Category Archives: Environmentalism

The Tar Sands Sit-In: Something is Happening!

photo credit: Milan Ilnyckyj

Have you been following the Tar Sands XL Pipeline Sit-In at the White House? This still-ongoing protest is being described as the biggest environmental civil disobedience action in a generation. It began on Saturday, Aug 21 and will continue until September 3. This action has already led to the arrest of almost 600 protesters to date, with crowds increasing every day.

Some background, courtesy of Friends of the Earth:

The Canadian oil and gas company TransCanada hopes to begin building a new oil pipeline that would trek close to 2,000 miles from Alberta, Canada to Texas. If constructed, the pipeline, known as the Keystone XL, will carry one of the world’s dirtiest fuels: tar sands oil. Along its route from Alberta to Texas, this pipeline could devastate ecosystems and pollute water sources, and would jeopardize public health.

Giant oil corporations invested in Canada’s tar sands are counting on the Keystone XL pipeline to make the expansion of oil extraction operations profitable: The pipeline would double imports of dirty tar sands oil into the United States.

Pollution from tar sands oil greatly eclipses that of conventional oil. During tar sands oil production alone, levels of carbon dioxide emissions are three times higher than those of conventional oil, due to more energy-intensive extraction and refining processes. The Keystone XL pipeline would carry 900,000 barrels of dirty tar sands oil into the United States daily, doubling our country’s reliance on it and resulting in climate-damaging emissions equal to adding more than six million new cars to U.S. roads.

Before TransCanada can begin construction, the company needs a presidential permit from the Obama administration (no Congressional approval is needed.) Alas, Secretary of State Clinton is already on record as being “inclined” to approve the project and Obama has been ominously silent on the issue. Hence, this incredible, inspiring mobilization in DC.

All honor to my friend and colleague, Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb of Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda – one of the leading rabbinical heroes of the environmental movement – who was among those arrested today (see above.) In a subsequent press release, he was quoted thus:

We must turn up the heat in a sustained effort against the scourge of climate change, which harms not just our land and water but people here and now, our human future and all earthly creation.

Please: if you aren’t able to join the action, please consider signing this petition or just contact the White House directly.

Fracking in Illinois? Pass SB 664!

Last January I addressed the serious ecological dangers of hydraulic fracturing (aka “fracking”) as a method for extracting natural gas from underground shale. At the end of the post, I noted with some alarm that a Louisiana energy company is currently seeking to lease hundreds of acres of farmland for fracking in Edwards County, IL.

Advocacy time. A important new piece of legislation is now being proposed by Faith in Place, an Illinois interfaith environmental coalition. Sponsored by Sen. Michael Frerichs, it is called SB 664 (or the “Fracturing Chemical Disclosure Act.”) and is modeled after a ruling by the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.

Bottom line, SB 664 would:

• Require companies extracting natural gas from shale in Illinois to disclose their chemical formula to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and to the public.

• Prohibit the injection of volatile organic BTEX compounds into groundwater.

• Outline safeguards for storing and disposing of wastewater.

In other words, SB 664 would require companies to disclose the chemicals they use in the drilling process. This way, if any polluted water or natural gas finds its way to a faucet, we will know exactly who put it there. And we can hold them accountable.

Faith in Place is looking for more legislative sponsors—and citizen support—to pass SB 664. If you live in Illinois, please click here to learn what you can do.

Fight Fracking in Illinois!

Those who care deeply for the welfare of the earth have been watching with alarm at the growth of hydraulic fracturing (aka “fracking”) throughout the US.

Fracking (yes, fracking) is a means of extracting natural gas that involves drilling deep into the earth, through the aquifer into hard shale deposits. During the process, a pressurized mixture of water and chemicals is injected into the rock, causing a kind of mini-earthquake. Natural gas is then released through the cracks, eventually making its way to the surface, where it is piped to compressor stations.

During the compression process, toxic chemicals are burned off into the air while the used chemical fluid is either sent away or stored in on-site pits where it evaporates. The rest of the chemical fluid, however, remains deep underground.

