It Can’t Start With A Lightbulb

May 12, 2007

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy

            This coming Sunday, GoPTY our synagogue youth group will start selling light bulbs as a fund raiser. The proceeds of the sale will help our teens underwrite the program for the Fall conclave of NFTY Southern, which we will be hosting. So, for that reason alone I encourage you to purchase these light bulbs.

Of course GoPTY is not the first youth group to sell light bulbs nor will they be the last, but these light bulbs are different. They not only illuminate, they reflect Jewish values and a contemporary moral commitment. It all started when our teens returned from the NFTY National Convention. Mica, my daughter, comes home and informs us that we need to replace all of our light bulbs with the new “compact fluorescent bulbs,” since they not only last longer, but they use less energy, thus saving money in the long run on electric bills and more importantly contribute to preventing global warming. Now, I love my daughter and she is often politically conscious, but environmentalism was something new for her.

Then along comes Sally Bronston, another one of our super-charged committed teens, who also attended the same convention. She advocated for a religious school wide awareness program on saving energy, which we may do in the Fall, but have run out of time in this school year. So for right now, the teens are selling light bulbs, which is part of a national project by NFTY to not only sell bulbs, but raise awareness. My friends, our youth are at the vanguard of a major social movement. What the civil rights movement was to the youth of the 50’s and 60’s, what the anti-war movement was to the generation of the 60’s and 70’s, where in each case it was the youth who took the lead to bring about major social change in our society, the cause of environmentalism and climate change is the issue for our youth in our time. And the solution can all start with a light bulb.

Of course I am not so naïve as to believe this is an uncomplicated non-partisan issue. Oprah is encouraging these bulbs on her program, so of course Rush Limbaugh is mocking it on his airwaves. I imagine that many of you have seen the academy award winning film, “An Inconvenient Truth”, primarily connected with former Vice President Al Gore. His “inconvenient truth” is that there is a major environmental challenge to the world as we know it and that if we do not change our lives, it could be devastating. We might have to inconvenience ourselves, even pay more in the process, but the danger is before us. He deserves credit for championing this issue, but in some ways I wish the film was not linked to him. His prominent involvement creates a political target, when it primarily deserves center stage as a global crisis. On the other hand, without his advocacy the film might never have been produced. Regardless, it is hard to keep this kind of issue out of the political realm, since it will primarily be addressed by global governmental action, which means it is a political issue as well.

What is the issue and why are we talking about it in the context of our worship service? Scientists have determined that as a result of emissions from cars, factories and power plants producing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses, there is now more of this gas in our atmosphere than there has been in 650,000 years. When this gas remains in the atmosphere it acts like a blanket holding in heat, raising the overall temperatures throughout the world, having the effect of a greenhouse. So far the resultant problems are relatively minor, but there is the potential for cataclysmic events.

Among the problems that we are already facing is the melting of the ice caps at the North and South Poles. They are measurably diminishing, pouring massive amounts of water into our oceans, raising their level worldwide. If this continues it could result in flooding along major coastal areas. We are not just talking about the Louisiana wetlands of which we here are very aware, but also south Florida, coastal Massachusetts and California, even Manhattan, not to mention locales throughout the rest of the world.

Doctors at the Harvard Medical School have reported an increase in outbreaks of diseases such as malaria, dengue fever, encephalitis and others. These are all carried by disease carrying-mosquitoes and rodents, which seem to flourish with these warmer temperatures.

And what of the impact upon our weather? There are those who argue that the super powerful hurricanes that have been experienced in recent years may also be attributable to the warmer waters off our coasts. Is it a coincidence that the number of category 4 and 5 storms has increased significantly since 1970? Yes, there are also those who disagree with that assessment. Perhaps you read Tom Friedman’s article this past week on the drought in Australia and how Aussies of all political colors are very much concerned about the climate change issue there.

I am not a scientist, nor the son of scientists. For that matter, science was always my worst subject. However, I am bright enough to realize that something is going on here which can have a major impact upon my life and more likely the lives of my children and grandchildren. There are too many people throughout the world, who do not have a political or economic agenda sounding the warning bells. We are not just speaking about events that will occur centuries from now, but it is much more imminent and we cannot ignore it.

I am not a scientist, but I am a Jew and our Jewish values speak to this moment and this issue as well. We begin with the concept that is based in the Book of Genesis. The rabbis understand that when God instructs Adam to use the earth as he sees fit, it was for the purposes of protection and development, not destruction. A later ideal evolves from the Book of Deuteronomy, known as Baal Tashchit. Just as we are not to destroy the fruit trees when making war, so too we are to care for our environment and avoid that which might threaten it. Perhaps most poignantly is a core concept of Judaism, “choose life that you and your descendants might live.” This problem, if not addressed immediately, will impact us and generations to come.

What steps can we take to make a difference? Let’s start with these light bulbs, which you can purchase from GoPTY, but also in most stores. It is estimated that lighting accounts for approximately 25% of the electricity we use, which is why for generations parents keep telling their children to turn off the lights. These CFL bulbs use 75% less energy than regular incandescent bulbs, while lasting much longer. One evaluation projects that if you replace 3 frequently used bulbs, you will prevent 300 lbs of carbon dioxide from being released into the atmosphere and save $60 per year on your electric bill. Extrapolate from there if you change all the bulbs in your home. If every household in America replaced one bulb with a CFL, it might have the impact of removing the emissions of 1.3 million cars from the road.

Gasoline burning cars are of course another major source of the greenhouse gasses contributing to the problem. Ultimately we need to all be driving hybrids or cars that run on alternative fuels, but in the meantime, by simply ensuring that our tires are properly inflated and the air filters are clean, we will reduce gasoline consumption and carbon emissions. Try walking occasionally or carpooling.

One of my many frustrations since Katrina has been the cessation of recycling pick-ups. Have you noticed how much fuller your trash cans are now, by adding all those newspapers, glass and plastic bottles? Since I have not heard that it will start again, I propose that we place one of those big ugly paper dumpsters in our parking lot, so that we can bring our appropriate paper products for recycling. Just think every time you come to services, you can drop off the week’s newspapers first, thus performing two mitzvot at one stop. Save a tree and you add more oxygen into our air.

There are numerous other ways that by our own actions we can make a small difference, such as: only run the dishwasher when it is completely full, adjust thermostats down when it is cold and up when it is warm, replace air conditioning filters regularly, check and insulate the water heater, plant a tree, take shorter showers, un-plug unused electronics, weatherize the house, switch to double pane windows and many other relatively easy steps. All of these will contribute to less energy use and therefore fewer emissions into the atmosphere. The side benefit will be lower energy costs.

Each individual, doing his and her part can make a difference. This requires not only a personal commitment, but a national commitment. Our elected officials from all parties need to know that this is an essential issue for the ultimate well being of us all. The reduction in air pollution, higher standards for gas mileage, cleaner burning power plants can only be accomplished with governmental action. The United States, which produces 25% of the greenhouse gasses in the world, though with only 4% of the population, has a responsibility to be leading the world to address this problem, not just contributing to it, along with the other major industrialized nations.  I realize that lesser dependence on fossil burning fuel will adversely affect the economy of this region. Oil profits and a flush state treasury are nice, but it will not do much good when we are covered by water. We have already had a taste of that possibility and it is unacceptable.

Our Torah portion this Shabbat includes a series of blessings and curses, the response for adherence to God’s teachings. Clearly, blessed shall we be if we care for the earth that God has entrusted to us and cursed shall we be if we do not. It can all start with a light bulb.




Resources for this sermon came from The Coalition on Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL), the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC) and the North American Federation of Temple Youth. (NFTY)

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