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The Environment

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What Is the Environment?

The environment isn’t a thing or a place. It is the world we live in. It includes the city as well as the countryside; the air we breathe indoors and outdoors, humans and all animals. As the human population increases and we develop more advanced technologies, our impact on the natural world continues to increase as well.

Today, the United States produces over 25% of the world’s carbon emissions, even though it is only 4% of the world’s population

Polluted Air and Water

  • In the U.S., 40% of the rivers, lakes and coastal waters are so contaminated that they are unfit for humans to fish in, swim in, or drink.
  • The generation of electricity is the greatest source of air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. Electricity-producing power plants contribute more than one-third of all carbon dioxide emissions and two-thirds of all sulfur emissions
  • An excess of carbon produced by the burning of oil and coal has contributed to climate change. Each of the last 13 years (1997-2009) was one of the 14 warmest on record.
  • The worst oil spill in history occurred in the summer of 2010, with 4.9 million barrels (205.8 million gallons) of oil pumped into the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon accident. That much oil could enable a car to take 125,000 trips around the earth.

Species Extinction

  • According to the International Union for Conservation of nature, nearly 17,000 plant and animal species are known to be threatened with extinction, while over 800 have disappeared in the past 500 years.
  • The Endangered Species Act (ESA), passed in 1973, has helped to save many species from extinction, including the bald eagle, the lady slipper orchid and the humpback whale. However, seven domestic species have gone extinct since the bill was passed.
  • Most biologists agree that the leading cause of species loss today is habitat destruction and degradation.

Environmental Injustice

Environmental problems tend to disproportionately impact the poor and minorities.

  • The poor and people of color are more likely to live in America’s most polluted neighborhoods. Poor communities are routinely selected to host facilities with negative environmental impacts, such as landfills, dirty factories, and truck depots.
  • Recent studies have shown that children of color who live in poor areas are nearly nine times more likely than economically advantaged children to be exposed to lead levels so high they can cause severe learning disabilities as well as other neurological disorders.
  • The World Bank estimates that the developing world will suffer about 80% of the damage from climate change. Many developing countries are more reliant on agriculture and do not have the funds for building projects that might protect them from rising water levels.

Energy

The rising costs of gas prices, problems associated with oil-producing countries and climate change has turned attention toward the sources of energy in the United States. The U.S. currently consumes 25% of the world’s energy. As other economies, most notably China and India, continue to grow, global energy needs are expected to grow quickly.

  • More than 75% of total world energy consumption is through the use of fossil fuels, including oil, gas and coal. Renewable energy, including solar, geothermal, hydropower, and wind power, currently supplies only 7 percent of the world’s energy supply.
  • Conservation and efficiency are considered two of the least expensive and simplest sources of energy. Conservation refers to modifying your behavior to use less energy- driving less or using less air conditioning in the summer. Efficiency refers to using less energy to do what you currently are doing, such as a car that uses less gas to get you where you need to go, or a light bulb that uses less electricity to light up a room.
  • Experts say that a global effort to boost efficiency with existing technologies could have “spectacular results,” eliminating more than 20% of world energy demand by 2020. Efficiency guru Amory Lovins argues that today’s best techniques could save the U.S. half our oil and gas and three-fourths of our electricity.

Take Action

Service/ Avodah (Avodah in Hebrew)

Many of us have had the frustrating experience of participating in a beach or park clean up, only to return several days later to find just as much trash as before. In planning environmental service projects, look for work that could have a long-lasting effect. Also, always be sure to work with a community-based organization that has expertise in this area to make sure your time and energy is spent beneficially for both you and the environment.

