Sunday, July 13, 2008

We've Moved!

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Saturday, June 14, 2008

Calling All Voices

"For the Jewish community to make a difference on environmental issues, we need brutal honesty to begin with. Jews are now roughly 0.2% of the world’s population; less than the margin of error on the Indian census. If all the Jews in the world recycle their newspapers it will make… pretty much no difference whatsoever. Nor if we put a solar-powered ner tamid in every synagogue, nor, more radically, if every Jew in the world swapped their existing car for a hybrid."

-Nigel Savage, founder of Hazon. Click here for the full article.

"Our home planet Earth is undergoing rapid and sustained destruction of its eco-systems... Muslims comprise at least one fifth of the human community and they can contribute much to the thinking that is vital to re-evaluate the future direction of the human community and save its home for itself and other life forms."

- The Islamic Foundation for Ecology and Environmental Sciences (IFEES)

What a difference one fifth of the world could make!

And us Jews? We sure are a little nation, but as history tells us, we have tremendous power to inspire ethical behavior, mobilize social change and spearhead the technology with which to bring that change about.

If our species is to control the ecological crises that we face today, then we'd best focus where we each can help, and filter out where we cannot.

I recently led a session at Green Up Your Campus, a program of Derech Hateva/Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel for gap-year students in Israel beginning college next year, on Sustainability's "Three R's," Reduce, Reuse and Recycle.

To introduce the discussion, each member of the group was to list one area of "green" living that they did not want to incorporate into their personal lives, or something they'd much rather not give up in the name of fixing the world.

I spoke about loving new books. The smell, their look on home's bookshelf, the crispness of new book covers. One girl mentioned long showers. Someone else said he could never give up on driving.

And then we began to analyze: If I really love new books, maybe I can lend them to someone who doesn't. Perhaps even to the guy who loves driving. And he can give me rides, because I don't care that much about driving. The long showers girl can be ultra-conservative with water when she washes dishes. Or she can engage in something of a Kyoto Protocol on Hygiene- trading "Shower-water" credits with friends.

Common sense might imply that the more we negate our "Footprint" on the world the better off the world will be. But "Ecology" tells us about ecosystems-relationships between species, many to most of which we are a part. And as any good relationship goes, all sides must contribute of themselves- of what makes them individual- in order for the whole to thrive.

At Jewish Climate Initiative (JCI), we are working to develop the Jewish voice- to channel our collective passion and individual ingenuities to impact our fellow humans, to view our climate of change as an opportunity that begs us to live in a conscious harmony with the universe, its creations and resources.

We invite you to visit us at and learn more. The whole climate change thing is pretty terrifying- but we're an optimistic People, and do not believe we're given challenges we cannot handle. And if we tackle this one creatively and with a hopeful spirit, it is going to a have a happy ending, and many proud and better people to show for it.

By Yannai Kranzler

We Were There

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.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

A Green Shavuot

In the debate between environmentalism and ecology the two can be differentiated along the male-female dialectic.

Thus the former can be loosely viewed as the identification of a problem and its attempted solution – a sort of head to head approach – a stereotypical male stance. Whereas the latter is about the welfare of the house (ecology is Greek for ‘the knowing of the House’) and the concern for the myriad complex relationships that take place in the home environment – a stereotypical female stance. So it is more about relationships than it is about problem solving or struggle or apportioning blame or lobbying.

In the scheme of the festival cycle (see the introduction to the Holistic Haggadah, Urim, 2004) Shavuot is the most overwhelmingly feminine of them all.* Its prime foci are: the 'wedding' at Sinai, the Book of Ruth, the eating of milk products, the greening of the synagogues, and the chanting of parts of the Zohar in the Sephardi Tradition.

