December 1, 2010
My Chanukah miracle
Making one day’s worth of consumption last for eight
And on the fifth day, I learned how not to compost.
It was a sunny mid-November morning when I found out that potato peels, celery tops and other vegetable pieces — in other words, most of the 7 pounds of organic matter I had been saving in my refrigerator’s crisper drawer for the past four days — were, in fact, still food.
“What’s wrong with that carrot?” Danila Oder, the manager of the Crenshaw Community Garden, asked. She looked down, horrified, at my contribution to her garden’s compost bin and plucked the floppy, slimy orange root off the top of the pile. “What you’re throwing out here — that’s vegetable stock.”
I took the carrot from Oder’s hand, picked the least yucky-looking bits of vegetable matter out of the black plastic drum and stuffed them back in my blue plastic bag.
What began as a simple, circumscribed idea for an article — reducing oil consumption on Chanukah — had somehow morphed into an all-encompassing challenge: To make a single day’s worth of the stuff we consume last for eight days. The experiment was loosely inspired by one of Chanukah’s miracles in which oil that was to have lasted for one day instead burned for eight. I intended to reduce my consumption of petroleum, electricity and water by 87.5 percent. Since transporting food from farm to table also involves burning fossil fuel, I decided I would buy only the most local, least-processed food I could find. I also committed to cutting out the trash I would produce by seven-eighths, as well — which helps explain why I was keeping decomposing vegetable scraps in my refrigerator in the first place.
All this is not exactly in my nature. I am a very particular kind of environmentalist — a lazy one. I buy reusable shopping bags and then forget to bring them to the store. I found author Jonathan Safran Foer’s environmentally based argument against eating animals wholly convincing but haven’t been able to kick meat from my diet. A bit of Web searching showed me that “hypermiler” drivers can get more than 40 miles to the gallon driving their 2001 Honda Civics; I don’t remember the last time I checked my tire pressure.
I believe I’m not alone in wishing that environmentally friendly living were easy, in wishing it didn’t require much thought. Unfortunately, as I found out when I decided to take my own personal environmental impact seriously — some might say altogether too seriously — choosing to live more lightly on the land does take some thought, and re-enacting the miracle that took place in Jerusalem during the Second Temple period in 21st century Los Angeles required equal parts creative thinking and hard work. For eight days, I commuted by bike. I captured half of the water from every highly efficient shower and used it to flush my toilet. I checked my electric meter every morning. I weighed the contents of my garbage can every night.
And when the experiment was over, I found that I had overshot my target numbers in every one of the five categories of consumption — in one case by more than 600 percent. Still, what I learned along the way was more than worth the effort.
Chanukah is more often associated with gift giving than with conservation. But Adam Berman, who has been working at the intersection of Judaism and the environment for 20 years, has long known that environmental messages can be found in every Jewish holiday, and Chanukah is no exception.
“There was this obscure part of the holiday, that there was a race against time that had to do with running out of oil,” Berman said. “We don’t use oil lamps anymore,” Berman continued, but with only 14 percent of our electricity coming from renewable sources like hydroelectric plants, wind farms and solar panels, the miracle’s lesson could still be made applicable. “The light that we use in our homes comes from a finite resource,” Berman said.
In 2006, the documentary film “An Inconvenient Truth” inspired activists concerned about climate change across American communities to action. Green Jews have been using Chanukah as an opportunity to organize their communities around issues of sustainability and renewable energy for years. Rabbi Arthur Waskow, director of the Shalom Center, first drew attention to the holiday’s “conserve-oil aspect” in 2001. The Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL) runs an annual program to increase environmental consciousness through actions around Chanukah nearly every year. In 2006, Liore Milgrom-Elcott drew on Waskow’s work to devise COEJL’s campaign to get Jews to switch from incandescent to more energy efficient compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs). This year, COEJL director Sybil Sanchez has used the organization’s Web site to promote a number of programs, all of which are dedicated to getting Jews and Jewish communities to “use less oil, rely less on fossil fuels, [and ] emit less greenhouse gas emissions.”
Eco-stunts like mine are not original. Any writer embarking on such a path is, at some point, going to come across Colin Beavan, the writer better known as No Impact Man.
For one year, Beavan, who lives in New York City with his wife and daughter, tried to cut out as much of his family’s environmental impact as possible. The experiment, which he chronicled first on a blog and later in a book and a documentary film (all called “No Impact Man”) required the Beavans to stop shopping for new goods, cut out all trash, eat mostly locally grown, unprocessed food, eliminate electricity entirely and generally consume as few resources as possible.
