Op-Ed: Seven Principles to help heal the planet

PHILADELPHIA (JTA) — As the U.S. Senate is taking up the issue of climate policy, the world’s governments are trying to shape international policy at a crucial conference starting this week in Copenhagen. The governments will take vigorous action only if the grass-roots public insists on serious change.

Chanukah, the festival of energy conservation, will overlap the Copenhagen conference. It is a period when we recall that one day’s oil met eight days’ needs; when we honor grass-roots action that transformed society despite elephantine top-down power centers; when we celebrate "Not by might, not by power, but by the Spirit, Breath of Life."

We encourage you to take action — before, during and after Chanukah — rooted in the following Seven Principles that should underlie Jewish and interfaith efforts to shape U.S. and world policy on healing the climate crisis.

1. Our planet has always been a living demonstration that “YHWH Echad” (“the Breathing Spirit of the universe is One”) — but the climate crisis invites us into the clearest awareness in all human history of that truth. The planet is in this as One; policy must reflect that. (Underlying Jewish
principle: the Sh’ma, especially the traditional second paragraph on rain and crops, etc.)

2. The cost of spewing carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere must be greatly increased, by taxes and/or “cap & trade” that require payment from the carbon producers according to the damage they are causing. (Underlying Jewish principle: Exodus 21: “If a bull gores a man or a woman to death, the bull must be stoned to death, and its meat must not be eaten. But the owner of the bull will not be held responsible. If, however, the bull has had the habit of goring and the owner has been warned but has not kept it penned up and it kills a man or woman, the bull must be stoned and the owner also must be put to death. However, if payment is demanded of him, he may redeem his life by paying whatever is demanded.)

3. The pool of money this brings in must be used to prevent damage to the poor and middle class through higher costs of fuel and energy. The climate healing fund should be used in rebates, more for the poorer people, etc. (Underlying Jewish principles: tithing, gleaning and obligatory tzedakah to
assist the poor, orphans, widows, the landless)

4. Big Coal or Big Oil have great political power, but their power must be limited so they cannot distort needed policy in order to expand their own power and profits. Important example, the EPA must continue to have power to enforce carbon dioxide limits upon coal-burning power plants. (Underlying Jewish principle: resistance to top-down unaccountable powers Pharaoh, Antiochus, Rome)

5. Inside the United States, industries and regions that are specially endangered by climate/energy reform (e.g. coal mining, oil drilling, autos) must be given special help for retraining in green jobs. (Underlying Jewish principle: Maimonides’ eighth and highest approach to tzedakah: Help the poor to end their own poverty by providing capital, etc.: a fishing rod, not just a fish.)

6. Outside the United States, poor nations must be given major help by the rich for two purposes: pursuing economic development through non-fossil pathways, and meeting urgent crises already swamping/flooding/scorching them. (Underlying Jewish principles: Again, Maimonides eighth and highest approach to tzedakah: Help the poor to end their own poverty by providing capital, etc.: a fishing rod, not just a fish.)

7. Public policy must start encouraging what we usually think of as “personal” choices for non-climate-destroying practices: Much more restful and reflective time for family and neighborhood, much less “production/consumption” time. Frugality in energy use, eating less meat. Simplicity in life-path. More money for learning, arts, etc.; less for making Things. Taxes, subsidies, wages/hours laws, etc., are all ways of encouraging these directions. (Underlying Jewish principle: Shabbat, traditionally an earth-healing as well as human-healing practice, was a communal commitment, not just individual choice.)

Of these principles, we suggest the following yardstick for measuring proposed U.S. policies: Do they promote American energy independence and security, and the healing of our planet by: Immediately ending all governmental subsidies to the production of oil and coal? Radically and
swiftly reducing the burning of oil and coal from all sources, foreign and domestic? Simultaneously using all possible measures to build an energy base for the American economy on solar, wind and other sources of waste-free, sustainable  energy and on urgent steps for energy conservation? Making “green jobs” and the creation of a green infrastructure the central focus of transition to a new American economy? Giving aid to poor nations to pursue a non-fossil path for economic and social development?

If the Jewish community and other American faith communities undertake this effort,  not only Chanukah, which means "dedication," but our lives as a whole can become a practice of Rededication to the One.

(Rabbi Arthur Waskow is the director of
The Shalom Center, as well as the author or editor of many books on Jewish practice, eco-Judaism and U.S. public policy.)

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