Starting with the last and working backwards: in the Sephardi tradition the purpose of staying up all night (tikun liylah) is not for the sake of intellectual achievement or for the gaining of a little bit more knowledge (this should be done all year round) but rather to prepare for The Receiving by chanting (not studying) mystical texts that bypass the cerebral cortex raising the energy of the Receiver – a sort of Mystical Union. The greening of the synagogue is a visceral reminder of the Garden of Eden** – the original womb – where we roamed at peace with the animals, drinking of their milk and not of their flesh. And milk is the symbol of motherhood, of lovingkindness, of Giving which is the attribute of Ruth – the woman of lovingkindness (for isn't ruthless the absolute lack of lovingkindness?).

So Shavuot is the bridge between now and then. And the Book of Ruth which is more than just a story about women – is the story about relationships, ALL relationships. Almost every relationship that effects one's life is touched upon in this little book – husbands and wives, parents and children, siblings, in-laws, between women, between men (David and Jonathan), between generations, between the insiders and the outsiders, between the rich and the poor, between the haves and the have-nots, between the bosses and workers, between family members, between ourselves and the land and nature, between the past, present and future, between this world and the messianic world, between life and death, between mother and child, between lovers.

And finally there is the wedding in which we reaffirm our relationship with the Creator.

Blessings for Shavuot

Michael Kagan

Some of the other festivals can be allotted as follows: Tisha B’Av is male since it is the destructive anger of the father (Av is Hebrew for father); Tu B’Av is the reconciliation of male and female; Rosh Hashannah is more male than female since it is the day judgment; Yom Kippur is more female than male since it is the day of forgiveness; and Succot is the perfected balance between male and female – sitting in the womb like succah waving around a palm fond and fondling an etrog (citrus fruit).

This connection between Shavuot and The Garden is hinted at in the use of the definitive article in the Creation story – and it was evening and morning of THE sixth day (rather than day six as with the conclusion of the previous days of Creation). Rashi asks: to what is THE sixth day referring? And answers: to THE sixth day of Sivan – Shavuot.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Changing the World, One Multinational at a Time

Just back from an amazing trip to the US where I met some extraordinary thinkers and doers making a difference in the field of climate change and religion. Over the next few weeks, I'll be unpacking some of the experiences and insights that I brought home with me, as well as inviting some of the people I met there to guest blog on Climate of Change.

In San Francisco, I attended a staff meeting at Saatchi S (sustainable), the green arm of the world's largest marketing and advertising company. Their clients include Walmart and GE. Saatchi's is a business, not a religious movement. But what I saw there is incredibly relevant to understanding what religions can do about climate change.

Saatchi S is run by Adam Werbach, environmentalist enfant terrible (he was President of the Sierra Club at 23) now turned corporate businessman. A few years ago he founded Act Now, an environmental consultancy, which was bought by Saatchi's in January for an eye-popping amount of money. The company still occupies offices on the same dilapidated street in San Francisco's Mission District, distinguished from the neighbours only by the gleaming green, blue and brown recycling bins standing outside the entrance.

Inside, there are a lot of bright, creative and idealistic young things, most of whom wear cheerful lapel buttons, bearing catchy messages like "I've met my personal health sustainability goals." The clients are big on lapel buttons, the woman who designs them explained proudly. It gives the staff a sense of achievement about the changes they've managed to make.

The Personal Sustainability Plan (PSP), which the buttons celebrate, is a cornerstone of the Saatchi S philosophy. Every staff member of every client company they work with has a PSP. That commits the employee to taking small but definite steps towards making his or her own life more environmentally sustainable, whether by giving up smoking, carpooling, buying a hybrid, whatever is practical for that person. In the case of Walmart that means over 1 million people.

Employees are encouraged to make changes that reflect values they really care about. That way they are more likely to stick. This is based on another important insight of Saatchi S: everyone cares in a deep inner place about their natural environment. The challenge is to find that place in each person.

The biggest obstacle is "to detach sustainability from politics," as Jamie, one of the trainers, put it to me. "Environmentalism is pegged as a pinko liberal, East Coast cause. We'll go into a company in Tennessee, and ask, "come on, hands up who expected us to come here in tie-dye T-shirts, eating organic Trail Mix." All the hands go up. Then you'll ask the same redneck guys what they like to do in their spare time. They'll often say "hunting, shooting and fishing," or some combination of that list. And from there it's a no-brainer to show that they really do care about the natural world, and are dependent on it for the things they love doing the most."