Many writers have published books along similar lines in the last few years, but none seem to have attracted the kind of attention or galvanized as many followers as Beavan has. “Something like 20,000 people have done a No Impact Week so far,” Beavan told me, referring to a project he launched in 2009 that allows people to make some of the “lifestyle adjustments” and live for a week in the “No Impact” manner that Beavan did for a year.
What I was embarking on, it seemed, was a variation on that project: A “Really Low” or “12.5 Percent of Normal” Impact Eight-Day Challenge. The one major difference, however, was that I would have to measure what my normal consumption was — something Beavan hadn’t done. “I never worried so much about measuring my impact because I was trying to reduce it completely,” Beavan said.
When I tried to come up with a baseline measurement for my normal use, one of two things happened. Take water as an example: Either I found myself unwittingly limiting my water usage — once I started counting, I couldn’t help but start conserving — or I did the exact opposite, consciously increasing my water use in an effort to ensure that more would be available to me once I had to cut my consumption by seven-eighths.
Eventually, I decided to use estimates of the average apartment-dwelling Angeleno’s daily consumption as a baseline, and shortly after sunset on an otherwise ordinary Monday evening, I began keeping track and cutting back.
The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) estimates that residential customers living in multifamily dwellings use an average of 240 gallons per household every day — 83 gallons per person. The numbers are higher for people living in single-family homes — 350 gallons per household per day — and about 40 percent of all LADWP’s water is used for outdoor irrigation.
With no lawn to worry about, I had just over 10 gallons to use every day. Before the experiment began, I picked up a low-flow showerhead and an aerator for my bathroom sink — the LADWP gives them out free of charge. Instead of taking my usual five-minute shower, I washed, shampooed and rinsed in three separate 20-second bursts of water — using a total of one gallon of water each day.
Brushing my teeth using a half-full mug of water? Easy. Shaving, I found, can be done in the same manner. And even the most well-hydrated person probably doesn’t drink more than a gallon of water in a day.
Assuming I shaved every day — I didn’t — that all added up to two-and-a-half gallons a day, at most. Doing my usual two loads of laundry per week would have required 45 gallons of water, so that was out of the question. The Swiffer-like thing that we use to clean our floors has a removable, reusable cloth head and doesn’t require any extra water — just a cleansing agent in a bottle. That left me with just under eight gallons to do only three things: flush the toilet, prepare food and wash dishes.
I would need every drop. These three activities constitute the majority of everyone’s indoor water usage. If you have an Energy Star-rated dishwasher — many of which use just four gallons per cycle — the most efficient way to clean your dishes is to wait until you have a full load and hit the “on” switch. But if you find (as I did, on Day Three) that your 10-year-old dishwasher uses 12 gallons in each normal cycle, you’ll have to find another way.
My wife, who once spent a few weeks living in an environmental commune, suggested washing dishes in a bucket of soapy water and rinsing them in a bucket of clean water. She did rewash a few dishes that didn’t meet her standards of cleanliness, but her suggestion brought my average daily dishwashing water to about six gallons. When it came to the bathroom, she tolerated my decision to follow the “if it’s yellow, let it mellow” maxim, and she even participated in what I called my makeshift greywater system.
“There are two types of water that come out of your house — blackwater and greywater,” explained Marina Mintz, founder and principal of the Good Going environmental and sustainability consulting firm. Blackwater — otherwise known as sewage — goes straight to the sewer, where it belongs. Greywater is the lightly used water left after being used to wash clothes, vegetables, dishes and bodies, and it can be reused to flush toilets and to water plants. “You get to use water twice before it goes down the sewer,” Mintz said.
With no such system in place in my apartment, I got creative. Every time I turned on the shower, I held out a bucket to catch the not-yet-warm water, and later poured the contents of that bucket into the toilet tank. Like most toilets, mine dispatches gallons of water — one-and-a-half gallons of drinking water — into the sewer system with every flush. I don’t recommend reusing unfiltered dishwashing water for this purpose — the grease in the toilet tank becomes problematic — but “warm-up” water works perfectly.
At the end of eight days, I found that I had used about 100 gallons of water — 17 gallons over my target. Without greywater, I would never have gotten nearly that close. The flowers and herbs on the windowsill wouldn’t have made it through the week alive without greywater either.
Some people commute by bicycle to keep from burning fossil fuels on their way to and from work. Other people wear articles of clothing more than once before washing them to save water and electricity. If there are people who bike to work and wear their clothes more than once, I have to imagine that they smell pretty bad.
