The value of ahavat ha’beriot, the love of God’s creations, is open to broad interpretation. The animal world, the environment, as well as other people, can all fall under this crucial tenet of Judaism.
Like positive values and most good things, of course, this is easier in theory than in practice. We all want a clean environment and a better world, but we also want the convenience of automobiles, abundant and varied food, and the panorama of disposable consumer goods that we associate with the “good life.”
Awareness is, on the one hand, the most important factor in social change. On the other hand, it can overwhelm us to learn the full scope of our impacts on the world. Leave aside the huge looming catastrophe of climate change and consider for a moment the impact of a single, almost universal item of clothing: the cotton T-shirt.
Some bumper sticker wisdom urges us to “live simply, that others may simply live.” We do not always think of our wardrobe when considering our carbon footprint. Yet, after housing, food and transportation, for many people, clothing is one of the largest expenditures. Since voting with our wallets is one important way of making change, it is worth considering the impacts of our wardrobe choices. And what we wear on our backs says more about us than merely our fashion sense. It speaks (whether we know it or not) about our views on the environment and matters like child labour and fair wages.
To this end, one might think that a basic T-shirt would be a good choice. Yet it can take up to 2,700 litres of water to produce the cotton required for this simple garment, according to the World Wildlife Federation. Caring for the T-shirt over its lifespan takes further resources: each load of laundry takes more than 150 litres of water. Throwing it in the dryer (with a full load) consumes even more energy resources than the washing machine – about five times as much. Hanging it instead on a clothesline would reduce the shirt’s carbon footprint by one-third, but who remembers those? (Walk down a back lane in Vancouver a generation ago, and clotheslines snaked across almost every yard.) That few of us would be prepared to make this comparatively small shift indicates the glacial – to use an ironic term in the context – pace of human change in a time of rapid change in the environment.
Our food choices are even heavier with impacts. Researchers at institutions including the Weizmann Institute of Science calculated the use of land area, water and nitrogen fertilizer in animal food production. Potatoes, wheat and rice require half to one-sixth of the resources needed to produce pork, chicken, dairy and eggs in a calorie-for-calorie comparison. (Beef takes as much as five times the resources as chicken.)
Livestock for food are estimated to create about 20% of greenhouse gas emissions while using vast amounts of agricultural and water resources. Reducing or giving up meat consumption results in a huge reduction in resources. Producing a kilogram of protein from beef requires about 18 times more land, 10 times more water, nine times more fuel, 12 times more fertilizer and 10 times more pesticide than producing a kilogram of protein from kidney beans. But, again, many people love a steak or roast chicken and giving up these pleasures is not on the agenda.
This is not to instil hopelessness that even our simplest choices are leading to environmental disaster. Rather, it is to be aware of the power of small changes to have significant results.
We can extrapolate the outsized impacts of larger choices. When faced with the realities of carbon fuels on our environment (and health), most of us will not choose to sell our cars. But we might use them more judiciously. Or buy a more fuel-efficient vehicle. And, when it comes to making big political decisions that impact our environment and health, we might consider that, on balance, we should be moving toward investing in alternatives to fossil fuels, not pouring public or private billions into perpetuating deleterious and nonrenewable resources. We may not go cold turkey on gasoline and oil overnight, but our discrete choices should be leading incrementally in the right direction, not the wrong one.