The task is to have people articulate deeply held values that may have become occluded by politics, ideology or sheer habit, and to get them to commit to actions that will strengthen the place of those values in their lives.

Adam Werbach is a secular Jew. "Most of this I got from my grandparents," Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union, he explains. “For them, being a mensch was the most important thing there is. If you believed in something you lived it - simple as that." I don’t want to put Jewish sources into Adam Werbach’s mouth, but the parallels that occurred to me were endless: the importance of action as an expression of your spiritual values (“do little and say much” – pirke avot), the power of deeds to effect changes in consciousness, (we will do and (then) we will understand, as the Jewish people said when they accepted Torah.)

Saatchi S’s work with Walmart has been criticized by some environmentalists as, at worst, selling your soul to the devil and, at best, rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. The argument goes, “who cares if Walmart’s cashiers carpool to work when the company’s brutally low cost, high environmental impact supply chains cause such huge damage?”

From a religious perspective these criticisms miss the point. Real change happens one person at a time. Top-down policy shifts can be reversed as fast as the winds of business fashion. Walmart and other mega-companies will go green when sustainability is part of its consciousness from top to bottom.

As Rabbi Israel Salanter, founder of the mussar movement famously said. “At first I thought I could change the world. Then I tried to change my community. Then I attempted to change my family. Finally I realized that it would be an achievement to change myself.

But in changing himself he changed the lives of hundreds of thousands who followed him.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Jewish Climate Initiative in the New York Times Magazine

We were proud to be featured in the special Green Issue of the Magazine that came out on April 20th. The whole issue is worth looking at as a survey of cutting edge stuff going on in the field of climate change. (See link at the bottom.) Here's the piece:

For years, Rabbi Julian Sinclair led a double life. He kept his two identities — as a yeshiva-trained Jewish scholar and a self-described economist and policy wonk schooled at Oxford and Harvard — apart.

But the increasing portents of climate change convinced Sinclair that a religious response to what he calls “the biggest big-picture policy challenge we face today” is precisely what the world needs now.

“The environmental movement has been overwhelmingly secular for 40 years and has achieved amazing things,” he says, “but it hasn’t yet figured out how to move people on amassive scale because it isn’t telling the right story.’ Sinclair says he believes that the “doom-laden apocalyptic narrative” favored by the mainstream environmental movement can paralyze rather than motivate necessary lifestyle adjustments. Conversely, he says religion — which has been “in the behavioral-change business for 3,000 years”— offers a distinct message of hope and boasts an impressive track record ofmoral persuasion: “There have been watershed moments when religion has barged into public life, blown away the windbaggery of politics-as-usual and declared with irresistible force, ‘This must change now!’ ”

Following the lead ofthe popular “What Would Jesus Drive?” campaign from the Evangelical Environmental Network and Jewish sustainability organizations like Hazon(“Vision”), Sinclair helped found the Jewish Climate Initiative. He is also the author of the forthcoming book “The Green God,” in which he consults the world’s spiritual traditions for teachings about how humans can confront climate change.

Regarding his own religion, Sinclair says Judaism regularly expresses spirituality through “mundane deeds that awaken deeper consciousness.” “If going to the bathroom can be a religiously meaningful act (there’s a blessing said after doing so),then switching to C.F.L. light bulbs can be, too,” he says. Still, the economist in him urges first things first: “Shifts in consciousness can take decades that we don’t have. Trade in the S.U.V. — then let’s talk about the sacredness of the earth.” LEAH KOENIG New York Times Published: April 20, 2008

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Between the Fires

By David Seidenberg, in honor of Lag Ba'Omer- adapted from Rabbi Arthur Waskow's Tisha B'av liturgy. According to one interpretation, the flood brought upon by Noah's generation began today, the 17th of Iyyar, the day before Lag Ba'Omer.