  • Greening your JCC or Synagogue
  • Planting trees
  • Testing water and/or soil for research purposes
  • Removal of non-native plant species
  • Set up a composting system in your home or school
  • Removing Household Hazardous Waste projects (epa.gov)

Philanthropy/ Tzedakah (Tzedakah in Hebrew)

  • Hazon.org – raise money for environmental causes in the U.S. and Israel while participating in a fun 2-4 day Jewish Environmental Bike Ride. There are rides in New York, California and Israel.
  • Ecophones.com - environmental recycling fundraiser pays up to $350 per item for cell phones, ink jet cartridges, laptop computers, iPods, digital cameras and digital video cameras

Advocacy/ Tzedek (Tzedek in Hebrew)

In the 1970s the Environmental Protection Agency was created and the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act were all passed. Since then, national and international efforts towards environmental protection have proven to be more difficult and often require the mobilization of citizens to move forward. The following organizations are a sample of the many agencies that are working towards a healthier and greener planet:

  • Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life works to bring Jews around the country together to work toward a better future on the common ground of a healthy environment, green jobs, and a secure energy future through action and education. It is also a member of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment (www.nrpe.org)
  • Environmental Defense Fund combines science, economics, and law to find economically sustainable solutions to environmental problems
  • National Wildlife Federation unites individuals, organizations, businesses and government to protect nature and wildlife.
  • Natural Resources Defense Council protects the environment and human health through advocacy, litigation, research and education
  • Nature Conservancy preserves habitats and species by buying the lands and waters they need to survive
  • The Sierra Club promotes environmental conservation by influencing public policy- legislative, administrative, legal and electoral
  • World Wildlife Fund seeks to reverse degradation of the environment by promoting biodiversity and sustainability, while minimizing pollution and consumption

Jewish Perspectives

  • “Think upon this and do not corrupt and destroy my world, for if you destroy it, there is no one to restore it after you.” –Kohelet Rabbah
  • Although humanity has the ability to utilize and transform nature to meet our needs, this privilege is not absolute. Judaism reminds us that “the earth is the Lord’s” (psalm 24:1)
  • The weekly routine of Shabbat testifies to God’s ultimate dominion over the earth. We spend an entire week trying to master the world and make it better than we found it. In the process we may become aggressive and greedy, exhibiting indifference to the delicate ecological balance of nature. The commandment to set aside one day of the week during which we live in harmony with God’s world instead of trying to bend it to suit our comfort, profit or whims, is a way to help us realign our priorities with our values.
  • The Shmita, or sabbatical year, is a “Shabbat for the land.” It is a time for agriculture to take its natural course, with no planting or harvesting done. In commenting on this concept, The Sefer ha Chinuch (13th century) says, “The purpose of this commandment is God’s desire that his people know that everything is his; and in the end, everything returns to God, for the earth is God’s.’
  • Jewish tradition teaches us that the most precious things in life are not made by people, but by God. The same technology that might make life easier or more enjoyable can also imprison us, allowing us to lose sight of that which is ultimately of value.

Blessing the natural world

The practice of reciting blessings demonstrates Judaism’s appreciation of the natural world. Judaism includes blessings for seeing:

  • Lightning, mountains, or a sunrise (oseh ma’aseh v’reshit- who makes the works of creation),
  • Trees blooming for the first time (shelo hasair b’olamo kloom- that His world is not lacking anything),
  • The ocean (she-asah et-ha-yam ha-gadol- who created the great sea),
  • Most of us do not have the scientific knowledge to understand just how extensively we are harming our environment nor do we possess the ability to rectify these situations by ourselves. However, if we take seriously the Jewish perspective that the environment is a precious and sacred commodity, then we can and should educate ourselves and our elected representatives about the need for public policies that will assure future generations a livable earth.
  • Or a rainbow (zocher ha-brit v’ne’eman b’vrito v’kayam b’ma’amaro- who remembers the covenant and is faithful to His covenant and who keeps his word).

When we recite such blessings, we are in essence testifying to the greatness of the creative force behind the natural world.

Bal Tashchit - the commandment to not destroy

Judaism forbids the needless destruction of things. Originally applied to the ethics of warfare, it has developed into a general ethic of how to relate to property in general.

Bal Tashchit applies even during times of war. According to Deuteronomy 20, when a city is under siege, soldiers may not cut down fruit trees.

Maimonides argues that it is also forbidden to: break vessels, tear clothes, demolish a building, stop up a fountain or waste food.