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Faith and environmental action

February 4, 2007

Sometimes it’s easier to ask forgiveness than to get permission.

In some organizations, churches and synagogues among them, that’s the problem with trying to get the board to agree even to small steps toward greening the building, or adopting other earth-friendly action steps.

So rather than haggling for six months to switch to programmable thermostats, for example, go directly to Home Depot, buy a unit for about $40, and just do it.

That’s what one participant at today’s DC’s Green Tikkun meeting reported as a successful strategy in an idea exchange among some 23 institutions including 17 metro area synagogues.

The dialogue was co-sponsored by Greater Washington Interfaith Power and Light, a regional non-profit coalition of religious groups that aims for a healthier, more just society by taking concrete steps to reduce the threat of global warming, and the Philadelphia-based Shalom Center, which focuses on ecological dangers that threaten the earth.

“We have to radiate out these new values,” said Rabbi Binyamin Biber of Machar, the Washington DC Congregation for Secular Humanistic Judaism. “We may be small in number, but combined with the experience of the Diaspora, we’ve been everywhere and we have a few good ideas. We can change the agenda and public discourse of our society.”

While the emphasis was on a Jewish perspective, the principles are applicable to any faith-centered organization. De Herman, a founder and co-chair of Temple Emanuel’s Green Shalom Committee, explained: “Temple Emanuel is modeling what we would like to teach in the Jewish world and the bigger interfaith world as well.” The Temple’s Green Action guide links, for example, to the DC Energy Office’s Green Faith Guide, which has an extensive list of area resources and organizations, extending beyond the faith community.

Taking action is only part of the story. Making that advocacy effective is key. Mark Katz, a legislative assistant with the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism (RAC), outlined four points activists should spell out to their elected officials to accomplish legislative goals:

  • Why is this piece of legislation important to me as an individual? — Personalize this statement, for example, “I want my kids to have the same opportunity to enjoy this natural resource as I’ve had.”
  • Why is it important to me as a Jew (or, as a member of another faith community)? — Use quotes, text, or teachings to make this point.
  • Why is this good public policy? — From a Jewish perspective, the RAC, Shalom Center, and Council for the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL) are among several organizations with informative web sites.  (From other faith perspectives, please refer to other relevant sites.)
  • What do you want the legislator to do? — This is the “legislative ask” in which you spell out what you’d like to see, for example, raising the CAFE standards for fuel economy.

A few additional actions participants are taking already include dropping hard copies of newsletters in favor of e-mail newsletters with content “of such great value that (congregants) want to read it,” rotating responsibility for recycling and composting among all congregants after catered events, and working with an environmentally alert architect for renovations or new construction. Some of these steps do, naturally, require committee involvement with the board, but others can be implemented directly. Using real plates instead of throwaways is one such example.

No one mentioned Margaret Mead’s well-known insight, but it’s certainly applicable as faith activists carry their example into other sectors of civil society.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

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