Between the Fires

On this day, the 17th of Iyyar, the day when the Flood began,

this day when we prepare to kindle fires for Lag B'Omer,

we share a unique burden.

We are the first generation to understand

what the Floods could mean:

The Flood of Noah, when the Water of Life undid Life

and the Flood of Malachi, the Flood of Fire.

We are the generation standing

between the fires:

Behind us the flame and smoke

that rose from Auschwitz, from Hiroshima.

Before us the nightmare of a

Flood of Fire and Water,

from the burning of the Amazon and the melting of the Antarctic,

"the day that comes burning like an oven,"

a day when our flames could consume so much of the earth.

It is our task to make from fire not an all-consuming blaze

but a light in which we can see each other fully.

All of us different, All of us bearing

One Spark.

Let us light the fires of Lag B'Omer to see more clearly

that the earth and all who live as part of it

are not for burning.

Let us light our fires to see more clearly

the rainbow in the many-hued faces

Of all life.

Blessed is the One within the many.

Blessed are the many who embody the One.

"Here! I am sending you

Elijah the Prophet

Before the coming

of the great and terrible day

of YAHH, the Breath of Life.

And he shall turn the heart

Of fathers for children

And the heart of children

for their fathers.

Lest I come and

strike the earth


Here we stand

before the great and terrible day -

Let us turn the hearts

of parents to their children

and the hearts of children to their parents

so that this day of smiting

does not fall upon us or our children.

"And then the Sun of Righteousness will shine forth

and heal with her wings."

Ken Y'hi Ratzon, So May It Be.


This prayer could be read as one begins to set up or light a Lag B'omer bonfire. It would be a good idea to act as one prays and make sure you've set up a carbon offset for the fire. There is still time for creatnig a new a liturgy for Rainbow Day , which is June 1, the anniversary of the day the flood ended and Noah's family and the animals left the ark. We'll see what comes.

May I ask you, as part of using or thinking about this kavannah for

Lag B'Omer, to commit to one new thing you can do to lessen your

"carbon footprint", perhaps even something you can start doing by

Rainbow Day. And can I ask you to *record* whatever you commit to on

the "signwave" page of StoptheFlood,

B'shalom uv'yira,

David Seidenberg

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Don't Fall into the Doomsday Trap

By Yannai Kranzler

Environmental sensitivity has a trap: Actions too often become a “Fight Against.” I stop acting “in order to”, but rather, “to beware of”- whether that “Beware of” is carbon emissions, pollution, pesticides or the like.

Not that caution is a bad place from where to act- crises like climate change give us the urgency that (hopefully) makes us change. But that urgency should not only encourage us to ward off disasters, but to re-examine our experience in this world and discover what it is we are missing that brought about these crises in the first place.

Let’s take eating local foods as an example:

I can buy local in order to avoid carbon demands of importing or to avoid supporting agribusiness, mono-crops and the obliteration of Nature’s great defense mechanism, biodiversity. No doubt about it, when a family accepts the challenge of buying local, they are taking a front lines position against global climate and food crises.

But eating shouldn’t only be a fight. Eating is an opportunity to celebrate a relationship with a Natural world that sustains us. As Jews, part of our mission as a People is to uncover the Holiness that lays buried in everyday activities just like eating. Buying local is one way to engage in consumption as a more nourishing experience, both physically and spiritually:

1- Local foods usually taste better, are fresher and healthier. They haven’t sat for days in hot, stuffy trucks, and haven’t been engineered to do so.

2- Eating becomes a means for us to connect with our community and our land:

My wife and I live next to Jerusalem’s open market. We love seeing the market reflect Israel’s seasonal patterns. Right now it’s Israel’s watermelon season. Soon will come mangoes. The messiest (and my most favorite) season, pomegranate season, will come again in the wintertime. Living according to Israel’s seasonal produce cycle has given us a whole new way to manifest the bond we have with our homeland.

3- Buying local means supporting community.