My ride for the week was a used, white mountain-bike frame that I built up from salvaged parts at the Bicycle Kitchen in Los Feliz. “I hope you’re not taking your life in your hands,” my mother said when I told her I was biking around Los Angeles, sharing the road with teenage drivers, texting drivers, drivers of SUVs and other vehicular disasters waiting to happen.
“One big issue that we were seeing is that motorists were consistently riding too close to cyclists,” Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition (LACBC) Campaigns and Communications Director Aurisha Smolarski said, explaining why her group worked with the city to put up the “Give Me 3” posters that can be seen on bus shelters around Los Angeles.
But once I got out on two wheels, I was pleasantly surprised to find that not only were drivers regularly giving me 3 feet of clearance when passing, but that I wasn’t the only bicyclist on the road. With few exceptions, vehicles were accommodating, and I got more cheers than heckles. Roads with dedicated bike lanes (Santa Monica and Sunset boulevards) and “sharrows” — shared-lane markings like those painted onto the pavement of Fourth Street in June — are a pleasure to ride on, and the city’s bike plan unveiled earlier this year calls for more than 200 miles of new bike infrastructure to be built.
The only fossil fuel I burned getting around that week was the trip I took to Los Angeles International Airport to pick up my cousin on Day Six. The odometer ticked through 36.5 miles that night — more than my allotted 25 miles, but what was I to do? Not give her a ride?
I was standing on the roof of Lee Wallach’s house on the evening that marked the end of Day Three and the start of Day Four. Wallach is president of Faith2Green, a group that works to organize the Jewish community around environmental issues. He also consults with large firms to help them develop and implement sustainability efforts. “They’re different trajectories,” Wallach said of his for-profit and nonprofit work, “but it’s the same goal.”
Wallach is one of the greenest Jews I know, and I had asked for a tour of his house. We started with the artificial turf lawn and by the time we got to the solar panels, the office towers of Century City nearby had begun to glow.
“Any one of those buildings kicks my house’s ass,” Wallach said.
Making environmentally friendly choices can feel like an uphill battle. Wallach, as a consultant, might actually make his biggest positive impact on the environment by showing building owners how certain choices can help both the earth and their bottom line — say, installing a variable ventilation system in their parking garage.
But Wallach is just as proud of what he has accomplished on the grass-roots level, and that evening he turned away from the office towers and toward the houses on his block. He pointed to a few of his neighbors’ houses. One decided to do an energy audit to see if solar paneling would be cost-effective for his home; another asked Wallach for advice about drip irrigation systems; Wallach regularly exchanges cuttings of succulents and other desert-appropriate plants with a third. “It’s changing my little piece,” Wallach said of his contagious environmentalism, “and I also know it’s changing my neighborhood.”
Figuring out how much electricity my household consumes was as easy as checking the meter; it proved much more difficult to cut down that number. The average LADWP residential customer uses 6,182 kilowatt hours (kWh) of electricity per year — almost 17 kWh every day. In our one-bedroom apartment, we use a steady four kWh daily. One goes directly into powering the refrigerator. Our lights are almost all CFL-equipped; I even unscrewed four of the five incandescent bulbs in our bathroom and made sure to leave on only the lights that I needed. Still, like clockwork, over the course of eight days, the meter clicked up 30 kWh.
To make up some of the difference, I signed up for Green Power for a Green LA, a program that will add a surcharge of 3 cents per kWh to a certain percentage of our LADWP bill to cover the increased cost of providing power to the LADWP grid from renewable sources. In 2009, LADWP got 14 percent of its power from renewable sources and is said to be on track to hit its benchmark of providing 20 percent renewably sourced power by January 2011.
FOOD AND TRASH
“Local eating for you is going to be a breeze,” No Impact Man Beavan told me. “Transportation is not going to be.” He couldn’t have been more right.
Eating locally grown, unprocessed and preferably organic foods — the kinds of foods that require the least fossil fuel to produce and transport — is pretty easy in Los Angeles. In November, a month in which the offerings at most farmers markets in North America are much more limited, at the Adams and Vermont farmers market, I was able to buy both summer and winter squashes from the same local grower.
Produce in the United States is said to travel an average of 1,500 miles from the farm to the table. Some have questioned the accuracy of this statistic, but the message to me was still quite clear: If I could just subsist on heirloom tomatoes, organic lettuce, dirt-caked parsnips and rich-looking carrots from either Riverside (50 miles away) or Bakersfield (112), and limit the garlic and onions I bought from the farmer who drove the 200 miles from Fresno, I’d sail easily under the “one-eighth of average” benchmark.
