'Israel should lead the way to environmental sustainability'

Expert tells Heschel Center conference that curbing damage from climate change is vital to planet's survival.

solar plant 88 224 (photo credit: Bloomberg)
solar plant 88 224
(photo credit: Bloomberg)
"We are the first generation to be able to say life or death is a choice we make for the planet," keynote speaker Prof. David W. Orr told the 800 people attending the Heschel Center for Environmental Learning and Leadership's 10th anniversary conference last week. Orr is the Paul Sears Distinguished Professor of Environmental Studies and Politics at Oberlin College. It is too late to avoid the trauma of climate change, but we can still avoid the worst, Orr said during a stirring and chilling presentation on "Sustainability - the global challenge." Calling it a turning point in human civilization akin to the Reformation and the Enlightenment, Orr painted two stark choices which were really no choice at all: To continue as we are and destroy the planet, or to build a "solar, efficient, democratic and sustainable society." We are already paying the price for the huge carbon deficit which we have built up in the atmosphere as a result of emissions since the 1970s, Orr declared. Temperatures have risen 8/10 of a degree Celsius already and will rise another half to full degree as a result of the carbon already released into the atmosphere, the author of four groundbreaking ecology education books said. "There are two deficits: The economic deficit, which is solvable in a few years or four or five. Then there is the other deficit: the climate deficit, the more than five billion tons of carbon in the atmosphere. "It is important to solve the first deficit in a way that does not compound the second deficit," Orr warned. Marking 10 years since its founding, the Heschel Center, which has played an important behind-the-scenes role in shaping the environmental movement in Israel, brought together 800 people to brainstorm about sustainability over the next 10 years. In addition to short speeches on the connection between environment and culture, society and economics, the participants broke up into work groups and spread out all over the Tel Aviv port to brainstorm solutions to many of the environmental challenges the country faces today. Their solutions and a continuing forum for dialogue have been uploaded to a new green action network site. Global destabilization is inevitable, Orr continued. Sea levels will rise, storms will get worse, there will be more disease and famine, drought and heat waves, and changing ecosystems. "When the global temperature rises two degrees, food will be harder to grow in the hotter world. The Midwest US bread basket will be gone. According to the UN, there are already 5,000 'dead zones,' nonproductive biological deserts, around the world," he warned. Quoting Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Orr decreed that "to be or not to be is not the question. How to be is. "Pessimism is irrelevant. Hope is a verb and its sleeves are rolled up. We can pull off miracles, but only hopeful people can," Orr concluded. He challenged Israel to lead the charge towards sustainability. "Why not begin sustainability here, where civilization first flourished?! Imagine what we would say at the 20th anniversary of the Heschel Center," he exhorted the crowd, which responded with enthusiastic applause. "Maybe people will look back 500 years from now and say 'This was mankind's finest hour,'" Orr offered.