Imagine bringing your children to the farm where your dinner is grown, meeting the farmer, asking him questions, learning about where your food comes from and how its raised. Imagine the excitement around the dinner table when the food you eat reflects the hard work of someone you know. (If you’re really local with your food, growing your own veggies/raising your own meat, then I envy the pride you must have, deriving such direct benefit from the work of your own hands.).

When it comes down to it, that’s the sort of environmental sensitivity we are here to develop: the ability first to notice, then to appreciate, then to connect.

When my eating reflects this kind of sensitivity, I can close my eyes in concentration as I feed my body- thankful that my land knows how to satiate me, thankful for the taste of something fresh, thankful to the farmer that grew my food, even thankful to an animal that gave its life to be my dinner.

Tradition tells us that vegetation did not grow in the Garden of Eden until Adam came along to pray. It is truly amazing how much the flourishing of this world depends on our appreciating it.

So don't fall into the doomsday trap. Have fun finding what grows locally near you. Enjoy eating as an experience in sensitivity and relationship with the world. Enjoy appreciating land and community. Raise your glass of locally grown wine or even your locally brewed beer, and celebrate that our world knows just what to provide us and when- drink up: L’Chaim! - “To Life.”

Do you know of any great local farmers here in Israel? What about in your area? Any “buying local” tips for the rest of us? Send a comment and let us know!

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Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Blessing on Trees

For this entire month of Nisan there is a special blessing for fruit trees that are showing blossom (Birkat Ha’Ilanot). In The Holistic Haggadah I ask the question: why this blessing in this month? Surely it would be more appropriate in Shvat (two months ago) when we celebrate the Festival of Trees and the almond trees are carpeting the hillsides; or in Adar (last month) when the spring actually begins (at least in Israel) and the fruit trees are in full blossom? Why in Nisan? The answer is suggested that the month of Nisan focuses on the intergenerational chain of life more than at any time of the year: "And when the parents tell the child… and when the child asks the parent you shall tell them..." So it is for the trees as they prepare to give birth to their next generation. But deeper than just the parallels is the fact that we are dependent upon the trees for fruit and for photo-absorption of carbon dioxide and further, that if we abuse the "fruit of nature" we do so at our peril. As it tells in the Talmud: R. Hanina said: Shibhath, my son, did not pass away except for having cut down a fig tree before its time. (Baba Kama 91b).

Michael Kagan

Green house gases and leavened bread

I would like to point out (I mention it in The Holistic Haggadah, but did not realize the significance of it at the time) that the act of fermentation that produces Chameitz (leavening) releases carbon dioxide. It is this release of gas that causes the swelling and web-like structure of bread. So that Chameitz is not only swollen and out of proportion to its true self, it is also formed by a gas that is proving deadly to the whole planet. What does that say about our ego attachment to progress through the burning of oil?
Michael Kagan

Who's the smartest?

The question is: if the Four Children mentioned in the Passover Haggadah are placed hierarchically then which one is at the top? Of course one can answer and say that they are all archetypal inner voices and therefore the question is invalid. But I think that most of us were brought up to view them and judge them on a bad-better-good scale. If we look at the four children as phases in the psychological development of the individual (i.e. Piaget) then when we were small we were not able to ask, and then we could only ask the simple questions, and then we went through the rebellious teens/ 20's phase of our lives until we became smarter, wiser and more grounded, qualified members of society (BSc, PhDs etc). But is that the end of it? The answer of the parent/mentor to this child is clear – times have changed, a shift is required, you need to grow further. But for many the road is blocked on any one of these stages, particularly the last one.
At the turn of the last century scientists thought that they had almost all the pieces in place to fully understand the workings of the deterministic universe. Within a very short period of time the entire edifice of Newtonian physics crumbled as the realization dawned that we actually know very little and in fact that there are limits to what we can know for sure. This was the paradigm shift to quantum physics. So it is for the individual as they shift from being the wise aleck, the smart ass to the realization that in fact they don't know much at all and that the system was lacking. This cracking of the edifice is the start of the spiritual journey and the accompanying years of rebellion against the conventional until finally one comes to understand that silence is the highest wisdom (Pirkai Avot). In our times this realization of ignorance is hitting home stronger and stronger as we face climate change due to global warming. The assumptions that we have made up until now of the necessity of persistent economic growth, of endless resources, of nature somehow getting rid of our waste, of a stable tomorrow for our children and grandchildren, have suddenly been brought into doubt. And we thought we were so smart…
Michael Kagan

