The forecast calls for some snow tomorrow, a weak, wispy but just-the-same welcome balm for a snow-starved wintry soul. To build this up to more than its worth, I decided to go out to collect firewood from our yard, tinder and kindling to kick-start the flames in our fireplace. The chore offered both a primal joy and a practical benefit. Regarding the practical, just in case the power goes out, I will have the means to create hungry, crackling fires. Regarding the primal, gathering the fuel to keep one’s family warm and dry is a most satisfying nesting and nurturing feeling, and it is a visceral reminder of how dependent we truly are on the stuff that thrives and dies on this earth.
Gathering firewood for need possesses an urgency of its own. The last “storm” that blew through a few weeks ago - a modest event that hardly merited such a grand label - left our neighborhood cold and dark for almost an entire day. Our sole source of heat and hot water was our living room fireplace. As inefficient as fireplaces are for heating large spaces, they are just fine for heating small spaces and a few bodies cuddling up right next to them. Keeping the fire stoked, flaming and hot is a constant pursuit. Knowing all this, I set out to collect the twigs, sticks and limbs that had fallen over the past few months.
As I wandered back and forth across the yard scooping up all that I could find, I thought about all those generations of all the people who relied on this life-and-death task of hide and seek. I only had to/chose to gather wood today. They needed to gather it every day. Would there be enough wood to take them through the winter? Was the wood dry enough to burn well? Was there enough to do the job or would they need to save some for tomorrow?
My yard, I fully realized, was my own, and I was the only one with the legal right to glean the trees’ discards for my use. But what about all those millions of people over the years, all over the world, who owned little or no land, who needed to gather their wood from the commons, from forests and woods and meadows that belonged to everyone, or no one? How would wood be fairly apportioned? How could everyone be certain to get enough? Would people rush out every morning, at the earliest light, or the dark of night, and take more than their fair share, fearful lest someone else would rise early to gather more than their fair share? And who would determine how to measure a fair share? Would a lonely widow merit the same as a houseful of kids? What if it downed wood ran out? Would people start chopping down trees? By what right?
All of a sudden, I discovered a deeper understanding of the odd biblical story about the man who gathered wood on Shabbat (Numbers 15:32-36). It is a harsh story, full of questions and unpleasant things. On the second shabbat after the encounter at Mt Sinai, when the Israelites were still camped in the wilderness, a man was discovered out gathering sticks. This was recognized as a violation of the law, but exactly what was to be done about it was unclear. So Moses took the case to God and God said the man should be stoned, by the people of Israel themselves. And so it was.
Among the many details of this perplexing story is the repetition of the words ” the whole community.” It is stated three times in only four verses. The man was brought before “Moses, Aaron and the whole community” we are told; God said “the whole community should pelt him with stones;” “So the whole community” stoned him to death.
Not a pretty picture. And, to the modern mind, excessive. Indeed, nowhere does it explicitly say in the Bible you may not collect sticks on shabbat. Other shabbat violations do not require death.
Why this harsh punishment here. Why so early on in our experience with commandments? And why did God make the people Israel the executioners? After collecting wood, I think I know.
Gathering wood is not a leisurely or idle task. One does not do it for pleasure. It is purposeful and measured. Like all carbon-based fuel, firewood demands the exclusive one-time use of a commodity that humans do not make, and that is available only in limited and single-use supply. To collect wood on a day when others do not is to unfairly advantage oneself at the expense and to the detriment of everyone else. To choose to do so shows a disregard of the safeguard for all; a preferencing of self above all else and all others; and a selfishness that does not just benefit self but that disadvantages and endangers others.
Firewood is a precious, life-sustaining commodity. Given the human tendency to hoard, to be certain there is enough not just for today but for tomorrow as well, gathering must be a communal (or otherwise managed) affair. If everyone does it together, in the full light of day, each person serves as a check to be certain that everyone is taking and getting their fair share. Honorable behavior is more likely to happen when everyone gathers together. To allow someone to gather alone, when everyone else is prohibited from doing so, threatens the well-being of the entire group.