As you might guess, communities where fracking takes place have reported increasing incidents of water contamination, environmental degradation and serious health problems. State and federal agencies have received thousands of complaints from people all over the country whose lives, homes and communities have been literally poisoned by fracking operations.

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Celebrate and Take Action This Tu B’shvat!

It’s utterly frigid here in Chicago. As I lose feeling in my toes, however, the Jewish calendar tells me it’s Tu B’shvat: the Birthday of the Trees, and the first harbinger of Spring.

And so my Tu B’shvat offerings for you:

An email I wrote on behalf of Jewish Voice for Peace: this Tu B’shvat, please take action to save trees and uprooted communities in Israel/Palestine;

– From the Velveteen Rabbi: a lovely two-page Tu B’shvat Haggadah that covers all the bases quite gracefully. (Mazel Tov to the Velveteen Rabbi, who recently received her smicha and is now, as she puts it, “running and playing with the real rabbis.” Rabbi Rachel: don’t you know you’ve been a “real” rabbi to many of us for quite some time now…)

– For Tu B’shvat reading material, I encourage you to read this inspiring piece on “Spiritual Environmentalism” by Wangari Maathai, Kenyan tree-planter extraordinaire:

Human beings have a consciousness by which we can appreciate love, beauty, creativity, and innovation or mourn the lack thereof. To the extent that we can go beyond ourselves and ordinary biological instincts, we can experience what it means to be human and therefore different from other animals. We can appreciate the delicacy of dew or a flower in bloom, water as it runs over the pebbles or the majesty of an elephant, the fragility of the butterfly or a field of wheat or leaves blowing in the wind. Such aesthetic responses are valid in their own right, and as reactions to the natural world they can inspire in us a sense of wonder and beauty that in turn encourages a sense of the divine.

That consciousness acknowledges that while a certain tree, forest, or mountain itself may not be holy, the life-sustaining services it provides — the oxygen we breathe, the water we drink — are what make existence possible, and so deserve our respect and veneration. From this point of view, the environment becomes sacred, because to destroy what is essential to life is to destroy life itself.

I feel my toes warming up already…

“The Largest Art Project the World Has Ever Seen…”

Here’s a pretty awesome global statement arriving just ahead of UN climate talks in Cancun, Mexico: the first global art show on climate change has just opened, launching several huge art projects seen from space designed to highlight the hazards of global warming.

The massive scale of the project is fairly breathtaking. Organized by activist Bill McKibben and his 350 Earth environmental advocacy group, thousands of volunteers ranging from New Mexico to China, Egypt, India and Spain, have gathered for a week long photo-performance project – using human bodies as the main media.

Click here for some amazing pix of the projects. The picture up top was taken of the effort in Santa Fe, in which over one thousand residents held blue posters in a dry riverbed to depict what it would (should) look like if there was actually water flowing through it.

In his email to 350 Earth supporters, McKibben wrote:

We’re not going to solve the climate crisis with art. We know that–we’re deeply based in science and politics. But we’re not going to solve the climate crisis without a movement. And art is one of the ways that movements express themselves, one of the things that reach human beings in powerful and deep ways. So by next week, when the UN climate conference in Cancun opens, we’ll be focused on a new set of ideas and tactics, asking your help for all sorts of practical and political things.

But today–today just know you’re part of the largest art project the world has ever seen.

Thank God We’ve Still Got Pete Seeger

If you’re starting to feel cynical and worn out at what’s going on in the world, just remember how long Pete Seeger has been fighting the good fight for us all. Check out his latest protest song, “God’s Counting On Me, God’s Counting on You.” (Note among other things, his pointed reference to the BP oil disaster.)  Click below for the lyrics:

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My Favorite Rabbis: Everett Gendler

Most people probably don’t realize this, but rabbis need rabbis too.

And there are a lot of great rabbis out there. Over the years I’ve been personally inspired by many of them: remarkable, talented leaders whose work challenges me, drives me and constantly reminds me why I do what I do. So with this post I’m debuting a new series I’m calling “My Favorite Rabbis:” ongoing profiles of the contemporary rabbis whom I consider to be my own spiritual teachers.

