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By Rabbi Julian Sinclair

Here in Israel we celebrated Yom Ha’atzma’ut, Independence Day, last week; fireworks, barbecues, mutual congratulations on how much we’ve achieved in 61 years (absorbing millions of immigrants, sustaining a vibrant democracy, building a dynamic economy, etc.), and a certain amount of soul-searching about how much we still haven’t: (peace, intra-Jewish harmony, a national soccer team that qualifies for the World Cup finals etc etc.).

In honor of Yom Haatzmaut, I read a brilliant 500 page book; (rather sad, I know, but that’s the kind of kid I’ve always been…). Professor Alon Tal‘s “Pollution in a Promised Land: an Environmental History of Israel” is the definitive work on the subject. In retrospect it was also the perfect read for the day.

Tal’s book does much more than its subtitle claims. As you would expect it tells the story of how Israel’s rapid economic development has come at a high environmental price; it traces the roots of Israel’s current water crisis to bad planning and short sightedness in the early years of the State; one chapter relates the staggering success, or disastrous stupidity (depending on your perspective) of the JNF’s forestry policies. (The JNF planted over 200 million trees in Israel making it the only country in the world with a net positive tree balance over the last century; the only problem was that the fir trees that were mostly planted while perfect for Northern Europe, were inappropriate to the local environment and have caused great damage to local ecosystems.)

Tal recounts the haphazardness of Israel’s urban growth, the lack of coherent transport policies and the adoption of car-based suburban development models which, today, people see are wrong for the United States, and all the more wrong for Israel, a country the size of New Jersey. And he tells the inspiring story of the Israeli Environmental movement

Professor Alon Tal, author of Pollution in a Promised Land

Professor Alon Tal, author of Pollution in a Promised Land

(in which he has played a key role), which has worked with growing success over the past two decades to set the country on more sustainable paths.

But even more than chronicling Israel’s environmental journey, PIAPL is a history of Zionism – the dream of the Jewish people’s return to its ancient homeland – told from an unusual but critically important standpoint. For Tal brings out how the early Zionist pioneers were in love with the romance of the Land of Israel, but largely clueless as to its physical reality. Intoxicated by biblical accounts of the landscape, the actual mountains, rivers, flora, fauna and diarrhoea -inducing diet were initially strange and alien to the early pioneers. Among many literary testimonies, Tal quotes Amos Oz’s description of his grandfather:

My grandfather lived in the land of Israel forty-five years and never was in the Galilee or went south to the Negev. … But the land of Israel he loved with all his soul, and he wrote love poems in her honor (in Russian).”

In this framing, the history of Zionism has been a tragic-comic epic of the Jewish people re-learning how to live in the topographical and ecological reality of the homeland that it barely knew for nearly two millennia. The drive for economic growth successfully added six million to the population rolls over the course of a century and catapulted living standards into the ranks of the world’s richest nations. But it was accomplished with scant regard to the carrying capacity of the country. Today, environmental awareness in Israel is flowering. There are still immense and urgent problems yet there are also signs of hope that the country is learning to live with the actual rivers, deserts, verdant planes, crowded cities and diminishing open spaces that constitute its physical heritage.

It all strikes me as a little bit like inheriting your grandparents’ house. All your life you’ve heard about this wonderful home, the beautiful gardens, the rolling views, the high ceilings. You’ve heard stories about it. You’ve dreamed of living there, but you’ve never actually set foot in the place. And then, one day, you find yourself living there. It’s just like everything you were always told and at the same time you have no idea how anything actually works. The toilets flood, the garden becomes overgrown and you accidentally ruin half of the appliances. Yet gradually after a few decades of living there, you begin to figure things out.

Tal is optimistic that we’ll figure it out in time. As he concludes his book:

The same Zionist zeal that allowed an ancient nation to defy all odds for an entire century can be harnessed to confront the newest national challenge. More than any of their ancestors, the present generation stands at an ecological crossroads—offered the choice of life and good, or death and evil. This “last chance” to preserve a healthy Promised Land for posterity is a weighty privilege indeed. Surely as it writes the next chapters in its environmental history, Israel will once again choose life.

What’s your experience of Israel and the environment? What are the key issues? How do you think we should be solving them? Click Here to leave your thoughts.

And Click Here to order a copy of Pollution in a Promised Land from Amazon.com.

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In the following video, from the Vayehi Or Workshop, Nigel Savage, founder of Hazon, discusses Hazon, Jews, food and Climate Change. Nigel and Hazon have been working with JCI on the Seven Year Plan for the Jewish People on Climate Change and Sustainability, and in this piece, Nigel offers some hopeful and practical tips towards how the Seven Year Plan can be most effective. Enjoy! (And feel welcome, as always, to leave your comments and feedback).

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In the following video, Jewish Climate Initiative Co-Founder, Dr. Michael Kagan, discusses the significance of the recent Blessing of the Sun and introduces The Seven Year Plan for the Jewish People on Climate Change and Sustainability, at the Vayehi Or: Values and Vision in Energy and Climate Change Workshop in Jerusalem. (More videos from the event on the way). Enjoy!

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

And Dr. Kagan’s Accompanying Presentation:

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

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This past Sunday, 53 of Israel’s top scientists, business people, environmentalists, policy makers, Rabbis and educators met in Jerusalem, to develop a “Seven Year Plan for the Jewish People on Climate Change and Sustainability.” The plan, commissioned by the United Nations-affiliated Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC), will be presented at Windsor Castle this coming November, along with like-plans from 11 other world faiths. The meeting was held this week, to honor the Birkat Hahama, the once-in-twenty-eight years Blessing of the Sun, which we said this (Wednesday) morning.

Jewish Climate Initiative‘s Rabbi Julian Sinclair and Hazon‘s Nigel Savage put together the first draft of “the plan,” and Sunday’s meeting presented the first opportunity for feedback, and the furthering of ideas. Among the participants were Green Movement-Meimad’s Alon Tal, Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem, Naomi Tsur, founder of the Heschel Center for Environmental Learning and Leadership, Dr. Eilon Schwartz and Professor Pinhas Alpert, head of Tel Aviv University’s Porter School of Environmental Studies.

It was a fantastic day- incredible to be in a room full of so many talented people, all who’ve accomplished so much in their respective fields. We’ll be posting some great videos of the day’s events in the near future. JCI and Hazon hope to “Kick-Off” the Seven Year Plan, at an international conference this coming Tu B’Shevat, with the help of Sunday’s guests- We’ll keep you posted on our progress!

Until then, Jewish Climate Initiative and Climate of Change wish you a Pesach full of happiness, peace, family and freedom- Chag Sameach… and a happy Birkat Hahama!

For us, Birkat Hahama has been a process of thinking about how we have used, and how we will use, the blessings of Creation. We hope your Birkat Hahama is/was meaningful, as well.

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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 featured on Hazon’s The Jew and the Carrot.

By Nina Budabin McQuown.

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

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

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

How did the Jewish Climate Initiative begin?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How does climate change affect the sustainable agriculture movement?

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

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

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

Mahane Yehuda Market

Mahane Yehuda Market

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

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

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