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Arnold Goldman has been impacting the evolution of solar power for three decades. His company, Brightsource Industries, is currently working on a solar field in California that will nearly double America’s solar energy output. Brightsource’s Solar Energy Development Center (SEDC) at the Rotem Industrial Park in Israel is the largest solar energy facility in the Middle East.

Mr. Goldman is also a serious Kabbalist- a student of Jewish mysticism. In the following video, he explains his vision for the future of human energy usage: a policy inspired by the belief in the infinite power the world’s resources offer us, if only we use them properly. Mr. Goldman calls the his plan, “Fuel for Life.”

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

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By Rabbi Julian Sinclair

Dear Bibi,

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

Incoming Israeli Prime Minister, Binyamin Bibi Netanyahu

Incoming Israeli Prime Minister, Binyamin "Bibi" Netanyahu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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By Rabbi Julian Sinclair

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

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

Who said this, and when? Was it:

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

The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson

The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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By Rabbi Julian Sinclair

Two things were clear from attending the International Renewable Energy Conference that took place in Eilat this week.

The first is that Israel is now a world leader in clean energy.

The second is that there is a small but growing group of players in the field who see this not just as a huge business opportunity, (though it certainly is that), but also as an ethical, or spiritual mission.

Israeli leadership in the field was manifested by a list of “firsts”, “biggest evers,” and breakthrough technologies that were heralded immediately before and during the conference. Brightsource-Luz2 announced that it had signed a contract with Southern California Edison to build the largest ever solar thermal generating field, which will produce 1.3 gigawatts in California. (more…)

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Chanuka!

Eight days to celebrate salvation, doughnuts, our ancestors’ acting upon a will to make things better- and their faith that if they did act, things would indeed get better.

Among the many lessons of this holiday of night, light and Jewish might, is a powerful message to help us in our collective march towards ecological sustainability:

Ancient Greece Competition

Ancient Greece was a proponent of competition, debates, sports, “Greatness” manifest in winning- or better put, in beating others. If I was an ancient Greek, my potential would be contingent upon my ability to outlast yours.

Rabbi Simcha Frischling of Call of the Shofar, argues that Chanuka’s main symbol, the Menorah, is a protest to the Greek model of competition.

On the first night of Chanuka, we light one candle: crowning it with light, allowing it to shine bright.

The second night we light another candle. It too shines bright. And the two candles stand tall next to each other, neither outlasting or outshining the other. Jewish law stipulates, in fact, that if they are not the same height, the ritual is no good.

By the eighth night we have eight candles: all standing tall, all shining light, all burning bright. (What a magical site.)

I contrast the Menorah, or the Chanukiot that we light today, with an Olympic victory podium, which features the winner on top, the silver medalist below the gold, bronze medalist below silver- and everyone else watching from below.

Chanuka teaches us that there is another way, a better way, where I can be great without you being being any less great. Somehow, we can shine next to one another.

And even more than that- we’re told in the Talmud that the eight-candle Menorah is holier than first-night’s one-candle version: The more each of us can reach our fullest potential, the greater we all are.

One of the greatest illusions of today’s economy is that through competition, everybody wins. Lots of people do not win. There are losers within our own borders, and more dramatically (and most conveniently), a long way outside of them.

Capitalism has been referred to as the “least bad economic model” in the world. But Chanuka is a holiday of miracles, and on Chanuka, we don’t have to settle for “the least bad.” On Chanuka, we can believe in a way of life where one person or nation’s enjoyment, does not come at the expense of another person or nation, or at the expense of future generations.

Maybe we actually can create an energy economy where we share the same sunlight or the same wind. Maybe we can encourage goods to be produced in exchange for fair wages, in healthy working conditions. Maybe our success does not have to “leave others in our dust,” when our dust leaves behind environmental dangers we’d never allow our children to face.

We’re allowed to dream on Chanuka, and I bless us that this Chanuka we dream a reality where fulfilling our greatest potential as a world, is a function of everyone fullfilling their greatest potentials as individuals. Happy Dreaming! Happy Hannukah!

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As we reported on climate of change last week, The Arava Power Company just announced plans to generate

Yossi Abramowitz

Yossi Abramowitz

500 MW of solar energy in the Arava Desert over the next five years, meeting 10% of Israel’s energy needs at a stroke.

Last week, Climate of Change met Yossi Abramowitz, President of the APC and explored with him the Jewish vision underlying his drive to bring solar to energy. Yossi was previously a Jewish social entrepreneur in Boston who raised $30 million for a host of new Jewish educational and cultural initiatives including shma, kol dor and Jewish Social Action Week. In August 2006, he and his family moved to Kibbutz Ketura in the Arava Desert.

