the latest version of Adobe Reader or contact us and we’ll send you a copy.)

With best wishes for a Shanah tovah u’metukah, a good, sweet year,

The JCI Team

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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

Democratic National Convention week opened with a first: An Interfaith gathering, hosted by Christian, Muslim and Jewish community leaders from around the the United States.

The gathering focused mostly on abortion and capital punishment, less on world poverty and Darfur genocide, and even less on climate change.

Why would the self-titled “Greenest convention in history,” hosted by a party so determined to move the climate crisis to the heart of political discourse, open with religious leaders all but ignoring climate change?

Obama himself has said that climate change needs to enter the focus of religious dialogue. “It is a responsibility to ensure that this planet remains clean and safe and livable for our children, and for all of God’s children,” he said.

Wouldn’t religious leaders representing his party agree?

What if the democrats’ interfaith gathering had chosen a different religious message- not that “We’re also a religiously responsible party”- but that “We are the only religiously responsible party?”

They could have pointed out Republican environmental and energy policies/lack of policies that have left us with a world in neglect- populations facing starvation, drought, desertization, the aftermath of Katrina and a reliance on fossil fuels that promises more war and economic instability. They could have mentioned ignoring Kyoto, disinformation campaigns on global warming, blood ties with petroleum-laden kingdoms and a lack of investment in renewable energy.

If we, as faith-communities claim it our job to care for the world, then we cannot support a platform that is so against the heart of what we stand for. Republicans can hold themselves on some distorted religious pedestal, praising themselves for saving otherwise aborted babies- but when millions of already born people stand threatened because of their policy of neglect, who cares?

John McCain might be different. I pray that he would be. And I hope that this week’s Republican convention will include religious leaders telling Republican politicians that the way they’ve been is just not okay.

As Obama himself says, we need our religious beliefs to effectively confront climate change. Belief gives us, to use an Obama-ism, the audacity to hope; to believe not only that we should be better, but that we can be better. Religion is not only about faith in God, but faith in man.

A focus on climate change could have provided fuel and inspiration to the greenest convention in history.

As religious people, we have been talking about stewardship in theory for thousands of years and it is time for us to step up. “Take care not to destroy my world,” God tells Adam (Ecclesiastes Rabba 7:28).  Well we risk a lot more right now than getting kicked out of some garden and it doesn’t look to me like we’ve got our eye on the ball.

Truth is though, that we’re religious people- We thrive on learning from mistakes. Our scriptures show History dabbling in ultimate disaster, but in the end promise peace. Jewish tradition claims that those who “Do better next time” are on a higher level than those that never did wrong at all.

So let’s do better next time.

Obama has repeatedly made religion an integral part of his campaign. Here’s his take on Religion and Climate Change:

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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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