Editors note: For some decades Livnot chevre have been recycling their beer cans by donating them to The Committee for Ethiopian Jews in Safed. They fund college scholarships, children’s school supplies, dental care, and other essential services for Ethiopian immigrants in our city. We thank him for the inspiration to make a renewed effort of ensuring that we reduce, reuse, recycle as much as possible throughout the program, even–and especially–when we are not on campus.
On our three-day hike, nature’s wonders were on full display. We saw a thin mist of fog hovering over the densest and greenest tree-covered hills. We plunged into cool, clear water from meters above, letting the water wash off our dirt and grime, and cool our skin, beating red from the sun. We saw the streams and the forest, the hulking banana orchards, the gnarled olive trees, and the crashing waves of the seemingly infinite sea. But if you were paying attention, you saw a few other things: litter, discarded wrappers, beer cans, and tissues.
In that, there’s an unmistakable tension. We abandoned urbanity for nature’s purity, but even though we left the city, the city didn’t leave us; its comforts accompanied us into the wild, tainting—however slightly—the purity we sought from the start. I saw the circle of life spun on its head, as if re-imagined by a monocle wearing Monopoly Man: Go to forest, cut the tress, turn them to tissue, sell them to people who bring them back to the forest and leave them there forever.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not pointing fingers or laying blame. I left some tissue behind too. But let’s not walk away from this hike without learning anything. The tissue isn’t just tissue, it represents something larger.
If you haven’t guessed already I’m talking about global warming. Yeah, that thing—the rise of the sea and the drowning of coastal cities, drought and heat waves and sidewalks so hot they’ll burn the rubber right off your shoes.
I’ve been working in Israeli media for the past four months and trust me when I say that there is no national conversation about global warming. There’s conflict, terrorism, and the existential threat of a nuclear Iran. In the U.S. however—where Barack Obama just passed a landmark environmental act—the existential threat is climate change. It’s funny, because the climate isn’t just changing in America.
What does this have to do with us? Let’s think back to what we learned about Abraham. He went to Midrash Raba and saw the people there drinking and being lightheaded. He declared: “I want no part of this land.” Why did he denounce the land and not the people? It was them who faulted, not the earth. It’s because the land and the people are connected. One.
Let me tell you a little bit about myself. I’m a passionate environmentalist. Call me a tree hugger; I don’t care. But I wasn’t always this way.
The environment was always something I paid lip service to in conversation but otherwise ignored. My position on global warming was that it was real. And that it was bad. Really bad.
For a long time, this had been my attitude towards pretty much everything. Faced with seemingly insurmountable problems—a materialistic culture, political corruption, a deteriorating ozone—I remained passively accepting rather than actively persistent. Such grand issues overwhelmed me; I felt powerless in their awesome scope. Hence the origins of a vicious cycle: I didn’t care about the environment because I felt like there was nothing I could do, and I did nothing because I didn’t care.
While I remained pro-Earth in theory, when faced with tough (and often very easy) decisions, I succumbed to creature comforts, apathy, and sheer laziness. Between turning on heat and wearing a sweatshirt, I always cranked the thermostat. I constantly left lights on, and sometimes muted the TV rather than turning it off because it was old and took a while to turn back on. These acts weren’t egregious by any means –I wasn’t poisoning wells or harpooning whales. I wasn’t composting either.
After graduating from university I moved home with my mom. Immediately, she was on me about the lights. Years of living on my own had cemented some bad habits. I was like a broken light switch come to life: in every room I went, the lights went on and never went off.
Filial piety eventually compelled me to turn off lights not in use. But what was once an act of begrudging parental compliance soon became a matter of personal importance. Something changed when I started flipping those switches. I liked it. And all at once, I began to care. Not like how I cared before, where I said I cared and then ran a bath and threw my plastic yogurt container in the garbage bin. No, I really cared. I took shorter showers. I started riding my bike. I stopped eating meat. I felt empowered.
The narrative arc around making a difference invariably begins with passion. Individuals are so moved by a cause that their hearts swell and their muscles bulge and they rebuild a disaster struck village with nothing more than grit and determination. There’s nothing wrong with this story. But wait too long for passion to move you, and you may find that you never went anywhere at all.
There’s a beautiful Jewish teaching that is roughly translated to “Your heart is drawn after your actions.” This could not have been more the case for me: it was action that sparked passion, not the other way around. It took doing something, however small, to break free from my cycle of apathy. And the more I do, the more I believe I can do. That’s why I’m writing this for all of us. It’s just another small act etched onto my heart. Maybe it will lead future Livnot groups to recycle their beer cans, or maybe it will lead one of you to turn off a light switch. And maybe turning off the lights won’t save the world. But it’s better than leaving them on.
By Raffi Wineburg