By Evonne Marzouk
Executive Director, Canfei Nesharim
One recent Sunday, I had the pleasure of playing in the Atlantic Ocean with my son. I watched him squeal with joy as he jumped over the waves. Playing in the ocean was a formative childhood experience for me. I treasure those moments still.
But on this day my thoughts were not all joyful. An incomprehensible amount of oil was gushing into the Gulf of Mexico some thousand miles to our south. While our beaches were still clear of oil, I was thinking about potential hurricanes bringing the oil toward our eastern coasts. As I imagined the pollution, watching my son became a precious yet tenuous gift. How long would we have these moments of carefree play?
As our society processes the tremendous impact of the BP Oil Spill, we focus on the obvious costs of lost business and harmed wildlife. But there are also intangible losses. Playing in the ocean is one of the few options for water play available to all of our children; no need to pay to join a swim club or attend a water park. Therefore we can also measure the oil spill in one more cost: the loss of childhood joy. For millions of children along the Gulf Coast this loss has already occurred.
I know what it’s like to tell my little boy that we canceled a special day trip. How do parents tell their children that they won’t be able to play in the ocean all summer? How long will it be before their children can play in the ocean? Will they ever get the chance again?
As the leader of a Jewish-environmental organization, I’ve written and spoken about the unsustainable path our society is on. We cannot continue to use and abuse our resources – our food, energy, water, and air – at the current rate. I’ve said that if we don’t change our ways we will leave a depleted world to our children. But as I played in the ocean with my son, my message took on a new urgency. For the first time, I understood what it might really mean to give our children a depleted world.
When our parents told us about their childhoods, they had stories like “we walked to school in the snow” or “only one person on the block had a color television.” This generation of young parents has to tell their children things like “that tiger is extinct” and “you can’t play in the ocean anymore.” This is what it means to leave a depleted world to our kids. Standing there with my young son, the realization nearly broke my heart.
This week in the Jewish calendar, we begin Three Weeks of mourning leading up to Tisha b’Av, a time for remembering the greatest loss our people has endured; the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. During the Three Weeks we gradually remove activities that bring us joy, such as buying new clothes and planning weddings. During the last nine days we also avoid playful swimming.
The intent of removing these moments of joy is to startle us out of our complacence. Things are not all right. What must we do to change our ways? How can we improve ourselves and in so doing, bring about a better world?
We need a similar shock to our system when it comes to the environmental challenges we face. The oil spill is yet another in a series of warning signs that our planet cannot bear the pressures we’re putting upon her. How long will it take before we wake up and change our ways?
When I was a child, my parents made an issue of wasting food, commenting on “the children starving in Africa.” We all knew that saving food here would not really help feed those children. Yet it seemed grotesque to waste food while others were starving.
Like the children starving in Africa, the oil spill is overwhelming, and for most of us, distant. But there are things we can do that are both symbolic and, taken together, can make a difference. We can start with an answer which is economic, obvious, and also a natural Jewish response: Avoid waste.
A recent study from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) concluded that an all-out societal investment in energy efficiency could save 46 billion barrels of oil by 2030. That is considerably more than the 4.8 billion barrels produced by domestic offshore drilling over the last nine years. The study recommended strategies such as mass transit, more fuel efficient cars, and improved freight movement.
As individuals, we can bike, carpool or take public transportation. Request to telecommute from work. Buy a car with higher fuel efficiency. Purchase local food that has not been shipped across the world to get to us. While these actions are small, they show our leaders what matters to us. They also avoid the grotesque waste of oil at a time when its cost is all the more clear to us.
In the face of overwhelming destruction, it is a natural human instinct to pray. Jewish prayer is intended to both reach our Creator and transform ourselves. So, if the oil spill is worrying you, pray about it. Pray that the leak is fixed, that the waters are healed, that the children get to go back to the ocean. Pray with all your heart, and take actions that will transform you. And may our prayers and actions during this time lead to the redemption of our world.
Evonne Marzouk is Executive Director of Canfei Nesharim: Sustainable Living Inspired by Torah.