By Rabbi Beth Janus and Seth Lieberman
Reds, yellows and oranges burst out and dance around us as fall arrives in Philadelphia. But soon after this vibrant display of beauty, the roars of gas-powered leaf blowers seize our attention.
Several weeks ago, we read the story of creation from Genesis. Here we learn one of our first commandments, “The Holy One of blessing took the first earthling and placed them in the Garden of Eden, to serve it and to care for it.” Living on a healthy planet is crucial for our wellbeing and the survival of all of God’s creation. This obligation to serve and care for the Garden of Eden, with its Tree of Life, prompts us to ask how we are caring for our current corner of the planet.
When our beloved trees lose their leaves, do we respond in a way that shows care for our Earth? Too often, we respond with gas-powered leaf blowers. As they work, they unleash carbon monoxide, nitrous oxides and carcinogenic hydrocarbons into the air that surrounds us, dramatically contributing to climate change. Our holy texts provide Jews with a vital moral perspective. During this time of climate crisis, our voices need to be amplified.
Climate scientists tell us that we need to reduce emissions drastically if we are to achieve the goal of limiting temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius. After 1.5 degrees, irreversible events will occur. These catastrophic events will affect us all but especially those with fewer resources.
While curbing climate change can seem overwhelming and complex, there are concrete steps we can take immediately that will have a measurable effect. Alongside Washington, D.C., Seattle and more than 170 municipalities in the country, Philadelphia can join the growing consensus that phasing out gas leaf blowers will significantly reduce carbon emissions.
A 2011 study by the car review company Edmunds found that using one gas leaf blower for 30 minutes generated more hydrocarbon emissions than driving a Ford Raptor pickup truck from Philadelphia to Juneau, Alaska! Transitioning to electric blowers immediately reduces the harm.
The Jewish value to protect the earth is clear, but it is just one of the reasons to ban these polluting machines. We also share the value of protecting our community’s residents. The Mishnah teaches us in Bava Batra 2:8,9 that we must distance animal carcasses, graves, threshing floors and tanneries from a city because all of these harm air quality and residents’ health.
Gas blowers emit up to one third of the oil and gas used to power them. These emissions cause asthma, cancer and cardiovascular conditions for those who live in places where they are used. They are especially harmful for the workers who strap on the blowers and must breathe their fumes all day long. Many of these workers are low-wage immigrants who have little choice in what they do to earn a living.
The simplest and quickest solution is to transition to electric leaf blowers. We are used to seeing powerful electric vehicles, and the same technology is widely deployed for both commercial and consumer leaf blowers. Because of the widespread ban of gas blowers, the technology is readily available and positively reviewed by publications such as Wirecutter.
Electric blowers are significantly quieter than gas ones, and their engines generate zero emissions. Because the cost of operating battery equipment is low, the costs will be recouped on average within 10 months. Phasing out gas blowers over a few years allows landscapers time to plan.
As United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres said at the COP27 conference in November, “Human activity is the cause of the climate problem. So human action must be the solution. It is a moral imperative. We need all hands on deck for faster, bolder climate action.”
Our Jewish values can power our actions to address causes of climate change. Join our campaign to ban gas powered blowers in Philadelphia … we can protect ourselves, the planet and landscape workers. Sign our petition at QuietCleanPhilly.org. JE
Rabbi Beth Janus is a Reform rabbi living and working in Philadelphia. She is a member of the Germantown Jewish Centre’s Green Team. Seth Lieberman is a member of the Germantown Jewish Centre’s Green Team and runs Leadership Breakthroughs, a firm developing scientific and medical leaders. He is a cofounder of QuietCleanPhilly.