The Baal Shem Tov, or Besht —  the founder of Chasidism — 
met the soul of the Messiah during an ascent to heaven. 
The Besht asked him, "When will the Master come?" 
The Messiah answered, "When your wellsprings break forth to the outside!" 
(from a letter written by the Besht to his brother-in-law about one of his soul ascents) 


 
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The Giving Tree, or, Why GoNeutral isn't really neutral...

(click here for the original 2008 call for action)

Whether you're celebrating Tu Bish'vat or Yom Ha'atsmaut or a bat/bar mitsvah, many people are inspired to plant trees through Jewish National Fund. The best time to plant many trees in Israel is a bit later in the year than Tu Bishvat, but either way I'd like to ask you to imagine new ways to plant a tree. Though there are many issues with Keren Kayemet LeYisrael (KKL - the JNF in Israel), what I want to talk about here is the environmental significance of tree planting. KKL sells its trees as carbon offsets under terms that are at best misleading and at worst downright false.

(Note: The most important issue is the KKL-JNF's role in helping to take over land once occupied by Bedouin villages in places like Atir, which was happening as recently as 2012. It is now 2016, and I have not heard about KKL taking over Bedouin land recently. But the remainder of what follows is still as true as today, eight years later, as when it was written in 2008.)

Right now if you give $18 for a tree, eight of those dollars go toward getting your paper certificate. The current alternative offered by JNF is to give JNF $10 for a tree through their "GoNeutral" campaign and forgo the paper.

The problem is this: "GoNeutral" isn't neutral: Their calculation for how many trees one should plant for the same carbon offset is 5 times less than what responsible carbon offset organizations suggest to plant. And KKL charges *much* more per tree than other offset programs. Not only that, some of the KKL forests are still unsustainable single-species tree plantations, providing little habitat for native plants or animals, and no meaningful offset for your carbon footprint.

For example, if you go to Carbonify.com, you'll be asked to donate 100 – that's one hundred trees – to offset 20 tons of CO2 (the average per person in the US), all for less than $50. (Or buy 50 trees for $5, 10¢ a tree, here.) JNF GoNeutral will ask you to donate only 20 trees for the same offset, and will ask you for $200 dollars. (If you go the traditional JNF route, it will cost you $360!)

Part of that difference is the pay scale for Israel v. places like Sri Lanka. But the norm for carbon offsets is about $10 per ton. That's at least five trees, instead of JNF's single tree which for the same price is supposed to offset the same ton.

Why the difference? Even in the best forest, one tree can take 70 years to absorb a ton of carbon according to JNF-US –but it only takes each of us a year to release 20 or more tons. Not all trees will reach maturity. So every creditable carbon-offset organization requires 5 trees per ton. Since climate change is gathering speed over time, keeping a ton of CO2 from being released now could help the ecosystem much more than having a ton of CO2 pulled out of the atmosphere five or fifty years from now. And even if it all were equal, the effect of the long time for a tree to mature means that more than half of the CO2 we are supposedly offsetting now will still be in the atmosphere 30 years from now. Multiply that by the 70 years it takes to really catch up. You can see that even the estimate of 5 trees per ton may be too low. You would need to buy many dozens of trees to offset your yearly 20 tons of CO2 emissions in time to help things turn around.

That's assuming the best conditions: a healthy tree in a healthy forest. In the monoculture forests in some of the JNF land, that carbon goes back into the atmosphere much sooner, as other trees die off without reseeding themselves. Monoculture forests also reduce CO2 far less than a healthy forest ecosystem because they don't build up rich soil, which holds far more CO2 than a brosh pine forest. And KKL doesn't share information about which forests are sustainable and self-seeding so that you can make sure your tree is planted in one.

What should JNF be doing?

1) JNF should be creating a real forest habitat, one that can sustain native and diverse species for generations.

2) JNF should let its customers know which forests are better for creating long-lived habitat and ecosystems and only plant GoNeutral trees there.

2) JNF should be financing good clean energy that actually prevents carbon from entering the waste stream right now.

The way to do that is simple: JNF shouldn't charge $10 to plant a tree that won't offset any significant amount of carbon. Instead JNF should charge the normal $18 and put $9 of it directly towards something like the Good Energy Initiative, which helps poor communities with green energy initiatives, and also helps companies who want to do carbon offsetting to make it really happen. Most of GEI's work prevents CO2 from being released, instead of trying to reabsorb it afterwards and after decades. So even if the trees you plant didn't make it to maturity, you would already have locked in your carbon offset.

There may be other great ways to invest in Israel's environment while acting to stop climate change, and I hope readers will let me know so I can share them. But what matters is making real change and not just taking actions to feel good. That means planting healthy forests that sustain the lives on many creatures for many generations.

Choni, one of the great sages and miracle workers in the Talmud, wondered at an old man who planted a carob tree that would not bear fruit for seventy years. (It doesn't actually take that long for a carob tree to bear fruit, btw, but it works in a legend.) The old man taught Choni a true lesson: we plant for the generations that follow us.

Let us restore the ancient forests, even though it takes lifetimes. Make a pledge to give a tree that will give for generations, that will seed its own descendants, shelter animals, and nurture people. Tell JNF you want more out of your donation: more green for Israel and more life for all of Israel's inhabitants, both for human beings, and for all the other species that make the holy land what it should be.

Let our planting, and our Israel, be one which survives generations. Let us plant not just for ten years but for the next seventy, for a hundred and twenty, and more.

Rabbi David Seidenberg


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Design in progress © Rabbi David Mevorach Seidenberg 2006