My Journey

In September, 2009, this Canadian boy started a masters program the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, learning about ecology and health, middle-eastern politics and the environment, and how a dire problem may facilitate a region's coming together for the better. This Blog is a record of my head-first dive into this immense world.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

An Earth Day full of Paradox

So, my commitment to sticking to nothing but personal awe in my contribution to the Earth Day discourse got diverted slightly through reading a couple of articles that were sent my way, the first by my daily NYTimes feed and the second posted on Facebook by the lovely Lauren Rauch, a program assistant at the Machon.

The Times piece is titled "At 40, Earth Day Is Now Big Business" and chronicles the uneasy bed-fellowship of the environmental movement and big businesses.  My favorite feature of the article, exemplifying what many would see as the blatant co-option of the environmental message just to push more useless crap, is the Peat the Penguin toy:

According to the article:
F. A. O. Schwarz is taking advantage of Earth Day to showcase Peat the Penguin, an emerald-tinted plush toy that, as part of the Greenzys line, is made of soy fibers and teaches green lessons to children. The penguin, Greenzys promotional material notes, “is an ardent supporter of recycling, reusing and reducing waste.”
Now, the fact that its made from soy fibres might at first glance seem like a win, but likely those soy fibres are coming from former rain-forest in Brazil, not a family farm down the road.  That aside though, I suppose that if it came down to the question of which toy to buy your child, starting with the assumption that they need a brand new toy every so often, a little bird that spews a conservation ethic is definitely preferable to many other toys.  As a bit more of a radical though, I would say that by wedding the superficial conservation ethic to a tangible act of simple consumerism, the act is self-defeating or even counter-productive.  The blatant greenwashing involved leads to the good feeling of having "done the right thing," without having to actually change your way of life one bit.  This is the ultimate goal of green capitalism: simply replacing the paralyzing array of consumer choices with "sustainable" choices which don't deplete resources.  That way we can have modernization, economic growth, and sustainability without having to do anything differently!  Now, this is theoretically possible, but it's just so much easier to put the money into advertising green than to actually making green products, and with current technologies (and projecting them into the near to mid term), it just seems out of the realm of credibility to assume we can really have it all without facing the hard reality and doing the real work of changing our legislation and lifestyles. 

   The article closes with a quote from Robert Stone, a film maker who documents the American Environmental movement:
“Every Earth Day is a reflection of where we are as a culture,” he said. “If it has become commoditized, about green consumerism instead of systemic change, then it is a reflection of our society.”  
 Well put.

The second article is from Mondoweiss, described on its website as : "a news website devoted to covering American foreign policy in the Middle East, chiefly from a progressive Jewish perspective."  This article, titled "Earth Day in Israel: Apartheid Showing Through the Greenwash" and written by Stephanie Westbrook, also covers Earth Day from the perspective of scratching the surface to see just what's under the greenwashing.  Those put off by the term "apartheid" in the title can be justifiably perturbed, and I certainly wouldn't advocate the term, but the article does point out some incredibly troubling stark contrasts in the realm of environmental justice.  While across Israel people participated in the voluntary blackout to raise awareness of energy consumption and in Tel Aviv a concert was powered largely by generator running on vegetable oil and volunteers on power-generating bicycles
The irony was not lost on the 1.5 million residents of Gaza who have been living with daily power outages lasting hours on end for nearly three years due to the Israeli siege on the coastal territory. The Israeli Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) reports that over 100 million liters of fuel were allowed into Gaza in 2009, however as Gisha points out, that amounts to only 57% of the need. As summer approaches bringing peak demands, spare parts and tools for turbine repair are in dire need. There are currently over 50 truckloads of electrical equipment awaiting approval by the Israeli authorities for entry to Gaza.
 While Israelis go starry-eyed over planting trees and preserving green space
Palestinian farmers from the West Bank village of Qaryut near Nablus had their own tree planting ceremony in honor of Earth Day, only to find the 250 olive tree saplings uprooted by Israeli settlers from Givat Hayovel. Another 300 were uprooted during the night of April 13 outside the Palestinian village of Mihmas by settlers from the nearby Migron outpost. The Palestinian Land Research Center estimates that over 12000 olive trees were uprooted throughout the West Bank in 2009, with Israeli authorities responsible for about 60%, clearing the land for settlements and construction of the wall, and Israeli settlers the rest.
Finally, the starkest contrast comes in the realm of water.  The Israeli Ministry of Environmental Protection had a contest and gave out awards for IDF groups that did well in a water conservation contest while
For Palestinians living in the West Bank, this "protection of water sources" was documented in Amnesty International's October 2009 report Troubled Water: "The Israeli army’s destruction of Palestinian water facilities – rainwater harvesting and storage cisterns, agricultural pools and spring canals – on the grounds that they were constructed without permits from the army is often accompanied by other measures that aim to restrict or eliminate the presence of Palestinians from specific areas of the West Bank."
The Amnesty International report also notes that for decades, Israeli settlers have instead "been given virtually unlimited access to water supplies to develop and irrigate the large farms which help to support unlawful Israeli settlements." And nowhere is this more evident than the Jordan Valley where 95% of the area is occupied by Israeli settlements, plantations and military bases and where "Israeli water extraction inside the West Bank is highest."
 Now, if this isn't tantamount to Apartheid, I'd at least go so far as to say it is racist.  Many people would argue that I'm picking on Israel, using a double standard, etc.  But the fact remains: Israel has the power.  If your goal was to breed extremism, I'd probably suggest a similar use of power as the one that Israel uses constantly in the uprooting of trees and livelihoods and the wanton and pointless destruction of property that clearly poses no security threat (e.g. rainwater harvesting and cisterns!).  My thought is that there is no peace and sustainability without justice, and right now we are a very long way away from justice.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