The Green Haggadah

There are many aspects of the Haggadah that relate to ecological and environment concerns. By next year – God willing - we will have completed the Green Haggadah that will contain a fully developed Jewish ecological theology.
But for now it is important to understand the flow of the Haggadah story: we were idol worshippers, we found God; we descended into Mitzraim (Egypt) and forgot God; we then underwent enforced enslavement, despair and loss of hope; finally we cried out; God heard and the redemption of the Children of Israel began - the plagues, the midnight last supper, the transition to freedom, the Exodus from Mitzraim, and the crossing of the Sea. As a response to all this, we praise God through the Hallel; we celebrate our freedom through ritual foods, eating and singing; and we demonstrate our determination to continue the adventure through the gathering of the generations around the table and praying that next year we will all be together as one people in a perfected Jerusalem (world).
So what is the ecological angle on Pesach? In the Hasidic mode of interpretation, Mitzraim is a metaphor for whatever we are attached to, enslaved by, trapped in, whatever makes our lives less holy, whenever we feel squeezed by circumstances into a narrow place (literal meaning of Mitzraim). Today we recognized that we are slaves to fossil fuel and that this is squeezing us into financial discomfort; we are slaves to consumerism and that have made our wants become confused with our needs; that we have been trying to play Pharaoh by enslaving nature but now nature is freeing itself and we are in mortal danger (the enslaver is a slave to his enslavement) as the planet warms up and the climate begins to shift. Are the ten plagues waiting for us around the corner?
In this context leavened bread represents our inflated sense of anthropocentrism in which we are the rulers of the planet and everything created is for our benefit and enjoyment. Along comes matzah and says: get real; remember your place; remember your responsibilities; remember who you really are and what you should really be doing. We burn the excess pride; reduce the arrogance in the flames that turn the organics into carbon dioxide. Thus we hope to return to being members of the living planet, the consciousness of Earth.
Wishing you a wonder-filled Pesach
Michael Kagan author of the Holistic Haggadah

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Wonder of Water

Our post on water a couple of weeks ago was expanded into an op-ed in the Jerusalem Post
arguing that technology alone won't solve Israel's looking water crisis; we will also have to change the way we use and think about the stuff too.

You saw it here first!

Monday, April 7, 2008

Can Smiley Faces Save the World?

Researchers at the University of Chicago apparently think so.

See this fascinating report in the New York Times about Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler’s pioneering work applying behavioral psychology to climate change.

One of the things that interests us at Jewish Climate Initiative is the huge gap between knowing and doing in the climate change business. We all know what we’d have to do to drastically reduce our carbon footprints: fly much less, use public transport more, switch to CFL lightbulbs, buy a hybrid car, etc. etc.

But very few of us are doing it.

“This comes as no surprise to behavioral psychologists who have been studying the human penchant for making dumb choices,” writes the NYT.

The good news however is that we do have a strong inclination to do the right thing for the common good if we are given the right nudges and cues.

California utility companies experimented with including statistics about average electricity consumption on people’s electrical bills. This information led customers whose consumption was above average to use less in the next quarter. The problem was that people consuming less than average raised their electricity use. (After all, who wants to be a freier?)

Next time around, they added the following simple refinement to the electricity bills: a smiley face for people whose use was below the mean, and a frowning face for those above the average.

Amazingly, this caused people below the average to keep their consumption low, or reduce it still further.

The studies show that a communal norm together with positive reinforcement towards reaching that norm can have powerful impacts on behaviour, (although do I feel a bit queasy about the authors’ plan for introducing flashing lapel pins that indicate your carbon use.)

