The crowd at an environmental awareness presentation Sunday was grounded a bit when composting and recycling expert Nick Shorr said, “Jews, for both political, economic and philosophical reasons, distanced ourselves from the land, both because we couldn’t own land and we had higher things in mind.”
The event, held at the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill and called “Why the Environment Matters to the Economy: What Judaism Has to Say About It,” featured Mitchell Small, professor of environmental engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, Rick Wice, a hydrogeologist for Baton Rouge-based Shaw Group and Shorr, who works with the Pennsylvania Resources Council, Inc.
An audience of about 45 came to the panel, presented by the Environmental Committee of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh and co-sponsored by the Coalition on the Environmental and Jewish Life, Congregation Dor Hadash, Jewish National Fund, Rodef Shalom Congregation, Tikkun Olam Center of Temple Sinai and Young Israel of Greater Pittsburgh.
Small warned against over-hyping fears of global warming, as “you cannot identify a trend in climate without at least 30 to 50 years of data,” he said.
“You can’t say we must not be in the middle of climate change because the last three years have not been that hot.” He explained, however, that “a clear and very steep increase” in carbon emissions can be measured due to augmented fossil fuel burning since the Industrial Revolution.
Small noted Jewish rabbinical rulings in the Mishna as “among, if not the earliest, air pollution regulation … for human health and aesthetic damages,” citing examples stating that graves and tanning yards were to be kept away from towns.
As Small covered large swaths of subjects about environmental consciousness, Wice’s presentation stuck closer to the event’s title. He described how Pittsburgh’s “brown fields,” or unused industrial grounds, could be repurposed for the economic and commercial benefit of the city.
Pointing to the disappearance of a smokestack-filled Pittsburgh skyline, Wice said, “To put it in perspective, back in 1904, this was why people came to the Promised Land.” Now, however, Pittsburgh has recycled vast plots of industrial land long abandoned, resulting in areas such as The Waterfront and Nine Mile Run.
“We did a little bit right in our backyard,” said Wice. “We need to take the same concept worldwide.”
Though Shorr’s presentation was cut short, he explained how Americans are becoming increasingly conscious of where food comes from and where it goes, citing statistics like the 25 percent increase in produce bought from farmers markets in the last 17 years and the “7,000 percent” increase in Community Supported Agriculture in the past quarter decade.
“We’ve all grown up where stuff magically comes and disappears from our view,” he said. “To keep track of the impact of where stuff goes is a frontier of science — and being a mensch.”
(Justin Jacobs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)