This one commandment, then, is not narrowly about gathering wood on Shabbat. It holds within it not just the wisdom of setting aside one day to celebrate being instead of doing, purpose instead of productivity. This one commandment also highlights the imperative of communal responsibility, that is, doing right by and caring for the other. It teaches that no one can set their personal greed or appetites or even fears above those of others and above the common good. It teaches us that nature’s gifts belong to us all, and need to be shared by all, both those here today and those who come after us. It teaches all the best lessons of belonging, restraint, and enoughness.
I am writing this at 6:20 am Eastern Standard Time on Tuesday, January 20, 2009. And though you will not find news of this in any meteorological journal anywhere, not even in the venerable, semi-mythic and often prescient Farmer’s Almanac, a cosmological singularity will occur today.
We will be witness to two sunrises.
The first will be visible in the east, at precisely 7:23 a.m. Baltimore time.
The second will be visible from almost every TV set in the land, reflected in eyes and faces of millions, perhaps billions, of people around the world, at precisely noon EST local time, Washington, DC. when Barack Obama takes the oath of office for President of the United States of America.
After the long night of the Bush administration, after an era of legal recklessness, anti-intellectualism, environmental degradation, rampant selfishness, economic irresponsibility, and an overall coldness that caused relationships to harden and become brittle; after eight years of setting a tone that led the entire world to almost lose faith in America, and America to almost lose faith in itself, a new political dawn is breaking.
We are all realists. A new dawn is just a beginning. We know will not witness miracles. No heavenly curtain will part with cherubs singing in glorious harmony. No miraculous recovery - economic or environmental - will descend upon us; no breaking out of peace all over the land. Times will continue to be tough. And, as the new President is likely to say, times may stay tough for a while. And yet, people and life can be good even in tough times. We can hang together, build a better future, pull each other through if we trust and believe and care for each other.
The tone for a household, business or government is set by the top. The graciousness, caring, openness, and intelligence of this new President promises to set a new tone for his administration, America and the world. How wonderful for America to have chosen him.
A new day begins.
Finally, it is snowing. Not a lot. Not blusterly. But gently and confidently and happily snowing. While the meteorologists tell us there will be no accumulation, I will take what I can get. Snow is, after all, welcome on two accounts: for the moments it is falling and for the ground cover it brings. One out of two is better than none at all, and at least for the moment we can enjoy this fleeting aerial ballet
I have turned off my radio, my dryer has stopped, as, blessedly, has the motor that runs my refrigerator, which seems to get louder and louder as the years pass. So I am sitting in almost-silence watching this parade of flakes rushing groundward as if they are all eager lyheaded to a high school reunion.
Our lack of snow became even more disheartening when I recalled that rain begins as snow. Up in the atmospheric range where the clouds form, it is below freezing. So when vapor rises, it eventually freezes, forming snowflakes. When it returns to earth, it will either melt or stay frozen depending on the temperature of the air in between the clouds and the ground. So we are so close, never more than a few miles, from snow.
When I was young, it seemed to me that we had several good, wet snowstorms every year. I remember my red plastic galoshes would fill with snow and my socks would be encrusted with refrozen snow when I finally had my fill and, fully sated with winter’s wonders, went inside to towels, dry clothes and a hot cup of cocoa. Today, my children, who grew up in New York, are wondering if they will have to move back to New England to relive the snow memories of their childhood.
We can still hope. February is supposed to be the snowiest month of the year around here. Which is doubly good because it is also the shortest, so that means either one big snowstorm or several smaller ones. Either way, given how late it is in the month of January, I am looking forward to February with even greater expectation, and not a little bit of worry. For my children’s sake.
While solar energy is the wave of the future, it is currently hampered not only by its expense, but by its technological inefficiency. Currently, on average, solar panels convert only about 15% of the sunlight hitting them into power.
However, additional investments in research will quickly get us to where we have to be. We already have the inklings as to where that is. Read on:
“Quantum dots have the potential to change the world. They are a form of solar cell that is completely beyond anything you might imagine. Traditional solar cells produce electricity in a unique way. When the sunlight hits material in the cell, the material kicks of an electron and the charge is the electricity. Quantum dots work the same way, but they produce three electrons for every photon of sunlight that hits the dots. The dots also catch more spectrums of the sunlight waves, thus increasing conversion efficiency to as high as 65 percent, a stunning figure.