This should give pause to anyone who thinks that appealing to people’s pockets is the only way to reduce carbon footprints.

For anyone who believes, as we do, that religions have a potentially powerful role to play in combating climate change, these findings are encouraging, but not hugely surprising.

The Talmud already arrived at the same conclusions. I’ve just been studying the eighth chapter of Bava Kamma, which deals with a number of crucial environmental issues, including Ba’al Taschit, the prohibition against wanton destruction of property and resources, based on Deuteronomy 20: 19-21.

The chapter ends with a long discussion about the power of social norms to influence behaviour for good or ill, (Bava Kamma 92a-93a.) But it also stresses the pivotal power of determined and inspired individuals to reorient social norms by their example.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Water, waste and wilderness.

It’s water crisis time in Israel again. Spring is here, the turtle dove sings, almond trees blossom, and the winter that’s just passed brought a mere 65% of average rainfall.

This is the fifth consecutive winter to yield below average rainfall in Israel. Some are pointing the finger at global climate change, which is projected to reduce rainfall in Israel by 30% in the coming decades and to cause critical water shortages worldwide. It’s too early to be sure of the connection sure, but the trend is alarming.

As water crises go, this is a bad one. As we look forward to six months of cloudless skies, the Kinneret, Israel’s main water source is 60 cm below where it was this time last year. It's already close to the lowest “red line.” When it falls below that level, pumping any more water from the Kinneret risks seriously polluting it.

Why are we in this situation? After all, Israeli water engineers have been ingenious in maximizing our access to the water sources available. Yesterday I was hiking through Nahal Amud in the Galilee with a group from Hazon and the Heschel Centre, (see next post) and found myself standing in a stone-filled limestone wadi directly on top of the National Water Carrier.

The National Water Carrier is a five feet in diameter concrete pipeline that conveys a third of Israel’s drinkable water from the Kinneret to the centres of the country’s population, and the thirsty Negev beyond. Built in the 50’s and 60’s it was a triumph of Zionist pioneering ingenuity. During its construction, half of Israel’s cement output went into building the pipeline wall. It’s a man made miracle, as awe inspiring in its way as the wadi we were hiking through. Beneath our feet lay the artery which, by pumping precious life-blood to the heart and extremities of Israel has made possible the building of the country.

Today too, Israeli technology enables us to make the most of our limited water resources. Two major desalination plants opened in the past decade and now provide almost a sixth of the country’s water.

But here’s the problem: That’s exactly the amount by which water consumption has grown in Israel over the same period. We now use 796 million cubic meters of water per year, 136 million more than in 2000. As living standards have risen, the gains from new technology have been wiped out by the greater extravagance of our water use.

That’s why technology, though wonderfully helpful, is unlikely to solve this problem alone. We’ll always find ways to consume the blessings that technology yields. To avert future water crises, we’ll have to get into the habit of consuming less.

It can be done. In the face of the water shortage of the early 90’s public campaigns to conserve and reduce water usage cut consumption by 15%.

Everyone knows what to do: take shorter showers, use a bucket and not a hosepipe to wash your car, use the mini-flush lever on your toilet, don’t leave the tap on when you wash the dishes, water the garden at night not at mid day etc etc. All very doable. But when last the crisis passed, water usage bounced back to previous levels and then beyond.

Recently I had the chance to visit the bare and frugal apartment of one of Israel's leading poskim halakhic decisors) and ask him whether there was any halakhic basis for requiring people to save water.

He looked at me as if I'd just asked him which way was up and answered,

"Of course. We should always consume only as much as we need of the blessings that God puts in in the world." (He proved this from Mishnah Berurah, Orach Haim 242:4, which says that people should limit their consumption during the week so that Shabbat will be extra special by comparison.)

Most of us cannot live as simply as this rabbi. But we can share his gratitude for the blessing of water and learn to use it with an appreciation of its preciousness.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

What Does Judaism Say About Climate Change?

