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Plant a Tree, Save a Car

by Rob Eshman

January 16, 2003 | 7:00 pm

When I was a kid in Hebrew school, all we did to celebrate Tu B'Shevat was send some money to Israel to plant a tree.

Not unimportant, but hardly a High Holiday.

These days, Tu B'Shevat, which begins on sundown Friday, is a much, much bigger deal. Jewish environmentalists have claimed the holiday as their own, and each year program a nonstop series of events, teach-ins, ceremonies and, of course, tree plantings to drive home the message that being blue and white also means being green.

In this spirit, I celebrated Tu B'Shevat in two ways so far: First, I planted oak saplings with my children last Sunday at Camp JCA Shalom's Tu B'Shevat Festival in Malibu.

Then, I called Laurie David.

David, along with columnist Ariana Huffington, raised the money to produce a series of national television commercials attacking the American addiction to the SUV. Spoofing the Bush administration's public service spots linking drug use to the financing of overseas terror networks, The Detroit Project's commercials draw a much more direct connection between the gas-guzzling suburban SUV, Arab oil and terror. "Oil money supports some terrible things," reads the tagline on one ad. "What kind of mileage does your SUV get?"

David, a board member of the Natural Resource Defense Council, told me she has long been an environmental activist. Sept. 11, 2001, she realized, provided some of the best evidence yet for a saner energy policy. "I felt, what should the administration ask of us other than to shop?" she said. "Then the light bulb went off: We have to raise emission standards and stop sending trillions of dollars to unstable governments around the world."

David convinced her friend, Huffington, to give up the Lincoln Navigator (11 mpg) parked in her driveway. (David's husband, "Seinfeld" co-creator Larry David, already drove a Toyota Prius gas-electric hybrid on his HBO series, "Curb Your Enthusiasm," and in his off-screen life -- 48 mpg).

Huffington wrote a column asking readers to contribute to a national anti-SUV ad campaign, and a flood of responses later, the ads, and a provocative Web site, www.thedetroitproject.com , appeared.

Their wittiness, and the high profile of their creators, have created a sensation, taking the message of energy efficiency out of a Tom Friedman column and into the heartland. The aim is not just to raise awareness, David said, but to convince Detroit, Congress and the president that real security means more fuel-efficient vehicles.

But does the president need convincing? There's a passage in former Bush speechwriter David Frum's new book, "The Right Man: The Surprise Presidency of George Bush" (Random House) in which he recounts a run-in with his boss:

"I once made the mistake of suggesting to Bush that he use the phrase 'cheap energy' to describe the aims of his energy policy," Frum writes.

"'Cheap energy,' he answered, 'was how we'd got into this mess. Every year, from the early 1970s until the mid 1990s, American cars burned less and less oil per mile traveled. Then in about 1995, that progress stopped. Why?' He answered his own question. 'Because of the gas-guzzling SUV. And what had made the SUV craze possible?'"

"This time I answered, 'Um, cheap energy?'"

"He nodded at me. 'Dismissed.'"

Frum was chastened, but I am confused, and so was David when I read her the passage. "There's a disconnect, then," she said, between the man whose analysis of the problem is the same as her own, but whose solutions -- drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), siding with the auto industry against higher fuel-efficiency standards -- seem to defy logic. Then again, during his White House years, President Bill Clinton, with none of Bush's oil industry connections, didn't raise fuel-efficiency standards either.

In the holiday spirit, I asked David, a Jew from Long Island, why The Detroit Project should be a Jewish one as well. "If you're Jewish and you drive an SUV, you need to think about what you're doing," she said. "If you care about Israel, you have to see how Middle East oil money goes to suicide bombers and terrorist organizations."

Unconvinced? See reports this week that Saudi money secretly financed a series of anti-Israel ads in the United States.

As I've written before, Jewish groups such as American Jewish Congress and the Coalition for the Environment and Jewish Life have already taken up the cause. But on Tu B'Shevat, it bears repeating that, while the problems facing the environment are vast, here is one we can each individually choose to address.

First, we can get rid of the gas-guzzlers in our garages (some SUVs get decent mileage, some sedans get much worse -- you know who you are).

Secondly, we can help guide the debate over the environment away from special-interest politics and back to a bipartisan national concern. Remember, Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency and signed into law the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act and Endangered Species Act.

And the ANWR? A creation of Dwight Eisenhower.

So far, Bush's record on the environment does credit to neither of these men.

Here is this holiday, Tu B'Shevat, which comes once a year to teach us that protecting the environment is not the charge God gave to Democrats, activists, Republicans or environmentalists, but to us all.

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