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Commemorating One Year of the Gulf Oil Disaster

Commemorating One Year of the Gulf Oil Disaster

rj_greening_final logo.jpgOne year ago today, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded off the Gulf Coast,
killing eleven men and beginning to pour nearly five million barrels of oil into
the Gulf. Please join
us in remembering the lives lost and recognizing the on-going environmental, economic and health impacts for communities across the Gulf.

Read on for reflections delivered last year by Rabbi Daniel Cohen of Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel. Take action for the Gulf today, and visit After the Spill: Religious Communities Restoring the Gulf to learn more.

Our Oil Addiction
Rabbi Daniel Cohen
Delivered Yom Kippur, 5771

It was a rousing speech. It made clear the goal and why it was important. It made clear that failure was not an option. It said-

We choose to end our use of oil. We choose to develop clean alternative energy in this decade, not because it is easy, but because it is hard, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone...

It is for these reasons that I regard this as among the most important decisions that will be made during my incumbency in the office of the Presidency.

Alternatives to petroleum are there, and we're going to find them. Solar power and the other clean sources of energy are there, and we intend to tap them. For this is among the most important and urgent endeavors upon which humanity has ever embarked.

It was a powerful speech. It was an inspirational speech. It was a
visionary speech. It was a speech I wish our President had given this
past July in response to the BP oil disaster... but sadly, he did not.  

No, that speech, that vision, that degree of leadership was voiced by
John F Kennedy in 1962, but not with regard to oil. Kennedy was
speaking about his commitment to sending Americans into space. It was
an improbable, if not impossible, goal - but Kennedy had a clear vision
of what he wanted to accomplish and WHY he wanted... why we NEEDED... to
accomplish it.  And just a few years later we were in space.

JFK taught us that if we really want to achieve something and we are
willing to sacrifice for it, even the seemingly unattainable is within
our grasp.

Almost 50 years later, we need that kind of vision and leadership more
than ever. The recent disaster in the Gulf challenged us to do
something great. It provided the perfect opportunity for us to set our
sights on energy independence. It was the right time for our leaders to
call on our nation to set a clear timeframe for developing new sources
of energy that do not threaten our very existence on this planet. And
yet that has not happened.

The opportunity was there...but there was no clarion call to action.
Worse yet, even a moratorium on deep-water drilling was challenged,
despite our lack of complete understanding about what went wrong in the
first place. And as soon as the oil leak was capped, the entire episode
was dropped from the front page of the news. Just a few weeks later, BP
wanted to pull clean-up crews out of the Gulf, and only backed down
when there was a loud outcry from Gulf Coast residents. And it was back
to business as usual.  

But it is not business as usual.

The impact of the spill in the Gulf remains unclear. A second oil rig
in the Gulf had an emergency just two weeks ago. And despite spending
more than 5 million dollars a week on advertising since the disaster
occurred, BP is threatening that, if it isn't allowed to drill with
abandon, it will be unable to fully fund the cleanup it promised. And
all the while our reliance on oil continues unabated.

No speech was made, the opportunity to use the disaster as a starting
point for real change was missed, and our attention deficit society has
already moved on.

As the oil was still gushing in the Gulf this past July, Senate
Democrats abandoned efforts to pass an energy/climate bill that would
have capped greenhouse gases and promoted renewable energy. That same
week, Thomas Friedman wrote an op ed piece entitled "We're Gonna Be
Sorry" that was published in the New York Times".  

In it he wrote...

I remembered something that Joe Romm, the climateprogress blogger, once
said: "The best thing about improvements in health care is that all the
climate-change deniers are now going to live long enough to see how
wrong they were. Alas, so are the rest of us."

Friedman continued...

"I could blame Republicans for the fact that not one G.O.P. senator
indicated a willingness to vote for a bill that would put the slightest
price on carbon. I could blame the Democratic senators who were also
waffling. I could blame President Obama for his disappearing act on
energy and spending more time reading the polls than changing the
polls. I could blame the Chamber of Commerce and the fossil-fuel lobby
for spending bags of money to subvert this bill. But the truth is, the
public, confused and stressed by the last two years, never got
mobilized to press for this legislation. We... will... regret... it."

Yom Kippur is a day focused on regret. But regret is only the first
part of the process. For Jewish tradition teaches that after we have
identified our regrets we ACTUALLY NEED TO DO SOMETHING about them.
That is what teshuvah- atonement- is all about. It requires us to make
changes so that, when faced with the opportunity to once again
transgress, we do not.

And that is the problem.

Far too few of us recognize our role in petroleum reliance and its
devastating impact upon us. And even those who DO understand the
severity of the problem are not taking the necessary steps to ensure
that significant changes are made.

I believe that, perhaps more than anyone, we Jews need to care about
the cost of our oil addiction. Why do we need to care more than anyone?
Three reasons come to mind.

The first reason we should care is Judaism.

Jewish tradition has long made environmental issues both a religious and a practical imperative.

In the book of Deuteronomy we read-

"When you besiege a city... to capture it, you shall not destroy its
trees by wielding an ax against them, for you may eat from them, but
you shall not cut them down."

