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Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb

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14 By 14: A Biblical Emissions Mandate: 14 (Percent Reduction) By (20)14

Posted: 02/ 7/2012 2:50 pm

"Eighty by 50" has been a recent refrain in secular environmental circles -- we need an 80 percent reduction in emissions, by 2050, in order to stave off the worst of the scientifically-predicted devastation caused by our changing the climate. To get there requires bold action, now. Some have spoken of "20 by 20," where we work hard now to ensure that the first fifth (a 20 percent reduction in emissions) comes soon, this decade, by 2020.

Now, a new one for you, at once more aggressive and more spiritual: "14 by 14," or "a seventh by the seventh."

This week, Jewish leaders from across the communal spectrum gather to announce a sweeping new covenant, containing within it an ambitious goal. It's the Jewish Environment and Energy Imperative, the centerpiece of the Jewish Energy Covenant Campaign, spearheaded by the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (got all that?). None make great acronyms, but all contain vital, needed, planet-sustaining notions.

Communal agency heads, and leading rabbis from Orthodox to Renewal, Conservative to Reform to Reconstructionist, have all signed on to this document with sweeping implications: broad goals of significantly lowering greenhouse-gas emissions, engendering energy security, bringing our organizations and our flocks along for the ride, and reducing the Jewish community's energy consumption 14 percent by 2014.

What's special about 14? 14 percent is one-seventh; and '14 inaugurates the sabbatical or 'seventh' year.

During the Gregorian year 2014, we'll enter the Hebrew year 5775 -- which is a sabbatical year. Every seven years, says the Bible, we should rest completely from our labors (all of us, not just the 1 percent who can afford leisure: Occupy Leviticus 25!). And we should let our workers rest from their labors; and the Earth should be allowed to rest, too. Social, spiritual and ecological sustainability intertwine.

In fact, the key legal consequence of the sabbatical year, still observed by some more traditional Jews, is the prohibition on formal agriculture -- we eat what the land grows by itself, but let the land lie fallow and enjoy its own "Shabbat." As a form of crop rotation and non-chemical nitrogen replenishment -- plus the limits on growth and density it unintentionally enforces by limiting population to the carrying capacity of the wild land - the sabbatical year is antiquity's most sustainable practice. In other words: it's the sustainable seventh.

Today we find ourselves needing a quick sustainability pick-me-up -- we have to make up for decades of inaction, of lost time, toward stabilizing the climate. To keep our heads buried in the sand is no longer a moral or religious option; the scientific consensus is too overwhelming, and the consequences of further foot-dragging or obfuscating too dreadful, to allow anything but a doubled-down commitment to end this uncontrolled science experiment we're conducting on the entire biosphere. Just a trickle (as little as one percent) of the world's economy, cleverly redirected, could help us out of this pickle. But every year that we wait, the challenge grows, and the odds of success drop.

Enter "the sustainable seventh," or '14 by 14.' Mathematically, one-seventh equals .142857, or rounded down, 14 percent. And Hebraically, 'sabbatical' (which starts in '14) is shvi'it, literally 'seventh'. Thus our clarion call: a 14 percent (emissions reduction) by 2014 (the start of the next sabbatical year).

It's scriptural, which speaks to the hearts and backgrounds of six-sevenths of America, and nearly half the world.

It's quick and ambitious enough, at nearly 5 percent a year for the first three years, to actually make a difference. (Climate activist Bill McKibben reminds us that the laws of physics don't negotiate, and action more rapid than anything now on the political table is required.)

It's achievable -- energy efficiency and readily available technologies could get us to 14 percent reductions and beyond, if we simply made that a goal of our economy, society and polity.

And it's catchy: "14 by 14."

Soon, this Jewish climate covenant will be open to individual signatories, as well as communal leaders. I hope that we'll all sign it, and spread the word -- and will take this challenge and opportunity as seriously as possible.

Can we each get our families, our workplaces and schools, our congregations, our neighborhoods and cities and states and nations, to commit to something as audacious and necessary and salvific as "14 by 14?" Our human and non-human neighbors on the brink, our own descendants, and our Maker eagerly await our answer.

The Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life website says of the covenant signing ceremony this week, "Challenge: Commit to reducing your energy consumption." Make this challenge yours, ambitiously and sacredly. Occupy Sabbatical. The Sustainable Seventh. We have no choice: "14 by 14."