You may wonder how Tu B’Shevat ties Jewish organizations, carbon trading, Israel and Bernie Madoff together. Allow me to explain.
Evaporated Madoff funds have created a quandary for Jewish organizations: Their communities value their services more than their money, but without the money, they’re challenged to provide the services. The talent and infrastructures didn’t evaporate, nor did their abilities to organize and care for people. But, how can anyone get anything done without money?
It’s as if we live in parallel universes — one made of money, one made of value. Humans have struggled for millennia to create value systems as compelling as money. It’s not involved in most of Maslow’s hierarchy — food, shelter, security, love, community. Chief Sealth, surrendering his tribe’s lands to white settlers founding Seattle, warned: “You may divide and sell all the land, but what will you do when you have nothing left to eat but your money?”
Israelites explored it in the Torah: “ba’al tashchit” — “do not destroy,” says Deuteronomy 20:19–20, as it forbids cutting down fruit trees, or diverting water from them during a wartime siege. Talmudic rabbis expanded on this, to cover any damage done with destructive intent — wasting lamp oil, tearing clothing, and thereby laid the foundation for both Tu B’Shevat, and Jewish environmentalism.
This Jewish Arbor Day reminds us again of the compelling value system that supports our lives on this planet. If you woke up in the morning and couldn’t breathe, how much would you pay for air? And, more important, what does “air” cost?
Oxygen production is just one of 25 “ecosystem services” identified by a new group of economists working to answer those questions. Trees absorb CO2, contribute evaporation and heat sinks to attract rainfall, retain and filter water, anchor soil and provide habitat. These ecological economists are valuing what nature provides for “free,” based upon what these “services” would cost to replace. So far, the Gund Institute’s Bob Costanza and his colleagues estimate the cost at $30 trillion a year, more than the combined GDP of every country on Earth.
Across the world in Israel, Jews have been re-foresting ever since the first tree planting ceremony at Moshavah Yisud Hama’alah in 1884. Twenty-four years later, the teachers’ union established Tu B’Shevat as Israel’s (and world Jewry’s) official tree-planting holiday. The Jewish National Fund became the official re-forestation agency after 1948, and helped to make Israel the world’s only country that finished the 20th century with more tree cover than at the beginning.
Now, the JNF is working to replace more than a million trees destroyed or damaged in northern Israel by Hezbollah rockets during the 2006 Lebanon war. It estimates the cost at $40 million. While standard economists value trees in monetary terms — how much they cost to maintain, and transform into saleable products, ecological economists are re-valuing them in terms of ecological benefits, such as food and habitat provision, and reduction of greenhouse gases, which can be sold on markets like the Chicago Climate Exchange, or bought through carbon offset agencies such as Carbonfund.org and TerraPass, to mitigate carbon output by industry, airline flights, or your own vehicle trips.
While JNF is valuing the future (non-monetary), it could also be valuing these new, carbon-hungry saplings in terms of their offset potential, sales of which could offset reforestation costs. Other values — rainfall attraction, erosion control, etc., are yet to be monetized. But as you plant your Tu B’Shevat trees this Trees’ New Year, and celebrate by eating your figs, dates, carob and almonds, think of how to bring the parallel universes together, so someday, we don’t need money to set our value.