By Daniel Bloom, Hazon Program Associate
Traditionally on Chanukah we celebrate the curious episode of a jug of oil, enough for one day, miraculously burning for eight days. The rabbis debated the exact nature of the miracle. Amongst the many possibilities, one opinion suggests that the oil was divided into eighths, each of which burned for an entire day. Another opinion claims that after filling the menorah on each of the first seven nights, the jug remained full. It is apt that we will be thinking about burning oil when the world’s leaders meet in the coming days for the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. The Conference represents the best opportunity so far for the community of nations to tackle the issue of climate change on a global scale and discuss concrete plans and targets for the reduction of greenhouse emissions. Nonetheless, there is reason to be skeptical. First, we may assume that the leaders of the world’s nations lack the political will to commit to serious change, and second, that even if leaders were to make a commitment, a top-down nation-state driven campaign would have little impact in changing global emission patterns.
These two claims are undoubtedly interrelated. The willingness of a leader to take serious action is largely proportional to the climate concern of their constituents. It will require less political courage for the Prime Minister of Bangladesh (whose country is sinking under rising flood waters and whose population is supportive of climate action) to offer deep emission reductions than for the leader of a ‘climate conservative’ country like the US. Thus, it is critical that we make clear to our elected representatives that we expect them to act on climate change, to place themselves on the right side of history, or be voted out of office.
On the second claim, that even motivated governments will be unsuccessful in lowering emissions since they are largely driven by the consumption habits of individuals, we can bare in mind the following. True, it is not the US government that makes the United States a standout polluter in both gross and per capita terms, although it does contribute its fair share through the military and other government programs. Rather it is the consumption habits of individuals who drive too much, buy too much, eat too much, and generally fall victim to the trappings of America’s abundance. Nonetheless, these habits did not evolve in a vacuum. They are the product of a culture of consumption and acquisition which has been actively promoted by governments developing a consumer based economy, profit seeking corporations and increasingly ubiquitous advertising. Over time, a top-down approach has managed to modify the behavior of individuals, inculcating a pattern of ever increasing excess. If it can work in one direction we have reason to believe, provided the leadership is there, that it could work in the opposite direction, promoting conservation over consumption. Our hopeful eyes are on Copenhagen for that change in direction.
The opposing views on the Chanukah oil miracle provide us with two constructive models for reducing emissions. The first opinion, that the oil burned more slowly, suggests reduced consumption. We must reduce the rapacious speed that we consume the earth’s resources. We need to eat, travel and buy less – and eat, travel and buy smarter. The second, that the jug of oil was never depleted, suggests renewable energy. We must seek renewable, non-depletable sources of energy to power our economic growth. These steps require a self-reinforcing partnership of individuals, corporations and governments acting together. The alternative, not acting to confront global climate change, is to assume that the problem will somehow solve itself, a position that is patently irresponsible and violates the Talmudic principle of lo samchinan anisa, ‘we do not rely on a miracle.’ As we contemplate the ‘great miracle that happened there’ let us also remember the great opportunity and obligation that is happening now.
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