Climate of Change
: One of the things we’re interested in at Jewish Climate Initiative is the spiritual vision underlying renewable energy. The way we see it, going renewable isn’t just about attaining energy independence, or even about avoiding climate change – as vital as those goals are. There are also ethical and spiritual reasons to choose wind, solar and all the rest. It looks as if that’s also part of your outlook, right?

Yossi Abramowitz: Absolutely. I can tell you, there’s a certain amount of frustration involved in working with Israeli utility regulators, and you definitely need your own supply of renewable moral and spiritual energy. For me it’s all about Jewish Peoplehood, which has been my big passion for the last decade.

Let’s ask from the business point of view, what’s the “brand equity” of Israel today, in the eyes of the Jewish people and the world. Is it an old, tarnished brand, or a new and attractive one? The answer today is complex at best. Israel had its great pioneering period, the six day war, Entebbe and all those amazing moments, but now… there’s a new generation that doesn’t remember any of that.

If we can supply 40% of Israel’s energy from renewables by 2020, and we can, leapfrogging over every other target in the world, think what that would do to Jewish pride worldwide. Young people would start to feel completely differently about this country. We’d be leading the way to saving the world.


COC:It sounds as if for you, the significance of Israel making this move is greater than that of just any country of seven million people doing this.

YA:Yes, people, whether Jewish or not, do look at us differently. We have this idea of being a light to the nations. It’s not a very fashionable or PC idea today. I developed a twenty first century mission statement for the Jewish people that goes like this: “To be an ongoing, distinct catalyst for the advancement and evolution of morality in civilization.” We’re a catalyst because we’re small. We’re distinct because we have a unique message and purpose. And the goal is the evolution of morality and civilization. Ramping up solar energy use to world leading levels would be a real step towards fulfilling that mission.

You know, we’re in negotiations with a potential supplier in Thailand. He says to me, very excited, “I come and see you in Jerusalem.” So I tried to explain to him that we’re not in Jerusalem but a small place four hours away, but he wasn’t interested: “No no, I see you in Jerusalem,” he repeated. That means something to people worldwide.

COC:You’ve spoken about solar as “the energy of peace.” What does that mean?

YA:The Arava Power Company is already in discussion with the Jordanian government about a project to bring solar power across the border. Energy integration was part of the Israel-Jordan peace agreement but it’s never been implemented. It could be a powerful impetus to regional peace-making. To realize that the same sun shines equally on all of us, is owned by none of us, and can supply our energy needs in abundance, inherently promotes peace. The sun doesn’t recognize borders.”

COC:How did you get involved in all of this?

YA:I didn’t come to Israel to do this. I thought that I was coming to Israel to take a Sabbatical from my business career and write a book on Jewish Peoplehood.  When we decided to adopt an Ethiopian child, making five in our family in all, we decided they needed a break. We’d thought about taking a year in Israel and it seemed to be the right time. I’d volunteered at Kibbutz Ketura 25 years ago so we decided to go back there.

We got off the air-conditioned van that took us from the airport to the Kibbutz and it was like walking into the airflow of some super-charged hair dryer. I figured, “at least with all this sunlight, the whole place must be powered by solar.” Well, it took me 24 hours to figure out that there was no solar power on the kibbutz. In another 24 hours I’d worked out that there almost no domestic solar power in Israel. The great Israeli solar companies were producing technology for export, but not for the home market. I thought, “you’ve got to be kidding.” So together with a couple of guys from the Kibbutz we put together a plan to set up solar panels in a field opposite and power Ketura with sunlight. We quickly ran into a whole bureaucratic battle with the Energy Regulator. After six months, I realized that if we could win this fight for the Kibbutz, we would win it for the whole country.”

But I realized this was the fulfillment of what I wanted to say on peoplehood. What matters is not how many glossy proposals you write, or how many conferences, or how many major donors you have on board. At the end of the day, you’ve just got to do it. You just have to do it.

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By Rabbi Julian Sinclair

Two inspiring recent stories about solar energy advances in, or coming out of Israel. One made a big splash here; the second, a human interest story buried somewhere deep in the pages of the Jerusalem Post was, in its way, no less significant.

Story 1:
Last Monday the Arava Power Company announced that it is building solar power plants in the Negev that could soon be producing I Gigawatt of electricity. This is huge news. 1 GW is about 10% of Israel’s electricity use. At a stroke it would go half way towards meeting the government’s target of 20% of electricity coming from renewable sources by 2020.

