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Congregation's Green Consciousness Is Raised; It Comes Away Stunned

April 3, 2008 By:
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Stacey Kennealy of the GreenFaith organization
Albert Zalcmann certainly considers himself environmentally aware. The member of Congregation M'kor Shalom in Cherry Hill, N.J., owns a hybrid car; more to the point, he's an environmental engineer.

But, if a mathematical formula designed by the Washington, D.C.-based Sustainable Energy Institute to calculate a person's ecological footprint -- or the amount of usable land needed to sustain a single individual -- is to be believed, it requires 35 acres to support Zalcmann's lifestyle.

Meaning, if everyone in the world lived the same way as Zalcmann, it would take the equivalent of more than six planets the size of Earth to support the world's current population. For example, the average American requires roughly 25 acres of land to sustain him or her, while, by comparison, the average Bangladeshi uses about 1 acre, if following that same formula.

More than 100 people took the test at the start of the Going Greener Fair, held at M'kor Shalom and sponsored by the congregation, as well as by GreenFaith, a New Jersey-based interreligious organization.

"Putting a number out there," explained Rev. Fletcher Harper, an Episcopal priest and executive director of GreenFaith, "is the best way to get people to wake up because they are shocked at how big it is."

The idea behind the event, according to organizers, was to inspire people to seek practical ways to cut down on their energy consumption. The fair featured a number of breakout sessions focusing on a wide range of topics, including energy conservation in the home, low-maintenance gardening with native plants, alternatives to home toxins, along with the basic principles behind organic foods and hybrid vehicles.

"I learned that every little thing, [even] in small doses, actually adds up to a lot," said Zalcmann, who said that he plans to switch from incandescent bulbs and purchase caulking to insulate his doors and windows. (Speaker Sam Klein of the Builders League of South Jersey said that the average home built before 1980 has the equivalent of an open door at all times due to poor insulation, thus making it far more costly to heat the home.)

Beef: It's Not for Dinner?

"It was eye-opening. You think you're doing okay, and you find out you're not," said Zalcmann, who added that while it would be difficult to reduce his driving, he could cut down, for example, the amount of meat in his diet.

He made reference to a 2006 study by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations that found that, taking into account deforestation needed to create pastures, livestock are responsible for 18 percent of all greenhouse-gas emissions. According to the report, livestock and the consumption of meat, fish and poultry contribute more to the global-warming problem than all the cars, trucks, plains and trains in the world.

Since those numbers were released, there's been an increased attempt to link food consumption with global warming, which is usually more closely associated with fossil-fuel emissions. There's even a growing desire on the part of many activists to have the carbon emissions required to make a food product included on the label along with nutritional information.

That assessment, however, is far from universal.

Writing in the Feb. 25 issue of The New Yorker, science reporter Michael Specter argued that "as a source of global warming, the food we eat -- and how we eat it -- is no more significant than the way we make our clothes or travel or heat our homes and offices."

Specter wrote that determining the amount of energy used to produce food is exceedingly complex, and sometimes, organically grown food produced locally can require more energy expenditures than food shipped from a great distance. He also argued that personal choices alone cannot make a dent in global pollution -- the lion's share of the work will fall to governments.

"We can't escape our responsibility by saying that the issue is too complex," said Rabbi Barry J. Schwartz, religious leader of M'kor Shalom and member of the environmental committee of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. "The point of the program was to start bridging the gap between community and home. We wanted people to start thinking about their home environment, just as we are thinking about the synagogue."

With this concept in mind, Schwartz drafted a document called "The Green Covenant: A Jewish Pledge Toward Carbon Neutrality." It became official policy several months ago.

As such, the congregation has pledged over the next five years to reduce its energy consumption by 50 percent, while working to educate congregants on ways to cut back. The congregation has further promised "to examine our current investment policies ... to support businesses and communities that share our environmental goals."

"The idea has penetrated," said Harper. "We are now at a stage of getting people to take action in terms of their own personal behavior."

 

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