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Environmental Legacy of 9/11

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I sometimes think of myself as an accidental environmentalist. On the occasion of the tenth anniversary of 9/11, I can draw a direct, if not perfectly straight, line to my efforts today to live an ecologically sustainable lifestyle.

Ten years ago, I lived in the New York area where I was serving in my first rabbinic pulpit. It's become cliché, but I remember exactly where I was on 9/11 when news of the first plane crashed. I heard it on the car radio on the way to work. Like so many others, I thought it must have been a small private plane that lost its way. When I got to the office, I asked my colleagues if they heard the news. They informed me that the second tower was just struck. Then we knew. America was under attack.

9/11 was a pivotal moment for me in my development as an environmentalist. As an asthmatic, I had always been concerned about air pollution and wanted more to be done to clean up our atmosphere. I remember buying a car in 1998. Gas mileage was a factor in my purchase, but at less than $1.00/gallon, it wasn't the most decisive factor. 9/11 changed my perspective. All of the hijackers and their superiors were from lands controlled by despotic regimes that were and remain among the world's largest suppliers of oil. In the case of Saudi Arabia, it was clear that the kingdom was using its vast oil wealth to bankroll a fundamentalist religious educational system that was sowing seeds of hatred, particularly for the West. It made perfect sense to me from a national security perspective that America's response to 9/11 had to include weaning our nation off our dependence of petroleum.

I believe that President Bush committed a historic error by failing to call upon Americans to sacrifice in service to our country. Such a call should have included a call not only to drive less but also a 21st century "Manhattan Project" to retool our nation to produce and use clean energy. That call never came. I remember speaking about this from the pulpit in the aftermath of 9/11. I called on congregants to drive less and to make gas mileage an important factor in their car purchases. In retrospect, these sermons had little if no effect. Months and years passed, and I still saw my synagogue parking lot full of "light trucks," i.e., SUV's and minivans. Occasionally, I would see a Prius, usually owned by an empty-nester couple who had no children to shuttle around. The reality of suburban family life, however, practically necessitates a large vehicle. It got to the point where by the time our third child was born, my wife and I caved in and traded in one of our two sedans for a minivan. In retrospect, my use of the pulpit to promote national security was not touching the soul in a profound religious way and was not promoting an action, noble and important as it is, that was practical for most people within the society in which we live.

As the last decade unfolded I found myself increasingly drawn to reduction of fossil fuel in the name of environmental stewardship. While I would have expected people's visceral anger from 9/11 to spur action, I found that the more positive call to safeguarding our planet to be a religious message to which people can better relate.

My perspective started to change when my children's multiple food allergies spurred my curiosity as to why so many children today have severe food allergies. I have no recollection of such an epidemic when I was a kid. I eventually found Michael Pollan's 2006 classic, "The Omnivore's Dilemma." While he doesn't specifically address food allergies, his reporting on the large scale industrialization of American agriculture brings a new dimension of clairvoyance to our nation's dependence on petroleum. When we factor in the petroleum used in producing fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides, transportation of goods, and food processing, it's not too much a stretch to say that we are essentially eating petroleum (no wonder we have food allergies!). In fact, he reports that it takes ten calories of petroleum energy to produce one calorie of beef energy. This formula is unsustainable on multiple levels. This book opened my eyes to the carbon footprint that industrial agriculture has produced.

Pollan's insight on a large level is a "downer" when factoring in the pervasiveness of Big Agriculture in our society. At the same time, his writing was transformative for me in helping me become more aware of where my food comes from. This renewed mindfulness of the earth has enriched my spiritual connection with the earth. As I have broadened my preaching and teaching in the last few years on Judaism and the environment, I have rediscovered the eternal truth that people are more open to change for positive reasons than negative. Finger-wagging admonishments to drive cars that get at least 35 miles per gallon fell on deaf ears. Much more effective have been calls to join and volunteer in a synagogue's Community Supported Agriculture co-op where there is positive community energy generated around fresh, local, organic food. In the process, the community's carbon footprint is greatly reduced.

On this tenth anniversary of 9/11, I still am looking for inspired leadership by elected officials to fundamentally change the way in which energy is produced. At the same time, I can't wait for them to inspire our community towards meaningful action. At first I thought 9/11 would spur our leaders to lead us toward energy independence. Maybe instead it will lead us toward a renewed sense of interdependence among people and between people and land. A renewed commitment to reclaiming our planet from the damage caused by humanity will restore our collective soul as a nation and bring honor to the victims of 9/11 that they did not die in vain.