But making good on my transportation commitment ended up making success in every other category harder to achieve. As it turned out, racking up 12 miles every day on the Frankenbike made finding time to cook meals from scratch nearly impossible and left me always hungry for highly caloric, highly processed foods. As my commitment to local eating flagged, my trash bin filled up.
Only 24 hours into the experiment, I was wolfing down a slice of pizza covered with mozzarella cheese that may have been shipped from New York, a bowl of rice that probably came from Japan and toasted seaweed flown from Korea and delivered by truck directly to our front door. Then I had to guiltily confront the contents of my trash bag: One paper plate. Two pieces of wax paper. One zipper-top Mylar bag. Four plastic tubs from a supermarket take-out counter.
It went downhill from there. Lunch on Day Three consisted of salad and a tuna melt. Dinner on Night Four was stuffed cabbage — although I knew that raising cows for beef requires approximately 16 times as much fossil fuel energy as growing the equivalent number of vegetable-based calories does.
I found it all but impossible to measure the miles most of my food had traveled before getting to my table — but in terms of trash, I knew exactly how badly I had done. At the end of eight days, I had produced 24 pounds of what the L.A. Bureau of Sanitation calls “solid waste”: 10 pounds of recycling, 7 pounds of compost and 7 pounds of simple refuse. Even if half of that trash were chalked up to my wife, it’s significantly more than the City of Los Angeles’ estimate of 3.3 pounds of solid waste per person per day that I was aiming for.
There is one refuse category that I feel less badly about: the 13 Clif Bar wrappers that I accumulated over the course of the week. As a company, Clif is trying to do good by the earth and do well in its business. They use organic ingredients, they work hard to maximize the number of boxes that fit onto each pallet they ship, and they won’t ship a truck until it’s full. Every one of their employees is given up to $500 to buy or retrofit a bike for commuting purposes. And when it comes to each bar’s Mylar packaging, they know they’ve got a lot of room for improvement. “We don’t feel like the packaging we use now is perfect, and we’re looking for something better,” Clif Bar & Co. spokesperson Renée Davidson said. “We would love to have some compostable packaging. It doesn’t exist.”
Over the course of my eight-day experiment, I occasionally felt like a guy riding a bicycle next to someone who was driving a Hummer. Sometimes it was literally true; other times, like when I was looking at millions of square feet in Century City office space from a 3,000-square-foot house covered in solar panels, it was more metaphorical. Regardless, the conclusion was the same: Nothing one person could do alone would matter unless he could make broader changes in society.
Nearly everyone I talked to made exactly this point. Since 2003, the nonprofit Global Footprint Network has been measuring the impact on the earth of human activity — the collective “footprint” that our actions leave on the planet. The footprint calculator application on its Web site is particularly alarming. Plug in the details about the way you live — the kind of house you live in, how many hours you spend on planes every year, how much stuff you buy, how much of your trash you recycle — and it will show you how many planets would be required to sustain human life if every person on earth lived the way you do.
“In that quiz, people get kind of frustrated sometimes,” Nicole Freeling, Global Footprint Network’s communications manager, said. She explained that if you tell the calculator that you live in the United States, even if you give the lowest possible value for every other activity — you don’t shop, you don’t fly, you eat no meat and only local vegetables — the outcome will show that sustaining life for an earth filled with people living like such an American would still require just over two planets.
“When we’re calculating human demand,” Freeling said, “part of that is your society’s infrastructure. All the things that we share — the highway systems, the roads, the schools, the hospitals, the military — it has to be allocated somewhere.”
In other words, even if I was riding my bike, as an American, I was still metaphorically driving the Hummer. According to the footprint calculator, if the world’s population lived like I do normally, we’d need 5.9 earths; if every human lived like I did for those eight days in November, we would be able to get by with a mere 5.2 planets worth of resources.
“Individual choices are important,” Freeling said, “but it also is a reality that part of getting to one-planet living is also taking on these much larger systems.”
Or, as Beavan put it, “You have to get involved in the politics in the end, because you’ll never get renewably powered streetlamps if you’re limiting yourself to what you do in your house.”
Jewish communities across the country are working to reduce their communal footprints. COEJL’s Sanchez mentioned that in Cleveland, Nashville, New York and Baltimore, Jewish federations and communal organizations have made significant commitments to operate in a more earth-friendly manner. Pursuing environmental goals within Jewish communities is, for Sanchez, “another way to build the community,” one with many different points of entry. “Whether it’s political, because you really want to stop the oil addiction that we have, whether it’s spiritual, because you really feel an obligation to protect creation, or it’s a way to do youth education or outreach Jewishly,” Sanchez said, “more and more Jews become engaged around a specific issue.”
