December 1, 2010
My Chanukah miracle
Making one day’s worth of consumption last for eight
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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.
• The management of the building in which The Jewish Journal’s offices are located has issued 1,758 access passes to the 2,144-space garage. There’s a bike rack that can accommodate eight bikes, but I’ve never seen more than four — including mine.
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.