The really interesting thing about quantum dots is they do not require big, bulk solar panels to work. Researchers are combing the dots with liquid polymers. In practical terms, this means they can be sprayed onto any surface. This literally means that anything painted can act as a solar cell. Think about that. In the near future, you will be able to go solar by just repainting your house. Hybrid cars will be revolutionized, so will your mobile phone. On a cold day, you can put on a coat and gloves that are heated by the solar cells imbedded in their surfaces. The scope of this breakthrough is as breathless as it is unlimited.”
When my kids were very little, they used to walk to school. When it was very cold outside, I gave them a headstart in staying warm by putting their coats in the dryer for a few minutes so when they put them, they were all toasty. But the heat soon ran out. Imagine putting your kid in a coat covered with quantum dots! They could play outside in the snow (assuming we ever get snow again in Baltimore, and assuming they dust the snow off every now and then so it is exposed to the light), and never get cold!
For more information about this and other inventive technologies that will save the world, check out their site:
Dr. Mark Jacobson, a Stanford University professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, has recently published a paper that shows that many of our most politically fair-haired energy solutions (clean coal, ethanol, biomass, nuclear, etc) are actually the most expensive and the most destructive to use. Rather, he argues, wind and concentrated solar power are the best options before us today and can go a long way to supplying the doubling of the power demand that is expected by 2030. Even transportation energy, if most of our fleet goes electric.
He tells us that at any moment, the sun (directly and indirectly) produces more energy in a second than the earth can consume in a year. Specifically:
the various energy capacities that hit or are generated around the world per second are as follows:
Read more about his findings and, if you are scientifically-minded or otherwise intellectually intrepid, follow the link on the right of the stanford.edu page to read Dr. Jacobson’s article in Energy and Environmental Science (First published on the web 1st December 2008).
From February 17-19, 2009, Israel will host an international conference (in Eilat) that is expected to attract 1000 people from around the world, all gathering to talk about, and advance, the latest renewable energy technologies, not least of which is solar energy.
In addition to bringing together inventors, venture capitalists, government officials, businessfolk and more, this conference will launch the US-Israeli Energy Cooperation Act, passed two years ago by the US Congress. This act promises $20 million to promote the R&D of renewal energy. This is a triple-winner: good for the environment, good for the economy, and good for US-Israel relations.
When things are working right, the manufacturer is responsible for the waste that comes out of the factory, either through chimneys or sludge or pipes.
But the manufacturer is likely not to be held responsible for much of what happens before and all of what happens after that:
where the packaging goes; how the product is disposed of; the environmental harm or costs of disposal of their products; or the proper education of the seller or consumer regarding the future handling and disposal of the product.
Instead, local governments pick up the tab for disposal; hazardous waste management; green clean up; public education. Without financial incentives or implications for the design and proper disposal of their products, it is no wonder that the manufacturing industry is slow to green their ways.
Enter Extended Producer Responsibility. EPR.
Here is the way it is explained on the Waste to Wealth website:
“Extended producer responsibility (EPR), based on the “polluter pays” principle, entails making manufacturers responsible for the entire lifecycle of the products and packaging they produce. One aim of EPR policies is to internalize the environmental costs of products into their price. Another is to shift the economic burden of managing products that have reached the end of their useful life from local government and taxpayers to product producers and consumers.
The concept of EPR was first formally introduced in Sweden by Thomas Lindhqvist in a 1990 report to the Swedish Ministry of the Environment.”
This is the way of the future. Researchers, material scientists, producers, manufacturers even distributors all need to be part of the solution of sustainability. Everyone along the economic food chain is responsible for the environmental impact of the products that they design, manufacture, and sell. That way, real costs can be embedded in the product costs, and consumers will do their part in buying, and disposing of things, responsibly as well.