First Post at Late Night Thoughts!

On Cultural Evolution in birds, myths surrounding Charles Darwin's trip to the Galapagos, and the Beatles!

You can find it HERE

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Happy Earth Day!

Happy 40th birthday Earth Day!

After 40 years, the environment is, I think on the agenda for good, and thus that particular function of Earth Day is worn a little thin - raise your hands if you want another admonishment about how we're treating the planet?  How about another 500 top ten lists about how to green everything from your wardrobe to your sex life?  No longer do we need to use the day as a platform from which to cry out all of the problems going on in the bio-social matrix of the planet - if you're not aware of the precariousness of the situation, you probably aren't reading this.  In fact, you probably aren't reading anything.  As an example of how windows of interest function for policy-makers, our environmental policy prof showed us a sequence of magazine covers with specials on climate change: first Times, then Newsweek, then Business Week, then...Sports Illustrated?........then.........Vanity Fair!  Earth Day as an annual town crier's bell is a little outmoded by this point.

So on this Earth Day, I thought that I would contribute to the whole discourse by simply shouting out to the primordial  feeling of Awe that I often get just conceiving of the immensity and beauty of the World and all that it holds.  The following is just a brief foray into it.  Let's go back to the image that set the whole Earth Day thing in motion - the very first pictures of Earth from space, taken in 1968:

I grew up reading science writers who evoked wonder at every turn, whose goal was to turn the everyday observation into a meditation on the beauty all around us, who effected me so much that I have never stopped staring into the night sky with utter delight, never stopped chattering to whoever will listen about how wonderful insects and microbes are, and have never failed to, at least once a day, be humbled by the immensity of all I don't know.  Carl Sagan's reflection on the photo of earth from space comes from his famous Pale Blue Dot:

From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of particular interest. But for us, it's different. Consider again that dot. That's here, that's home, that's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
I don't know whether, on first hearing about the theory of Evolution, it struck me as odd - it certainly should have!.  I'd like to think that I got as excited about it then as I do now, but I have no way of knowing. I do know that Evolution is what tipped the scales towards the study of Biology when I was going into the third year of my undergraduate degree.  I was trying to decide between Biology and Physics - I loved them both - but in the end I just needed to study Life!  Joseph Wood-Krutch articulates why better than I ever could:

