Learning how to live like trees

A submariner-turned-environmentalist leads the way to a cleaner Israel.

September 11, 2007 10:32
Amiad Lapidot 88 224

Amiad Lapidot 88 224. (photo credit: Carl Hoffman)


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Have you got a moment or two to kill? Grab a pencil and a sheet of paper and make a list of the 10 things you most admire about the State of Israel and its extraordinary people. Most of us who can think of ten good things (or more) to say about Israel and Israelis probably listed such qualities as "courage," "bravery," "directness," the "ability to deal with crises" and, of course, the proverbial inner "sweetness" that is said to underlie the outer "prickliness" of every Israeli. It is a reasonably good assumption, however, that no one - not even Israel's most ardent admirers - listed anything like "ecological awareness," "respect for the environment," or "economic sustainability." These are simply not among the qualities for which Israel is generally known. Amiad Lapidot, of Moshav Kerem Maharal, is out to change that. Thirty-nine years old, married and the father of two children (one aged three and the other four months old), Lapidot has dedicated his life toward changing Israel, saving its environment, revitalizing the world's ecosystem and bringing all of "Spaceship Earth's passengers" closer together in a new world of peace, cooperation and interdependence. Don't laugh. He may just succeed. Lapidot is the founder, director and driving force behind Eretz Carmel, a non-profit organization whose mission is to promote models of sustainable economic growth. This is growth that not only avoids harming the environment but actually works to revive it, cleanse it, and make it stronger. For Lapidot and the mostly young volunteer staff of Eretz Carmel, "sustainability" means that we can live well today, meet all of our needs, preserve and improve the quality of our lives - and present future generations with a natural environment that is cleaner, greener and healthier than the world's environment today. We can do this, he says, if each and every one of us learns to live like a tree. "Every day in the life of a tree, it wakes up and asks itself, 'Okay, what am I going to do today? I will take the carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and change it into oxygen. With my roots, I will clean the water in the ground. With the leaves that fall from me, I will enrich the soil. I will give fruit for birds and other animals.' Every day, because of that tree, the environment is cleaner and richer. The underground is cleaner. The air is cleaner. The oxygen is more plentiful. The soil is richer. And all of this happens every day. How can we live with this kind of model? What can each of us do to make the natural environment a little stronger every day?" If anything truly characterizes the work of Eretz Carmel, it is a highly committed yet joyful "environmental evangelism." Beginning with the construction of his own largely organic, environmentally friendly ranch-style home, and then with a bit of compost gardening and organic olive trees growing on his own plot of land at Kerem Maharal - the remote, very rural moshav where he grew up - Lapidot established Eretz Carmel in July 2006, with financial backing and moral support from Keren IVN, the Israel Venture Network Foundation. In little more than a year, he has seen the organization's ideas spread to his entire moshav, the Carmel coast region, and to scattered places throughout Israel. Eretz Carmel's message is spread through education, as each new neighborhood or town learns the benefits of environmentally friendly living and then becomes a "role model community," teaching other communities by positive example. And, as increasing numbers of foreign tourists and visitors have begun finding their way to Kerem Maharal to see Lapidot's ecological and economical methods of waste disposal, compost gardens, fully organic agriculture and ingeniously designed model home, Eretz Carmel is now beginning to exert small but growing international influence as well. There is, of course, nothing really new about this organization's work. For example, knowledge of composting - the controlled, deliberate decomposition of organic waste transforming garbage, human and animal waste into rich topsoil, compost gardening and organic agriculture using compost instead of chemical fertilizer - can be traced back to the ancient Akkadians, Israelites, Greeks and Romans. What is new, however, is that a young, talented, highly-educated man from an elite sector of Israeli society should choose to jump off the merry-go-round of money, career and individual ambition to make compost both his personal raison d'etre and the basis of a potentially world-saving ideology. How did it all come to this? Why would such a promising young man want to spend so much time persuading his neighbors to sort their garbage and dump their organic waste into special black barrels that he provides, so that he can collect the organic garbage every morning and bring it home in his tractor - more than 100 tons per year? "When I was younger, I thought that security and defense was Israel's most important issue. I served as an officer in the navy, and most of my service was in submarines," Lapidot recalls. He then attended the University of Haifa, earning his bachelor's degree in geography and ecology, and later the Technion, from which he emerged with an M.A. in urban planning. While conducting a research project in ecology as part of his course requirements, he returned to his naval base and was appalled at the degree of pollution of the ocean water in the port. He decided to analyze the water to find out exactly how polluted it was. "I eventually learned that the Mediterranean sea is the most polluted ocean in the world, that the port of Haifa is one of the most polluted places in the Mediterranean, and that 90 percent of the pollution at Haifa port is coming from the Israeli navy. I then realized that the thousands of small things that people like me and my friends do every day - even just throwing things like cigarette butts into the ocean - contribute to damaging the natural environment." This revelation led Lapidot to think of other ways in which he personally was negatively impacting the environment. His memories of growing up in a family of farmers at Kerem Maharal led him to turn a critical eye to agriculture. He quickly became aware of the damage caused by chemical fertilizers and pesticides to the soil and groundwater, as well as the damage caused to the environment and atmosphere by the manufacture of these chemical products. He says, "I then realized that as the earth's population continues to increase and make greater and greater demands on the