As some of you know, Jewish tradition prescribes that we recite at least 100 blessings a day — blessings that, in their essence, are really opportunities for mindfulness. There is a blessing, for example, for the experience of smelling fragrant trees or shrubs: “borei etzei v’samim — Boundless are You, the Ever Present One, who creates fragrant trees”); on seeing the wonders of nature such as high mountains, vast deserts, shooting stars, lightning, and the sunrise: “oseh ma’aseh vereshit — Blessings upon you, Holy Source, Who performs the work of creation”; even on seeing people of unusual appearance: “m’shaneh habriot: Blessed are You, who varies your creatures.”
When we pause to offer a blessing, our awareness is heightened: We become aware of the object of our gratitude or our wonder, as well as the Ultimate Source from which that object came.
So important is offering a blessing for what we enjoy that one teaching in the Talmud declares that one who enjoys something in this world but does not utter a blessing is likened to a thief, for he or she has taken something, in a sense, that was given without offering something — our gratitude — back.
There is so much in our world we take for granted every day. Similarly, every day, we read or hear reports about how many of the species of animals, fish, and birds are disappearing or being threatened by the changes happening in our environment. We read that glaciers are receding, that oceans are rising, that whole islands are disappearing. We know these changes, have — to a large extent — been brought about through human actions, through the lifestyle choices we have made and continue to make as individuals and as societies.
True, many of us have already begun to make some changes in our lifestyles. We’ve begun changing light bulbs, using reusable bags and travel mugs; we’ve begun composting our food waste and recycling our plastic bottles and used paper products. But many of us have also come to realize these small changes are not enough.
In an article titled “The Carbon Neutral Individual,” published by Vanderbilt University Law School, authors Michael P. Vandenbergh and Anne C. Steinemann write that although specific estimates vary, many climate scientists and policymakers agree that in order to avoid catastrophic climate change, we must level off our carbon dioxide emissions over the next decade and reduce carbon emissions by 60 to 80 percent by the year 2050. That is 41 years from now — one generation away.
The authors of this article argue that policymakers and regulators need to focus not only on factories and other industrial sources of emissions, but also on individuals. That’s because individuals’ behaviors contribute roughly one-third of the carbon dioxide emissions in the United States. (You can read the article at http://www.carbonsalon.net.)
It is possible that these projections are not accurate, and that catastrophic climate change will not happen. If so, no major change in our individual behavior is necessary. But if they are accurate and we don’t act now and over the next 40 years, we will have lost the opportunity.
Statistics such as these can be overwhelming and depressing and can lead to paralysis and inaction. Neither of these responses are viable Jewish options, however. As Rabbi Tarfon said more than 2,000 years ago: “It is not upon you to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.”
So what can we do? What difference can we possibly make?
Knowing that any one of us alone cannot fix the problems of global warming and climate disruption — but that by working together, we can make a difference — a small group of us created a project which we hope will help us make changes in our lives and our behaviors that are necessary for this world to continue well into the future. It is called the Jewish Climate Challenge, and it is a joint project of Rodef Tzedek and CarbonSalon. Although it’s based here in the greater Seattle area, we hope it will eventually spread beyond Seattle as well as beyond the Jewish community.
Based on the projections cited earlier, the Jewish Climate Challenge is challenging people to reduce their carbon emissions by at least 2 percent in the next and subsequent years. We are asking people to make a covenant — a sacred pledge — with one another, with God, and with the earth, to reduce their impact on the earth. To do this, participants are asked to track the amount of energy that they use to drive, to fly, and to run their households. And, over time, to reduce that amount. Did you know, for example, that if you leave your car at home one day each week for a year, you avoid putting 1240 pounds of CO2 into the atmosphere? Or if you turn your thermostat down by one degree during the winter months, you save 360 pounds a year? If you caulk and weatherstrip your doors and windows you save 1,700 pounds. Cutting out one cross-country airplane trip saves 10,400 pounds. Now imagine how much CO2 we could avoid putting into our atmosphere if a significant percentage of the 40,000-plus Jews who live in the Greater Seattle area made similar changes! You see, those of us involved in this project really believe that by working together, supporting, challenging, and yes, lovingly and gently holding one another accountable, we as a community can really make a difference. We may not be able to solve the problem entirely, but we can’t avoid at least trying.
We’re not asking people to go to extremes to make these changes. There are no environmental police who will be monitoring what you do or don’t do. This is not about serious deprivation or self-flagellation. We Jews don’t believe in that! But we do believe in taking care of this precious earth, which, as our tradition teaches, was entrusted into humans’ care.
For more information and to accept the challenge, visit http://www.thejewishclimatechallenge.org.