If I wanted to comtemplate what to me is the deepest of all mysteries, I should choose as my object lesson a snowflake under a lens and an amoeba under a microscope. To the detached observer - if one can possibly imagine any observer who could be detached when faced with such an ultimate choice - the snowflake would certainly seem the "higher" of the two. Against its intricate glistening perfection one would have to place a shapeless, slightly turbid glob, perpetually oozing out in this direction or that but not suggesting so strongly as the snowflake does, intelligence and plan. Crystal and collid, the chemist would call them, but what an inconceivable contrast those neutral terms imply! Like the star, the snowflake seems to declare the glory of God, while the promise of the amoeba, given only perhaps to itself, seems only contemptible. But its jelly holds, nevertheless, not only its promise but ours also, while the snowflake represents some achievement which we cannot possibly share. After the passage of billions of years, one can see and be aware of the other, but the relationship can never be reciprocal. Even after these billions of years no aggregate of colloids can be as beautiful as the crystal always was, but it can know, as the crystal cannot, what beauty is.

And finally, to second that feeling, the immortal closing lines to the Origin of Species (which I know by heart :-)

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

We have been given a wonderful, incomparable gift in our existence, in our planet, in our mysterious and often hilarious minds.  Today, I just want to say thanks.  I motion that Earth Day, from now on, be less a clarion call and more of a Great, universal Thanksgiving - I think it would do a lot more good that way.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Yeled Tov Yerushalayim

Much to the relief of my grandfather, I have shaved my beard off and will be keeping it off for a while (no more one-month shaving cycle!).  I've also largely been wearing my glasses instead of my contacts.  The overall look is slightly different to the one at the top of the page.  And yes, thank you, I know that I look just like my father :-)

The look prompted my caravan-mate, Itai, to  remark that I'm turning into a "Yeled tov Yerushalayim", a hebrew euphemism that was new to me.  It translates pretty much as a "good boy from Jerusalem."  In other words, a bit of a goody-two-shoes know it all wimp with a nasally voice.  I'll let you decide.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Late Night Thoughts on the Wonders of Science and Nature

I'm starting a new blog!  Having altogether far too little on my plate, and getting far too much sleep for my own well being, I have decided to expand my online presence and colonize a new, empty spot in cyberspace titled Late Night Thoughts on the Wonders of Science and Nature :

A personal project of science writing and explanation, where I will peruse the weekly offerings of the world's two most famous science journals and pick my favorite article or two to offer up to the blogosphere.
Can't afford to stay behind the times in this business!  Research blogging is all the rage!

But don't worry, I will keep up Milk and Honey as if I Late Night Thoughts never popped into my mind.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Drops from the cup - the Machon approaches Israeli Independence Day

During the passover seder, Jews around the world do something very special, something that lays the foundation for a modern ethic of reconciliation and empathy: as we recount the visiting of the ten plagues upon Egypt, the acts of God that led to our being able to pass from Mitzrayim (Egypt, literally a narrow, confined place) to the promised land of Israel, we spill a little bit of wine from our cups on the pronunciation of each plague.  Wine symbolizes our rejoicing in freedom, but when we remember that our freedom came at the price of so much suffering for ordinary Egyptians we spill a little joy from our cups.  Now, the origins of this ritual probably have very little to do with our modern humanistic interpretation - since the plagues visited the Egyptians but not the Jews, we remove them from our cups - but the contemporary interpretation speaks volumes about the central values of modern Judaism as I know it.

This Tuesday Israel will celebrate Yom Ha'atzmaut, or Independence Day, commemorating the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 following the end of the British mandate of Palestine and the UN Partition plan of 1947.  It is a day of unabashed joy in Israel, full of barbecues and fireworks, strategically placed the day after Yom HaZikaron, Israeli remembrance day.  But while Israelis term the war of 1947-48 the war of independence, Palestinians have a different name for it: the Nakba, or "catastrophe".  Just as the mythical displays of divine power that led to Jewish liberty 3,000 years ago also created much suffering amongst the Egyptian people, so Israeli independence was also won at a price:

    "Jewish Villages were built on the remains of Arab villages.  You don't even know the names of these Arab villages and I don't blame you because the geography books no longer exist.  It is not only geography books that no longer exist, but also the Arab villages themselves disappeared.  For Nahalal was established on the site of Ma'loul, Kibbutz G'vat on the site of Jebbata, Kibbutz Sarid in the place of Khneifes, and Kfar Yehoshua on the site of Tel Shoman.  There is not one place built in this country that did not have a former Arab population."