The question sounds like the title for a Lunch and Learn session of the sort that I used to give when I was campus rabbi at Cambridge.

The usual format was that hungry students would come and wolf down smoked salmon bagels while I held forth for forty minutes on what Jewish tradition could say about some topic of contemporary interest.

At first sight, the answer to this Lunch and Learn title is “nothing.” There is no “parshat global warming” in the Torah. You’ll search in vain for “tractate climate change” in the Talmud.

But Jews have always been ingenious at applying the eternal wisdom of our tradition to the most pressing issues of every era, at hearing the commanding word of Torah that is addressed to today. What has such extrapolation yielded on the issue of climate change?

So far, almost nothing. If I were a Hillel Rabbi today, giving Lunch and Learn about climate change, I’d struggle to find forty minutes worth of teaching material based on what’s currently out there.

This is odd, seeing as climate change is emerging as the most urgent challenge that humanity faces. Our success in meeting this challenge will determine whether or not we leave a livable biosphere on planet Earth to our children and grandchildren.

Correct us if we’re wrong about this, (and we’d be delighted to discover that we are), but at Jewish Climate Initiative we’re not aware of any serious research that has been done so far to focus the spiritual depth and power of Jewish teaching on this issue.

This is the central challenge that Jewish Climate Initiative has set itself in its first year of operation: to articulate a coherent Jewish answer to this question; a response that’s deeply rooted in traditional Jewish sources, and fully engaged in the reality of contemporary science and policy.

We’ve made a small start in the Ethics section of our website. There we break the question down into several more manageable ones.

What can we say about intergenerational justice, about our role in leaving a habitable world to our descendants?

What can three Talmudic tractates on the subject of damages tell us about our responsibility for stopping and making good the damage we’re doing to our global neighbours through excessive CO2 emissions?

How can the cardinal Jewish principle of pikuah nefesh, saving life, galvanize us into doing something about a problem that could cost hundreds of millions of lives in the next century?

What can we say about a global ethic of consumption that is trashing the planet for the sake of today’s fleeting pleasure?

We’ve barely scratched the surface of these questions. In partnership with scholars, rabbis and teachers around the world we aim to access the wealth of Jewish teaching and develop some compelling answers.

Then we will have a body of wisdom that can serve not just as edu-tainment for Jewish students between lectures. We will have a basis from which we can articulate a Jewish message to the world that addresses humanity's most pressing challenge

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Why is this climate change organization different...?

Why a Jewish Climate Initiative? Surely climate change is a global problem? Isn’t everyone today concerned about it?

We spent quite a few late nights and Espressos debating these questions ourselves.

Our answer is that yes, many people are, and we applaud and support their efforts.

But the scale and urgency of the problem requires everyone to play their part. We have barely begun to imagine, let alone make, the immense shifts in individual behavior, government policy and ethical consciousness that will be necessary if we are to avoid dangerous climate change.

We believe that the Jewish people has a large, unique and until now, untapped contribution to make, through its combination of ethical wisdom, scientific and business know-how and activist passion.

Jewish Climate Initiative aims to be a catalyst to mobilize these strengths for the good of our children and of the planet.

Part of what makes our response distinctive lies in recognizing the holistic nature of the climate change crisis. The challenge of global warming requires a marriage of moral and spiritual vision with scientific and entrepreneurial innovation. Neither well-meaning ethical exhortations nor purely technical solutions will be sufficient by themselves.

One of the many things we believe faith-inspired approaches to climate change can offer is hope. Hope is a scarce resource in the current climate change discourse. Al Gore observes in “An Inconvenient Truth” that many have passed straight from denial that climate change is a problem to despair that we can do anything about it, without passing through an intermediate stage of hope.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks argues that hope is a distinctively (though not exclusively) religious virtue. It is not the same as optimism. Optimism is the belief that things will get better. Hope is the belief that together we can make them better.

We hope that you’ll send us your thoughts, responses and suggestions so that together we can help make things better for our children and grandchildren.