Adam Berman, whose Berkeley-based start-up Urban Adamah is focusing on these very environmentally engaged Jews, hopes to welcome the first cohort of fellows to his one-acre urban farm in spring 2011. It would not have been possible 10 years ago, he said. “There are more green teams at synagogues than there have ever been,” he said, adding that many are interested in establishing gardens on their own properties. “I hope it’s not a fad. I hope it’s here to stay,” Berman said.
There’s another reason that individual action on the environment is less effective than collective, coordinated action: Because cutting personal consumption purely on one’s own can feel very lonely — almost indistinguishable from cutting oneself off from the world. Consider the comparatively small number of people in Los Angeles who appear to be personally committed to reducing their consumption:
• LADWP’s Green Power for Green LA program launched in 1999. As of last month, 17,395 of the utility’s 1.4 million power customers had signed up — just over 1 percent.
Despite numbers like these, if you talk to your friends, to the people in your synagogue, in your office, in your book club, I’m betting you’ll uncover at least one quiet environmentalist. It might be a person who takes the bus to work every day without thinking that it is particularly worthy of praise. It might be a guy who brings vegetarian lunches to work in reusable fabric wraps, who admits to “letting it mellow” at home, who will show you the bucket where she keeps her compost.
Some local synagogues have been remarkably effective in inspiring their members to go green. At Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles, the movement really kicked off four or five years ago, when Rabbi Joel Rembaum “gave what has become known as ‘The Prius Sermon,’ ” Larry Braman, who founded the temple’s green team, told me. “‘It is part of our moral responsibility to take care of the earth, and he had just purchased a Prius, and we all should, too,’ ” Braman said, paraphrasing Rembaum.
Beth Am’s green team (which Braman chaired until recently) went on to conduct an energy audit of the building, convert “most or all of the lighting in the shul” to fluorescent lighting and has been looking into solar paneling. The synagogue’s school, Pressman Academy, has eliminated plastic water bottles from its classrooms and fitted every tap with a water filter. The synagogue held a communitywide green Shabbat and a symposium about the drought conditions in the Western United States.
And of course, many congregants followed Rembaum’s lead and bought Priuses. “I finally got mine two weeks ago,” Braman said.
Another member of the temple’s green team, Jon Drucker, is trying to build on what Beth Am has done by adapting a concept that first originated in Congress in the mid-1970s: CAFE standards. A one-time legislative aide to Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), Drucker is very well versed in the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) regulations that require domestic auto manufacturers to maintain a certain average fuel economy across their fleets. Drucker’s idea — which he says is “pretty inchoate at this point” — is to compile a Community Average Fuel Economy baseline for synagogues, starting with his own. “The parking lot’s always full of Priuses, so I imagine the CAFE standards will be pretty good at Temple Beth Am,” Drucker said, “but ... we can always improve.” He would like to open it up to other synagogues and other faith communities as well.
When people ask him what they should do differently in their own lives, Urban Adamah’s Berman starts with the following: “Don’t sweat the small stuff.”
“Worry about things like that next refrigerator you buy and the kind of car you drive,” he said, “and when it comes time to vote ... don’t forget the environment.”
I thought about his suggestion. For many people, the most environmentally consumptive thing they do is fly in airplanes. (Every person on an economy-class flight from LAX to New York’s JFK is responsible for emitting nearly 1 ton of CO2 into the atmosphere. The Jewish National Fund estimates that it takes 70 years for a single tree to absorb that much CO2 through photosynthesis.) Still, I flew across the country within two weeks of the end of this experiment. Like many Americans, I will board another plane around Christmas.
But of all the activities in which I engage, the one with perhaps the largest environmental impact is the one whose product you are reading right now. As a writer, I am responsible for thousands of words being printed every week — in soy-based ink on paper with some amount of post-consumer recycled content. The trucks that deliver copies of The Journal to your synagogue or to your doorstep burn fossil fuel and emit CO2, and even those readers scrolling through this article on JewishJournal.com will have used some amount of electricity in the process.
Before going to press, after a conversation with editor-in-chief Rob Eshman, I named myself the Jewish Journal’s Chief Green Officer. Over the last few years, we’ve tried to make our offices more environmentally friendly; over the next few months, I’m going to look into everything — where our coffee comes from, where our e-waste goes, you name it — to see what we can do better.
We all consume stuff. That’s a given. But, as No Impact Man Beavan told me, “It’s not just about how many resources you use,” he said, “it’s what you use those resources for.”
We’re going to keep using paper, ink and energy to tell Jews in L.A.’s Jewish community about what’s going on in and around the city, and beyond. And we’ll do it as efficiently as we can.