-Moshe Dayan, from a speech at the Technion, 1969

The old myth that it was the Arab leaders who commanded over 700,000 Palestinians to leave their homes during the war is long dead, and I won't beat it further into the ground.  While there was no official plan to displace the Arab population from Jewish areas (i.e. ethnic cleansing), the concept of minimizing the Arab population of a future Jewish state was explicitly discussed, and commanders in the field were given pretty free reign to do as they wished.  In the early months of the civil war, before the Arab armies entered, the massacre of Arabs at Deir Yassin sent a strong message, and the words Deir Yassin were used as a battle cry later in the war by Jewish forces.  The Palestinians left out of a mix of terror and force, the wealthy ones first - ensuring that leadership on the ground was scarce.

This is not meant to minimize the existential threat posed to the fledgling state of Israel by the situation, and the Arab leadership also openly discussed ethnic cleansing - the roiling conflict between Jewish and Arab national aspirations that was kept in check by British rule burst its seams in this conflict.  But saying things like "Well, Israel accepted the partition plan while the Arabs didn't - they just wanted to drive us into the sea" as a justification for Jewish acts and a demonstration of Jewish moral superiority is inappropriately reading back into the situation that while the Arabs were bloodthirsty ethnic cleansers, the Jews were simply happy to live in their little state with an almost equal Arab population - if Israel had felt it was the stronger force at that point, whether it would have attempted to claim as much land as possible and displace as many Arabs as possible is an open question.   If we approach the situation with such a sense of moral superiority, we have already dehumanized the other player, and when this happens the possibility of peace and justice flies from our grasp.

We now come to Independence Day.  It is all well and good to spill wine from our cups to remember the ancient Egyptians 3,000 years ago.  Can you ask Israeli society today, with all of its existential anxieties, security fears, and pain and suffering at the hands of Palestinian terrorism, to spill a little joy from Yom Ha'atzmaut to remember the human cost of its Independence?  Many peace groups think that not only is this a good idea, but it is vital for the future reconciliation of the two peoples and thus Israel's very existence.  Therefore, many groups have put on joint Yom Ha'atzmaut - Nakba day observances, and many have incorporated the Nakba narrative into the celebrations of Yom Ha'atzmaut.  An example is a group called Zochorot, who state:

    "Zochrot seeks to engage the Jewish public in Israel in remembering and talking about the Nakba, the Palestinian tragedy of 1948. The memory of the Nakba is a counter memory that challenges the Zionist version of events that most Jewish Israelis are taught from a young age and come to take for granted as “true.” The Nakba is in one sense the story of the Palestinian tragedy -- the destruction of the villages, the expulsions and the killing -- but it is also a fundamental part of the story of Jews who live here, of the victors of the 1948 war."

Here at the Machon we have made a decision: on Yom Ha'atzmaut, we will fly both the Israeli flag and the Palestinian flag, as a recognition that both peoples had and still have aspirations for independence, self-governance, and a life of dignity in this land, and until both peoples can acknowledge the right of the other to this dignity, the legacy of pain and suffering will be bequeathed to generations to come.  So, this Yom Ha'atzmaut, I encourage everyone to do something symbolic to take a drop out of their cup of joy - only a drop - to begin to build towards reconciliation.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Back in Israel

After 2 weeks back in Toronto for Pesach, I've touched down in Israel once again.  It was a whirlwind visit, filled with little trips, tons of catching up over drinks of many sorts, and a lot of good family time, though some of it under less than desired circumstances.  Thankfully, everything is back to some semblance of normality and my Zaide is on the road to full recovery.  I even landed a job for July the day after I arrived in Toronto.  I'll be working at a place called Children's Peace Theatre, out at Victoria Park, on their major annual project.  You can read about it here, and I'm sure I'll have a lot to say about it in July too. 

Just in the last few days, a new little piece of Israeli policy has put many people I know a bit on edge.  I don't know enough about it to really say, but here and here are a couple of representative articles, and here is a little story on Al-Jazeera featuring a Gazan artist living in the West Bank who I met in Feburary.  I'll keep updating as things develop.

But despite the turmoil, I'm very excited about being back in Israel, and going back to the Machon.  Ketura Bound!