Check out this short and enlightening explanation of EPR:
While people of good will, and rivaling romantic inclinations, may forever disagree about the size of the moon at moonrise (is it larger on the horizon than straight overhead?), there was no disagreement about the size of the moon these past two nights. The moon is at its perigee, the closest spot on its elliptical orbit around the earth. Which means that it is very close to us indeed, and therefore bigger and brighter than any other time of the year. (14% wider and 30% brighter than lesser Moons to be precise) Indeed, the skylights in my house did seem to pour in more light to navigate by, filling the halls with comforting, almost angelic, guidance. This neighborliness will not happen again until next year, January 30, 2010 - when the moon’s appearance will be a two-fer: a blue moon (the second full moon in one secular month) and a perigee moon.
As for the cat litter: I have always wondered about the best way to dispose of the standard clay cat litter I have been using all these years (tending to my son’s cat). The answer seems to be, there is no good way to dispose of cat litter. It is not compostible, can’t flush it away, so one has to landfill it. Not the solution I was seeking. And then I found what many of you may have already discovered: Swheat Scoop. Now, I am not endorsing this particular product. I imagine there are others on the market like it. But, as its name declares, it is made from wheat and therefore fully compostible or flushable. It does not kick up the dust cloud clay litters do; it absorbs all that litter is made to absorb; clumps adequately - although not as well as some clay litters, but that is a small price to pay - and doesn’t get stuck on little cat feet, and therefore doesn’t get tramped around the house, the way clay litter does.
The one thing I don’t know, in this world of growing food insecurity, is what part of the wheat this is made of and how it impacts the wheat crop. My hope - and expectation - is that this is the chafe, at least that is what it looks like - and so this is doubly good, using what is waste anyway. I will try to find out and get back to you on that.
But at least for now there is one less waste item I need to worry about.
In case we needed a reminder that there is so much about our earth we don’t yet know: Scientists in England, in conjunction with the United Nations, report the following:
“Melting icebergs, so long the iconic image of global warming, are triggering a natural process that could delay or even end climate change, British scientists have found.
A team working on board the Royal Navy’s HMS Endurance off the coast of Antarctica have discovered tiny particles of iron are released into the sea as the ice melts.
The iron feeds algae, which blooms and sucks up damaging carbon dioxide (CO2), then sinks, locking away the harmful greenhouse gas for hundreds of years.”
This is both good news and bad news. It is good news because it might be a new source of carbon capture and sequestration. It is bad news because (1) we don’t know what collateral damage the additional iron, algae and ice melt might do to the eco-system and (2) this news may reduce the sense of urgency to reduce co2 emissions. For even at its height, scientists say, this ice melt will only absorb 1/8th of the earth’s co2 emissions. There are still thousands and thousands of tons of co2 that we need to avoid producing. And we need to remember not just the toll in emissions, but the cost - both financial and environmental that we pay in extracting and transporting the fossil fuels.
Still and all, the news is intriguing.
For more of the story and a colorful graphic describing the process, can be found at:
Today is the latest sunrise of the year. 7:27 am Baltimore time. Not nice. It feels pretty dismal when you wake up around 6:00 or 6:30 am all ready to embrace the day, and you can’t even find your slippers. The night still hangs heavy on the air. Some schools are beginning their work days just as the sun peeks over the houses, trees and hills. Surely some folks would like to argue that they shouldn’t have to bare their shiny bodies to the world before the sun bares hers.
The good news, though, is that today (in daylight hours) is 51 seconds longer than the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. We will enjoy a whopping 9h 30m 21s of daylight today, to be precise.
The longest day of the year around here - may it come soon! - is a full five hours longer - running 14 hours and 56 minutes and 21 seconds. As if to reward us for drudging through the dreary darkness, this year at least we actually get TWO days of this length: June 20 and June 21.
I am paying particular attention to the sun this year for two reasons: it seems that Seasonal Affect Disorder - or at least its younger cousin SLOTH (Seasonal Lethargy Or someTHing) has settled in for the duration of winter. So every additional second of sunlight is scooped up and cherished.
And this year is, as I have said before and will no doubt say again, The Year of the Sun, the year in which we get to celebrate Birkat Hahammah, the once-in-28-years celebration of the sun.
I am bound and determined to learn more about the sun, and do more to invigorate the world with the energy from the sun, than I have in the past.
This helpful website gives you the sunrise, sunset, noon time and things I cannot understand, like the azimuth, different twilights and more.