I’ll start by introducing you to Rabbi Everett Gendler, a Conservative rabbi whose moral courage has provided Jewish leadership for some of the most important progressive causes of our day. Today, some fifty years since he became a rabbi, I believe he remains on the cutting edge of the issues that truly matter.

This MLK weekend, it is certainly appropriate to note that Rabbi Gendler was one of the first rabbis to become actively involved in the struggle for civil rights in America and played a critical role in involving American rabbinical leadership in the movement. It’s doubtful that American rabbis would have stepped up to this struggle nearly as much had it not been for Rabbi Gendler’s prophetic influence.

During the early and mid-1960s, Rabbi Gendler led groups of American rabbis to participate in numerous prayer vigils and protests throughout the South. Of course many know that the legendary Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marched with Dr. Martin Luther King in Selma in 1965. I imagine far fewer are aware that it was in fact Rabbi Gendler who persuaded Heschel to do so.

Heschel biographer Edward K. Kaplan writes:

Despite fears for his safety from his wife and the twelve year old Susannah, (Rabbi Heschel) agreed to join the march at the urging of Rabbi Everett Gendler, a pacifist and former student. Gendler had led a group of rabbis to Birmingham, Alabama to work for voting rights and remained in touch with the Reverend Andrew Young, King’s Executive Assistant at the SCLC. (From “Spiritual Radical: Abraham Joshua Heschel in America,” p. 222)

Rabbi Gendler was also instrumental in arranging Martin Luther King’s keynote address at the Rabbinical Assembly’s convention on March 25, 1968. This now-legendary speech took place at the Concord Resort hotel in New York’s Catskill Mountains just 10 days before King’s death. (That’s Rabbi Gendler to the left of Dr. King in the pic above).

Today, decades after King’s death, Rabbi Gendler remains an eloquent Jewish advocate for the path of nonviolence. His work has taken him across the world – most notably to India where he and his wife Mary teach the principles of nonviolence to Tibetan exiles.

I’m personally honored to serve with Rabbi Gendler on the Elder’s Council of the Shomer Shalom Institute for Jewish Nonviolence. In this picture, he leads a workshop at JRC in 2008. Shomer Shalom founder Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb (someone whom I may well be profiling in the future) is sitting next to him.

Rabbi Gendler has also been a long time advocate for Palestinian human rights – and his courageous stands have made it possible for new generations of rabbis to find their own voices on this painful issue. When Rabbi Brian Walt and I first began Ta’anit Tzedek and were looking for rabbis to join our campaign to protest the blockade of Gaza, we immediately turned to Rabbi Gendler, who joined our effort without hesitation. It is difficult to describe how much it means to know there are rabbis out there like Everett, someone who has been putting himself on the line for so long, and upon whom we always know we can rely for guidance and support.

Rabbi Gendler was also one of the first Jewish leaders to embrace environmentalism and vegetarianism long before they became fashionable. As the rabbi of a green synagogue myself, I recognize a tremendous debt to Everett, who more than anyone helped to put environmental issues on the radar screen of the Jewish community.

From a 2008 article in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal:

On a ferociously cold evening in November 1978, Rabbi Everett Gendler climbed atop the icy roof of Temple Emanuel in Lowell, Mass., and installed solar panels to fuel the synagogue’s ner tamid (eternal light)…

Gendler’s conversion of that eternal light marks the first known action to green a synagogue, making it more spiritually and ecologically sustainable, and Gendler himself, now Temple Emanuel’s rabbi emeritus, has been hailed as the father of Jewish environmentalism.

There so much more to say about Everett and his work. I suppose the most essential thing I can say about him is that he was and remains a spiritual maverick. His work remains as relevant and courageous as ever.

As we honor Dr. King this weekend, it’s critically important to honor those who continue his to walk his path in our own day. For me and so many others, Rabbi Everett Gendler is the one who teaches us how to walk that walk.