All around the world, people are embracing a commitment towards a greener, more sustainable planet. Even in the United States, where climate change skeptics have often derailed the conversation with cries of false science and a nefarious liberal agenda, recent extreme weather events like the summer droughts, raging fires, and hurricane Sandy are causing people across party lines to sit up and take note. But what does it mean for our Jewish community—individuals, institutions, movements, etc.—to truly embrace a commitment to tikkun olam and start repairing the world? With many of our natural resources exploited, wildlife populations threatened, and an ever-growing sense of futility in the face of a dire yet abstract crisis, where should we even start?
How about with a room full of energetic K-5th graders in afterschool at the 14th Street Y in New York City? Let’s start with something tangible and mundane, like that small bag of pretzels we eat for snack. And let’s start with a question: how do those pretzels get to us, and where do they go when we’re done?
Since Oct. 5, the kids, afterschool director Chloe Markowitz, and I have been in hot pursuit of the answer. We know that everything starts with the earth and goes back to the earth in the end. We know that, somewhere in the middle, those earth-products pass through our mouths and hands. And we are beginning to uncover many of the untold stories lying latent inside the cellophane—from the farmers growing wheat to the factories assembling the package, to the landfills and sewage works, and all the pilots, conductors and drivers who earn their wages connecting the dots.
On paper, “sustainability” is incredibly simple and instinctually obvious. All we have to do is live in balance with our natural habitat, avoiding unnecessary damage, and only taking that which can be replenished. In the real world, however, our attempts to live sustainably get caught up in a tangled and complex web of pre-existing, enveloping, and often unsustainable systems.
A bag of pretzels is not just a bag of pretzels. The ingredients represent a farm bill that subsidizes industrial monoculture, highly processed foods, and underpaid, overworked laborers. The bag denotes our dependance on oil for disposable, sanitary packaging, and an underlying assumption that we can afford to waste. Its physical existence and near instant evaporation embodies big rigs lumbering down long stretches of freeway, and delivering gratuitously high asthma rates to New York City’s disenfranchised outer boroughs, where most warehouses, waste transfer stations, and unsightly sewage treatment works are located. Etc., etc., and so forth.
But we are not just the sum of a system. We create and shape our society every day in innumerable actions both pedestrian and profound. Who we vote for, how we spend our money, the ideologies and policies we promote in our companies—almost every engagement with the larger world serves to sustain the status quo or forge a path towards greener pastures.
The key word, however, is “we.” There’s really very little that the average person can do. Even a CEO, who may cast a wider net when she takes her company green, represents only one link in a global chain. Yet those links are all connected, and seven billion average people maintain what already is, even when we can’t see them doing it.
Our after school kids now know that the tables they sit at for snack don’t set themselves up. Sami sets them up. They know that they are warm in the winter because there are radiators. They took pictures when Conrad, the Super, brought them to what he calles “the heart of the building,” turned on the boiler, and pointed out the pipes that carry steam up, up and away. They understand that every plastic wrapper means more waste into the large dumpster Jane showed them out back, and more trips to our out-of-state landfill.
And then Jane opened the compost bin so they could look inside.
We can’t just talk about change; ideas are only one link in the chain. We have to support new paradigms with concrete action. Our afterschool “Green Friday” program is only one piece of the 14th Street Y’s greater commitment to sustainability under Executive Director Stephen Hazan Arnoff. From a pedagogical perspective, it’s important that our kids can talk about industrial food systems with me, and also taste local produce from the Hazon CSA on Thursdays. From an institutional perspective, it’s critical that their commitment expresses itself holistically—from the way their physical structure is maintained and improved, to the supplies ordered and materials produced, their egagements with stakeholders and the greater community, etc. Otherwise the change itself is not sustainable.
It’s not always obvious or easy. In just one bag of pretzels, we found a whole Pandora’s box. But if there’s one thing the kids have taught me so far, it’s that we can’t see the forest until we’ve seen the trees. If we want to get closer to the earth, we have to know just how far we’ve come from it. Only then, piece by piece, can change begin to ripple from the farmer to the factory, to the front desk, to us, and right back out again.
Shawn Shafner is the Founder of The POOP Project and Green Educator for the 14th Street Y Afterschool Program.