Monday, May 14, 2012

Tikun Olam

The other day, a friend and I were talking about electric vehicles.  He asserted that electric cars actually have a larger carbon footprint than gas vehicles.  I told him he was nuts; the sheer scale of electric power generation vs. the internal combustion engine made the electric car a clear winner.   A few days later, after some Googling around, he came back to me with more information: the gasoline vehicle wins by a nose if you assume that you will, at some point during the 130,000-mile life of the average car, need to replace the battery in the electric vehicle – because there is so much carbon tied up in the production of the battery itself.  If you don’t buy that assumption, the electric vehicle is a much better choice – unless, of course, you happen to live in a state that derives so much of its power from coal that electricity is actually quite dirty.

So the choice is clear.  As mud.

This is frustrating, because the answer really matters to me.  Jewish philosophy includes the concept of Tikun Olam, or "repairing the world". It is a phrase with roots in classical rabbinic literature.  In modern Judaism, it has become associated with societal change, including environmental stewardship.  The interpretations of Tikun Olam are myriad, but what seems common is that we all have a responsibility to fix what's broken - however we define it.  To face the world's problems with resignation is just not cool with the tribe.
I want to do the right thing… I really do.  But here in downtown San Jose, most of my family's purchase decisions are at the end of a long, dark tunnel, illuminated only by advertiser-sponsored billboards.  Doing the right thing isn’t always so obvious.  Who grew our food?  Where is our electricity coming from?  Why is bamboo so much more expensive if it grows so much faster?  What chemicals were added to the “organic cotton” T-shirt I’m buying to make the dye adhere?  Where exactly do cage-free hens live?  In a world where we are so distanced from the source of most of the goods and services we consume, it’s hard to know what choice we’re really making when we pull out our wallets.  

I know I’m not alone in this struggle; so many of us set out to do the "right thing" and wind up like lost tourists, glancing nervously at our maps and forcing weak smiles.  It's enough to make you give up and just ask the barmaid to bring a pitcher. And yet, as a dear friend once said to me, all the divine can ask of us is that we try.

So we embrace the effort to make good choices.  You can see our hopeful faces everywhere, trying to be responsible consumers.  Take farmers’ markets, where urbanites flock to buy directly from growers.  According to the USDA, there were 2,863 operating farmers’ markets around the US in the year 2000; in 2011, there were 7,175.  There are also nearly 13,000 farms with community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs around the country.  And consider the burgeoning backyard chicken-farming movement and the online communities aggregating at sites like  We may buy our pants from an anonymous factory halfway around the world, but dammit, we know where our eggs came from.

There is a silver lining to this effort: in our quest to reconnect with the goods we buy, we reconnect with each other.  Farmers' markets gather communities. Your neighbor with the avocado tree barters with you for oranges from yours.  Schools become pickup spots not just for our kids but also for CSA programs.  And from these connections sprout relationships that enrich our lives.

As for the Civic hybrid in my driveway… it sure seemed like the right choice back in 2003, but how can I be sure?  Does my vehicle have a smug problem, as they say on South Park?  Maybe.  At least I tried.  That much, I can say, feels right.  It feels even better when it's sitting in the driveway because I'm biking to work or walking to the store - which is pretty often.  And if I meet a neighbor on that walk or find a riding partner in the bike car on Caltrain, then that's one more connection pulling me into community.  If I list it on RelayRides and make it available when I'm not using it, that's another.  At the end of the day, maybe that's the piece that matters most - because if we're all in this together, the odds of our making choices with our eyes wide open increases exponentially. 

I came across this quote from David Levithan about Tikun Olam, and I think it's an apt way to close this post:

Maybe that’s it. With what you were talking about before. The world being broken. Maybe it isn’t that we’re supposed to find the pieces and put them back together. Maybe we’re the pieces. Maybe, what we’re supposed to do is come together. That’s how we stop the breaking.


  1. I love how you combine your analytical mind and your spiritual/intuitive mind. Thanks for sharing.

    And I remember many of Karen's rules for taking care and treading lightly -- use less, share more, waste little, assume the best intentions of others. You live as a role model quite well :)

    This is steph, btw, since I still seem to be a number

  2. Karen, I can't stop thinking about that ending quote from David Levithan. It's impossible for me to conceive how I could even begin repairing the world on my own, but I can imagine that coming together, being a piece of a whole. Thank you for such a thought provoking post!

    1. It really struck a chord with me too, Susannah. Glad you liked it. I figure there are ways for us to carry that aspiration every day.