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Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb

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Tar Sands and the Jewish Month of Change

Posted: 08/31/11 05:40 PM ET

As we parted ways in the late 1980s, my high school friends thought to set up a betting pool -- when would Fred first get arrested in some protest? To everyone's surprise, it took until a decade ago, at the dawn of the Bush Administration's tragic inaction on climate change and short-sighted desire to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, with my colleagues from Religious Witness for the Earth.

Later today, the RWE banner again unfurls in Washington, and I will risk arrest for only a second time -- again with a huge contingent of faith leaders, again for the planet and all its inhabitants.

This time, it's over the destructive Keystone XL Pipeline project, slated to carry toxic "bitumen" (a low grade of oil extracted out of tarry earth) from the Tar Sands region of Alberta Canada, south across the great plains and the vital Ogallala aquifer, all the way to the Gulf Coast near Houston.

Yes, the mining of the bitumen devastates the boreal forest (a key carbon sink and important ecosystem), along with the First Nations people who live in the Tar Sands region. Yes, this pipeline is likely to spill on its route (its smaller predecessor pipeline has spilled almost monthly in its first year), with profound impacts. Yes, our group will be chanting "heal the planet ... stop the pipeline."

Oil production and transport is not my field; faith is. Though I'm no fan of the proposed pipeline, my own personal witness is against the larger scourge of climate change -- and the sad reality that most of us are complicit in it, aware of the damage we're doing yet unwilling to make major changes in our lifestyle. I risk arrest to rededicate myself to doing the right thing, and hopefully to help motivate others to do more for tikkun olam (repairing the world), as well.

In political terms, the narrow issue is tricky: geopolitically, Canadian oil beats that which we still import from the Middle East in vast quantities. But from a sustainability standpoint, the entire status quo is untenable, un-sacred. The Keystone XL Pipeline will only exacerbate matters, since getting usable oil out of bitumen is more than three times more carbon-intensive than the standard "drill, baby, drill" stuff. Literally tons of earth must be moved and processed to get just one barrel of oil from the tar sands.

Maybe we'll stop the pipeline. As you can see at TarSandsAction.org, the effort is mammoth. And it's promising, since the decision lies solely with this Administration (thus our chant across from the White House will include "keep your promise"). I pray that we succeed: NASA climatologist James Hansen, who plans to join the faith contingent today, claims that the XL Keystone's steady flow of tar sands oil would be all but "game over" for efforts to curb climate change before catastrophic ill effects begin. You can help by signing the petition -- please do.

And perhaps, despite our best efforts to hold President Obama to his pledges to turn around the juggernaut of climate change on his watch, we won't succeed. Maybe the pipeline will be built over the uniform objection of the environmental community. But even if so, this enormous wave of environmental civil disobedience will still have upped the ante, establishing that inaction too carries a price, and demonstrating the resolve of those who actually oppose the decimation of our global life support system.

That's why I'll be standing in front of the White House with Sister Marie Dennis of the Maryknoll Office on Global Concerns, who says, "I'm risking arrest because I owe it to my children and grandchildren." That's why I'm following Lawrence MacDonald (not the only member of Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church, Va., arrested earlier this week), who like me holds that "the details of the Tar Sands and the XL Pipeline matter less than the urgent need to shift to a post-carbon energy future. The Tar Sands XL Pipeline sit-ins at the White House this month are an opportunity to finally begin to match my knowledge about climate change with action."

And that's why I urge everyone to join the effort -- stopping this pipeline, sure, but more so our entire approach to energy, our insatiable appetite for that which destroys at it powers. (As a friend from synagogue who used to be in the oil industry notes, best of all for the environment "was the recent deal the Obama Administration made to increase vehicle mileage standards; that will do more long term to help the planet than [stopping] all the tar sands projects put together. We need more of that..." Amen.)

It's fitting that our party of more than 40 faith leaders (along with scores more risking arrest today) will, if all goes well, be released late this afternoon or early this evening. With sundown tonight we enter Rosh Hodesh Elul, the Jewish festival celebrating the arrival of the penitential month. Elul readies us for the season of tshuvah -- of repentance, turning, change -- that follows. Tonight marks one month to go until Rosh Hashanah, 40 days until Yom Kippur.

Change, repentance, is needed all around. Where we have over-consumed, let us scale back. Where we have ignored the cries of Creation, let us now heed them. Where we have failed to "love our neighbor as ourselves," including our impoverished global neighbors who live near sea level with no defense against rising oceans and increased storms, let us realign our actions with this excellent biblical advice. Where we have chewed through the planet's resources and absorptive capacity with no regard for the future, let us now take seriously our responsibility to be stewards of Creation l'dor vador, from generation to generation. Only by seriously starting our sustainability efforts will we inscribe others into the Book of Life -- and only then will be deserve to be written into that good book ourselves.

Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb is a Co-Chair of Religious Witness for the Earth. He is also Rabbi of Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda, Md.; chair of Greater Washington Interfaith Power and Light; and on the Governance Committee of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life. Like Sister Marie, he is doing this for Sara and Gili, ages 6 and 2, and all who may come after them.