environment, the earth's environment is steadily losing its ability to sustain itself, its ability to clean the air, its ability to clean the water, to protect us from the sun, to maintain the balance of climate. With the millions of things we do every day, we are destroying nature's ability to do its work." Lapidot saw that the problem was particularly acute in Israel, which, per capita, is the second largest producer of garbage in the world after the United States, and where entire rivers are polluted due to chemical fertilizers and pesticides used in agriculture, as well as industrial waste. "The earth is like a spaceship, and we are all fellow passengers," he says. "Whatever we do, good or bad, affects our spaceship and our ability to live on it." As that revelation became clearer and more compelling, Lapidot knew where his life was heading. After a three-year apprenticeship, first at Shatil, a prominent Israeli NGO, and then at the Heschel Center for Environmental Learning and Leadership in Tel Aviv, he found himself right back where he started, at Moshav Kerem Maharal. Having seen the environmentally disastrous effects of rock quarrying to produce cement for construction, Lapidot made up his mind that his first project would be to build himself a house without cement. "I decided I would build my house according to four guiding principles. First, it had to be the most ecological house I could produce. Second, the house had to be legal and conform to all the building laws. Third, it had to have what I call the 'doubling effect.' I wanted people to see the house and want to build one like it for themselves. And fourth…" he says smiling and pausing for effect, "it had to be a house my wife would agree to live in." Built largely with the help of friends, Lapidot's house is perhaps the major "attraction" at Kerem Maharal and the pride of NGO Eretz Carmel. The frame is made from four used marine shipping containers, and the exterior walls from blocks of bailed straw, grown by Lapidot in his own fields. "It's wonderful to grow the materials for my own house in my own fields, with no pollution at all!" he exclaims. The interior bricks come from local soil - much of it dredged from a nearby river during its annual cleaning by the local authority and strained through a homemade filter by Lapidot to make clay. Perhaps not knowing quite what to expect, one steps into the house and is immediately surprised not only by a degree of style and elegance worthy of Better Homes and Gardens, but by something else as well. On a day with temperatures reaching almost 40 degrees outside, the house is cool inside - without air-conditioning or even a single ceiling fan. Lapidot explains, "The house knows how to warm itself in winter and cool itself in summer. All the windows in the bedrooms face south, with sunshields. The sun gets into the rooms in winter and makes them warm. In the summer, the sun hits the sunshields and doesn't get into the house. And this is wonderful." Lapidot points to a small hole at the base of one of the bedroom walls and explains that this will one day be connected to a pipe running deep underground and will also contribute toward cooling the house. As soon as the house was finished, Lapidot began to think of other ways to spread the gospel of sustainability and teach his community how to live in balance with nature. "From the very beginning, I knew that the kind of 'balance' I wanted to teach was not to just live and leave the environment alone, but to live in such a way that we make the environment richer and richer," he says. He decided to concentrate on garbage. "If we look at the garbage produced by the average Israeli family, we find that around 40% of it is organic. It's material that originally came from the soil - like fruit from a tree - but is not being put back. It's being put in the same garbage containers as tin cans, newspapers, plastic bottles and plastic bags, and then it is trucked away to the Negev. The organic material then decomposes in the open air and turns into methane, a greenhouse gas. If we don't learn how to deal better with our garbage, next summer will be hotter than this one is, and the following year's summer will be hotter and so on, year after year. The simple solution is to take the organic garbage, turn it into compost and give it back to the trees, which will use the nutrients to make more fruit - and more trees." Today, composting is the core of Eretz Carmel's work, drawing visitors from all over Israel. Sooner or later each of these visitors finds his way to the neat rows of model compost piles and immediately notices, and is deeply grateful for, the lack of bad odors. The garbage is decomposing anaerobically - without air - with the help of underground bacteria and small red worms (Eisenia foetida) used especially for composting. Most of the compost is then used either to grow vegetables or to fertilize Eretz Carmel's olive tree orchard. The organization also offers its compost for sale, as well as their own specially designed compost-making containers - which can be used at home, in a garage or patio - and red compost worms. Most importantly, however, they are recycling upwards of 100 tons of garbage per year, and sparing the Earth's atmosphere some 50,000 tons of greenhouse gasses. As much as he has accomplished in so short a time, Lapidot does not intend to rest on his laurels. His eyes light up as he suggests that trees have another important lesson to teach us. He points to a stand of five trees growing in the midst of his olive orchard and notes that each is a different kind of tree. This type of ecological farming, he says, is intended to mirror the way those trees grow naturally in the surrounding hills. "Every tree gives something it has to the soil and takes something it needs from the soil. One takes what another gives. With different kinds of trees, you eventually get a balance. What we want to do is create a model of that in this place, and bring people to show them this model, and try to show that each of us human beings has something to give and something to take. And when we realize this, that we can give and take, that we can learn from each other and teach each other, we will become equals. We will become friends." Lapidot's voice assumes a missionary zeal as he concludes, "So let's live like we see the trees living in this wonderful forest. We can live together in balance. We could save the world if everyone began to think this way. I want to have as many people as possible come here, learn the concept, and spread it all over the world." For further information, visit Eretz Carmel's web site at http://www.eretzcarmel.org, e-mail Amiad Lapidot at amiad@eretzcarmel.org, or call 054-433-5597.

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