Story 2: Israeli-born Sivan Achor-Borowich has set up an organization, “Jewish Heart for Africa,” that puts up solar powers on the roofs of schools, clinics and hospitals in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. This simple step has transformative potential in Africa. As the report in the Jerusalem Post put it, to imagine life in much of Africa, you must
“Imagine a day essentially ending at sundown because there is no electricity for lights. Imagine being a doctor and treating urgent patients by candlelight. Imagine being a woman or child and spending six hours a day hauling water and searching for firewood.”

Now more children are vaccinated because vaccines can be kept chilled, people can find the clinic at night, and doctors don’t have to work by candlelight. All of the solar panels are supplied by an Israeli company, Interdan.

One thing that these stories have in common is that both of these Israeli innovators see the benefits of solar energy in ethical, or even spiritual terms.

Sure, most people understand by now that fossil fuels have two rather inconvenient properties;

1 ) When burned in large quantities, they cause potentially disastrous global warming, and

2) Large amounts of fossil fuels are buried under land controlled by regimes that don’t like the Western nations who are their main customers. (This is probably no coincidence, but explaining why would be a whole blog in itself.)

But Abramowitz and Achor-Borowich understand the benefits even more widely.
“Solar energy is the power of peace”. Abramowitz wrote in an article in Shma Magazine (June 2008) where he movingly describes watching Al Gore’s film with a group of Jewish and Arab students at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies. Realizing that the same sun shines equally on all of us, is owned by none of us, and can supply our energy needs in abundance could be inherently peace-making.
Similarly, Achor-Borowitz points out that there is something fundamentally democratic about solar energy:
“Most of Africa lives on $1 a day, they don’t have the money to buy fuel – the operating costs are just too high.”
“[With] solar energy, on the other hand, you always have sun. There is basically no maintenance and no operating costs – the sun is free. And it’s sustainable.”
Both of these solar pioneers intuit how, even beyond the undoubted economic, carbon-cutting and

energy-independence benefits of power from the sun, it’s abundance and universal availability point the way to a juster, fairer, more peaceful energy culture.

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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

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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We were there, in the Negev Desert on Thursday afternoon, June 12th 2008, when Luz 2
inaugurated its first solar energy generating plant.

Two of the JCI team, Michael Kagan and David Miron Wapner had a hand in setting up the company two years ago ago, so it was a proud day for them. For me it was somewhere between science fiction and biblical prophecy.

Luz2 has figured out how to produce solar energy more efficiently and cheaply than anyone else. The technology is dazzling. (Sorry!) In a tract of the Negev near Dimona, 1641 heliostats, 7 metre square mirrors, are geometrically arrayed around a 60 Metre high tower. Perched on the tower is a 15 meter tall boiler, containing densely packed silvered pipes. The mirrors are programmed to track the movements of the blazing desert sun so as to concentrate reflected sunlight precisely on designated spots on the boiler surface. This solar targeted energy heats water in the pipes to temperatures of over 500 C, generating steam that drives turbines that produces electricity. If you want a fuller description than my rudimentary science can provide, see Luz2’s site.

Inside the hospitality marquee we ate canapes on square plates and saw videotaped messages from venture capitalists, investment banks and customers who are backing the project. The Pacific Gas and Electicity Company has just signed a deal with Luz for a generating plant in the Mojave desert that will be the biggest solar energy source in the world, roughly 50 times bigger than the baby in the Negev. The company’s vision is huge. They aim to build hundreds of these things all around the world over the coming twelve years, producing electricity that can compete with and eventually undercut coal and gas powered plants. This is technology that can produce affordable, efficient solar power, and lots of it. It offers hope that we can switch to renewable sources of energy and avert dangerous climate change in the coming decades.

Arnold Goldman, Luz’s visionary founder observed in his speech that the site of the plant is called “Rotem”, a type of bush in Hebrew. Goldman remarked that “siach” the general name for a bush means conversation, and that the intense conversations that led to the development of this technology in a certain sense inhered in the physical plant of the mirrors and boiler themselves. In a remarkable book, “Moving Jewish Thought to the Centre of Modern Science”, Goldman develops a Kabbalistic theory of language and explains how it underlies the work of Luz. His comments about the Rotem bush were the only hints at such thinking that Goldman gave to this corporate audience.

After the speeches, the public address system played “Here comes the Sun”, by the Beatles. I thought of the Biblical verse, …”to you who fear my Name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing on its wings.” (Malachi 3:20.)

When I got home I told my technology-mad children where I’d been and what I’d seen. I suspect that one day I will be telling my grandchildren.

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