And if you want to help the sun help heal the earth, plant a tree, visit http://www.blessthesun.org and get all your friends to do the same and adopt some of the projects you read about there.
Learn about renewable energy and how we can move the world to embrace it (Israel is heavy into solar technology research. Japan and China are hopping on board - America cannot afford to be left behind). You can find lots of information by searching the web or coming back here for updates.
Meanwhile, don’t forget your Vitamin D!
The day is overcast and dreary, Israel is engaged in active conflict, the reserves are being called up, the economy is in drerd - otherwise known as the doldrums, Madoff has decimated some of the Jewish communities most philanthropic organizations and foundations… and yet. It is a new year. And while some places tamped down their celebrations, everywhere I looked there was an air of excitement and hope. Perhaps it is because of the indomitable human spirit. Perhaps it is because we are anticipating our own eagerly awaited “regime change” on January 20 - the Obama inauguration promises to be one of the most glorious American holidays in memory.
I am excited for all these reasons; and one more. This is the Year of the Sun.
How amazing it was to open my computer on New Year’s Day and read that Toyota - which recently took a hit on its profits, the first time in 70 years - is promising to redouble its greening efforts. It is working on a solar powered car that will be able to recharge both from solar collectors built into the car and from solar rechargers at home. And Iran, yup - that Iran, has just opened its first 250 KW solar power plant. Not big, but a start.
That certainly looks promising, for we will not need to fight over access to solar energy the way we fight over access to fossil fuels. Greening our energy is good for the environment, our pocket books (the more advances in technology the cheaper it will be), our economy (we can keep more money home and spend it on important things like salaries, research and infrastructure) and the job market (you can’t outsource the creation of solar plants on American soil and solar installations on American buildings and homes). Now, perhaps, the race will be to dominate the world marketplace with solar and other green technologies. Healthy competition, after all, speeds investment and discovery.
This growing engagement in solar energy coincides with our own country’s new dream Green Team assembled by our President-Elect.
And all this is happening in the Year of the Sun. Every 28 years, the Jewish calendar sports a celebration called Birkat Hahammah - the blessing of the sun. Our rabbis of old tell us that once every 28 years, the sun returns to the day of the week, the moment of the day and the spot in the heavens at which it was created. That is a moment for celebration. And that next moment of return occurs this spring, April 8, 2009.
How wonderful that this dawning of the solar era coincides with the celebration of Birkat Hahammah. There are many ways we can mark this moment. Go to http://www.blessthesun.org for ideas and to sign the Covenant of Commitment for reducing your footprint while celebrating the natural majesty of this world.
And if you do nothing else, do this: plant a tree. I know it is low-tech. But it remains one of the simplest, and one of the most valuable acts of appreciation and preservation of our physical world. Trees, as we all know by now, breathe in carbon dioxide, and breath out oxygen. They also cool our atmosphere with their shade and respiration; absorb pollutants from the air and soil; control rainwater flow and runoff, increase property values; reduce home cooling costs in the summer; comfort the spirit; provide recreation and beauty. There is no waste with trees. And if you plant fruit trees, there is the additional joy of the blossoms, the sweet fragrance of the fruit and the harvest too!
Municipalities around the country are beginning to study the presence and value of trees in their neighborhoods, recognizing that with all their environmental benefits, trees contribute billions of dollars to cities’ operating budgets. Baltimore City is seeking to double its tree canopy from 20% to 40% over the next 30 years, an ambitious, laudable and achievable goal if we all pitch in. (Check out http://www.ci.baltimore.md.us/government/recnparks/treeBaltimore.php for more information.)
Even Baltimore County is in need of assistance in rebuilding our canopy. We have lost 2/3 of our forests to farms and development, and continue to lose 200 acres a year to development. Many of our standing forests are in compromised health, and have few saplings to replace them. While we participate in the state’s Tree-mendous Maryland re-planting program, we have no grand plan, set goals or other organized approach to conduct tree inventories, or a forest management program. That will hopefully change soon. But in the meanwhile, we can do our part. Government doesn’t own enough land and cannot plant enough trees to solve this problem. The solution lies partially in our hands.
So, plant a tree during this Year of the Sun and celebrate how solar energy can truly make our planet green.