Green Views. Join me at 37,000 feet. You take the window seat (but sitting next to a rabbi, expect some Judaic commentary on the scenery). Land-use issues are clearest from up here. If you’ve gotta contribute all that carbon through flying, you might as well enjoy the free and educational “movie ” unfolding below. Surrounding what little is left of what we’ve been given, we see out the cabin window what we as a society have chosen. We see the land, patterned after our own likeness.
Green Planning. Looking down after takeoff, city maps become real, and zoning choices are tangible. Forward-thinking municipalities treasure and protect their open space. My own place, Washington DC, boasts not only the openness of the National Mall but the protected wilds of Rock Creek Park, and much more. For my family in Minneapolis, lakes and parks are a matter of civic pride. “Scholars should not live in a town without greenery” (Talmud Sanhedrin 17b)—and neither should children, or anyone. How verdant are our surroundings, and how much time do we take to appreciate them?
Green Lungs. That’s what parks and open space are for cities. Frederick Law Olmsted and his City Beautiful movement were onto something when they created parks as oases in, and “emerald necklaces” around, the great centers. But they didn’t coin the idea: Numbers 35:4-5 insists on an open space or migrash of 1000 cubits (half a kilometer) on all sides around the towns of the Levites; tradition extends this to all cities. The migrashcannot be rezoned for agricultural use, nor can fields be used to accommodate urban sprawl (MT Shmittah 13:2), ever. How would the view differ if we still followed this advice?
Green Lawns. Scores of miles beyond the airport and downtown, we still see suburbs and exurbs. In theory they unite the best of rural openness with urban access. Yet once lot sizes exceed a fifth or tenth of an acre, density falls, and mass transit becomes impractical. Despite our tradition that favors the public realm over the private (i.e. parks over lawns; c.f. Talmud Bava Kama 50b), too much suburban greenery is in small monocultural fiefdoms of chemicalized nonnative grass. Ecologically a “well-manicured” lawn, despite the species it hosts and rainwater it filters, has as much in common with the asphalt over it as with the field or forest it replaced. Where do we make our homes, and how do we steward our little slice of Creation?
Green Flights. The flight-path from Minneapolis to DC affords great views of Chicagoland, Cleveland and Pittsburgh. But mostly it’s mid-sized and small towns scattered throughout, with roads aplenty between cultivated fields: cropland, all the way to the horizon. Parks, wildlands, and protected riparian zones are immediately recognizable, sadly, because there are so few of them—the forested Blue Ridges especially stand out, long bumpy green waves on a sea of agriculture and settlement. We have remade most of the land in our image, after the needs and desires of our one species. Where will the rock-badger make its nest, or the wild birds rest (c.f. Psalm 104)?
Green Diets. We ourselves don’t eat most of the soy and corn and alfalfa which dominate the view out the left side of the aircraft. Rather we feed the majority to livestock, getting back less than a tenth of it in the form of meat. A new U.N. study suggests that fully 18% of the human contribution to climate change is through the animal industry—mostly from these land-use changes, plus methane in their digestive tracts, nitrous oxides from their waste, transport of all that feed and product, and power to the slaughterhouses. Jewish tradition at least limits our consumption of animals through kashrut (dietary laws), and many Jewish values point toward a vegetarian ideal. What’s on our plate?
Green Cities. Downtowns, and individual tall buildings, are recognizable from seven miles up. They’re among the most sustainable elements of the view—density is good for land-use (and culture, and democracy…). From the air, suburbs look flat and wasteful by comparison, cookie-cut. The Talmud was prescient—Bava Batra (75a) explains that as Jerusalem grows, thirty houses would be built atop one another, with people “flying” up and down—and the open space around it would remain. How dense or efficient is the land use in our neighborhood?
Green Outlook. Isaiah (5:8-9) prophesied to the Kingdom of Israel over 2700 years ago: “Woe to you who add house to house and join field to field, until no space is left and you live alone on the land. The Lord Almighty has declared in my hearing: ‘Surely the great houses will become desolate, the fine mansions left without occupants’…” Will that be our fate, or can we do better? I think we can. This Omer season, let’s commit to each other, to Creation, and to the Creator, with specific ways to lighten our footprint on this good Earth.
Questions for Thought and Discussion: