Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Plotz

Reprinted from Dickinson Magazine. By Brett Shollenberger

Since the release of Dickinson’s Strategic Plan II in 2005, the phrases “engaged citizens” and “environmental sustainability” have been regularly invoked on campus. Yet when these ideals are well integrated into courses like Jewish Environmental Ethics, taught by Judaic Studies Chair Andrea Lieber, it becomes apparent that these objectives are the backbone to a practical education.

Some may be skeptical that sustainability has a place in all disciplines. They may wonder, “Just how does environmentalism intersect with Judaism to create a larger land ethic? Or does it at all?”

Professor Lieber’s service-based learning course, which traveled four times to five Jewish nonprofit organizations during the fall semester, helped to display the interdisciplinary nature of sustainability education. Students worked with four synagogues and a Jewish community center to reduce the environmental impact of these organizations.

“At Beth El Temple we’ve begun five focus projects,” says Annabelle Mac Auley ’11. “Since they have a school and an office, we’re working on paper and cardboard recycling to supplement their current [aluminum] can recycling. We’re switching them to compostable greenware like we use here on campus. The director is very excited about a grant he’s received to overhaul the lighting in the main hall, and we’re also trying to start a children’s organic rain garden to teach sustainability at the school.”

When asked if the students were running into implementation problems, Lieber noted that initiatives were often expensive, that there sometimes were no economic incentives and that these groups are nonprofits. To combat these practical barriers, Lieber asked the students to approach use the ethics taught in the Torah when approaching these groups.

“I can give you 10 different Jewish texts that say we’ve inherited a certain set of natural resources and that we have the obligation to assure these same resources are available not just to our children but to their grandchildren,” says Lieber, holder of the Sophia Ava Asbell Chair in Judaic Studies.

All photos credited to Pierce A. Bounds.

“Depending on the institution, I think, there’s a certain amount of eye-rolling at ‘moral obligation,’” she continues. “In a way, I think that makes the learning experience even more important for students, because it’s very real life. If students come in with this academic or philosophical idea that ‘Jewish tradition prohibits waste,’ and the institution still ends up prioritizing the bottom line, then I think that’s a valuable learning experience.”

Lieber’s idea that religious beliefs can inform cultural beliefs and views of nature also has been echoed recently in Michael Hulme’s Why We Disagree About Climate Change by Michael Hulme and In Defense of Civility by James Calvin Davis ‘92. In particular, Davis argues for the ability of religious ideologies to unite society on social issues like sustainability.

For instance, one of Lieber’s students, Caroline Fortin ’11, says, “Because we’re working with an orthodox synagogue [Kesher Israel], and therefore a fairly religious population, we’re working with a group that isn’t driving on Shabbos. In some ways, the ritual practices of Judaism allow for mass sustainability. If a hundred people aren’t driving cars from Friday night to Saturday night—if you see a hundred people walking to synagogue—then that’s not insignificant.”

The question then is how might the underlying cultural ethic behind Shabbos or kashrut [Jewish dietary law] apply to modern ecological issues? The general mode seems to be interpretation of traditional laws for the problems of a new generation. Professor Lieber asks: “If pesticides used on an apple run off into the drinking water, and we now know the environmental implications, then is that apple still kosher?”

Want more on environmental ethics?

Read Brett Shollenberger‘s blog with 14 other Dickinson College students from the UNFCCC’s COP15!

Watch Brett Shollenberger‘s video interviews at COP15!

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About Brett Shollenberger

Brett Shollenberger is an sustainability consultant, writer, improviser, and editor specializing in the design of higher ed. programs and holistic communications strategies. He has a B.A. in English from Dickinson College, where he was named Ruth Sellers Maxwell Scholar of Literature for 2011. Brett Shollenberger is currently a sustainability programs analyst for GreenerU and an improv comic with Improv Asylum.
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