Despite appearances this prohibition against cutting down trees is not
a prohibition based on environmental reasons. It is not a prohibition
against cutting down trees for the sake of the tree. Rather it is a
prohibition on cutting down trees for OUR sake. The text makes this
distinction clear in the next verse which explains...

"a tree you know is not a food tree, you may destroy and cut down, [to use] against the city that makes war with you..."

Hence, what first appears to be environmental sensitivity in the text
is, in fact, all about self-interest. "Do not cut down food bearing
trees," the Torah tells us, because YOU might need them. If you cut
them down NOW they won't be there for you to harvest LATER.

As family therapist Gregory Bateson wrote in 1972,  

"We are learning by bitter experience that the organism which destroys
its environment destroys itself." (Steps to an Ecology of the Mind
1972, p.491)

But that is exactly what we are doing.

The second reason we Jews should care about the cost of our oil addiction is patriotism.

The United States of America has offered our community more security
and greater prosperity than we have ever experienced. Our current
energy policy, or more specifically, the lack thereof, is destroying
this country physically and economically.

We do not understand the impact of what we are doing to the environment
and yet we continue to do things that clearly cause harm. Take the Gulf
Coast spill, for example. Even the leading experts don't know what the
long-term damage will be and they won't for quite some time. Yet the
drilling continues.

But as significant as the environmental cost of petroleum is, the
monetary cost is just as high. We currently send $1 trillion abroad to
OPEC nations each and every year. $1 Trillion! As the paper "Seven
Dangerous Side Effects of the U.S. Dependency on Foreign Oil" notes,

"oil dependence is slowly eating away at the true source of American
power (our economy) as each year the U.S. exports more and more of its
wealth in exchange for oil." (Seven Dangerous Side Effects of the U.S.
Dependency on Foreign Oil PeakOil)

It is an on-going cycle that continually feeds upon itself.

And it cannot continue forever.

The third reason we Jews should care about the cost of our oil addiction is Zionism.

The fact is, our reliance on oil directly and indirectly funds those committed to the destruction of the Jewish state.

I used to think that, as a nation, we could avoid purchasing oil from
countries that support terrorism. But while that is technically true,
it is not the case in practice.

As Annie Weisberg, a research analyst for AIPAC, explained to me, the
best analogy for understanding how the oil market works is to think of
it as if it were a huge bathtub. All the oil producers pour their oil
into that bathtub and all the oil importers draw oil from it. As a
result, while we choose the importer from whom we purchase oil, we are,
to a large extent, drawing oil from the same large pool as everyone

And since the United States purchases one quarter of the world's total
oil supply each year, we pay for one quarter of that bathtub... year
after year after year.

So why does this matter? It matters because, while I suspect few of us
would send money directly to Syria -- after all it is a puppet for Iran
and is actively arming Hezbollah against Israel -- our out of control
oil consumption does just that. We help create and sustain a market for
Syrian oil by consuming so much of the world's overall supply

But that's not all.

As Sarah Kass, director of strategy and evaluation at the Avi Chai Foundation explained in the Israeli paper Haaretz,

"Oil provides the central motivation and then pays for the worldwide
propaganda engine that condemns Israel. Oil pays for terrorism... [and]
it is fueling a nuclear Iran..."

She goes on...

"Turning off the oil tap in the Middle East will be a game-changer for
Israel, the region and the world. After oil, the Arab regimes will lack
the capacity to vilify and terrorize Israel. [And] Israel (as one of
the few non-oil driven economies in the region), will hold the keys to
building a post-oil economy."
(Sarah Kass is director of strategy and evaluation at the Avi Chai Foundation. 1/08)

We Jews need to care about our addiction to oil.
We need to care about it because it is destroying God's planet.
We need to care about it because it is weakening our country.
We need to care about it because it is making Israel more vulnerable to her enemies than ever.
We need to care about it... and we need to do something about it.
We need to do our individual part to consume less oil. Less oil means
less drilling, less money sent abroad, less empowering of our enemies.
Less oil means less pollution. Less oil means less destruction.

But since conservation can only do so much, we need to push our leaders to do their part.

What became clear to me in the process of researching this sermon was
the fact that as long as our transportation system relies on petroleum,
no amount of conservation will be enough to reduce the environmental
and economic damage we continue to do. The only real solution is for us
to end our reliance on oil. And the ONLY way that can happen is with
clear, loud and visionary voices coming from Washington.

Such a change will not be easy. No, to reach such a goal will take
money. It will take vision. It will take political leaders who are
willing to risk their reelection, to stand up in the face of oil
lobbyists and to open themselves to criticism from all sides. It will
take religious leaders who are willing to stand up and make the case
that this is a religious issue and that there is a moral imperative for
us to act now. And it will take all of us demanding that something be
done and committing ourselves to making the necessary changes in order
to be part of the solution.

In 1962, few believed we could make it into space within a few short years. We did.

Addressing the crisis created by our reliance on oil is no less
daunting. But I have no doubt that with the right leadership and
commitment, it is achievable as well.

Spotlight on Greening Reform Judaism: During the month of April, the
URJ is highlighting resources that help our congregations in their
greening and
tikkun olam efforts. Learn more about Greening Reform Judaism.

Published: 4/20/2011

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