Plant a Tree, Save a Car

When I was a kid in Hebrew school, all we did to celebrate TuB’Shevat was send some money to Israel to plant a tree.

Not unimportant, but hardly a High Holiday.

These days, Tu B’Shevat, which begins on sundown Friday, isa much, much bigger deal. Jewish environmentalists have claimed the holiday astheir own, and each year program a nonstop series of events, teach-ins,ceremonies and, of course, tree plantings to drive home the message that beingblue and white also means being green.

In this spirit, I celebrated Tu B’Shevat in two ways sofar: First, I planted oak saplings with my children last Sunday at Camp JCA Shalom’sTu B’Shevat Festival in Malibu.

Then, I called Laurie David.

David, along with columnist Ariana Huffington, raised themoney to produce a series of national television commercials attacking theAmerican addiction to the SUV. Spoofing the Bush administration’s publicservice spots linking drug use to the financing of overseas terror networks,The Detroit Project’s commercials draw a much more direct connection betweenthe gas-guzzling suburban SUV, Arab oil and terror. “Oil money supports someterrible things,” reads the tagline on one ad. “What kind of mileage does yourSUV get?”

David, a board member of the Natural Resource Defense Council,told me she has long been an environmental activist. Sept. 11, 2001, she realized, provided some of the best evidence yet for a saner energy policy. “Ifelt, what should the administration ask of us other than to shop?” she said.”Then the light bulb went off: We have to raise emission standards and stopsending trillions of dollars to unstable governments around the world.”

David convinced her friend, Huffington, to give up theLincoln Navigator (11 mpg) parked in her driveway. (David’s husband, “Seinfeld”co-creator Larry David, already drove a Toyota Prius gas-electric hybrid on hisHBO series, “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” and in his off-screen life — 48 mpg).

Huffington wrote a column asking readers to contributeto a national anti-SUV ad campaign, and a flood of responses later, the ads, anda provocative Web site, , appeared.

Their wittiness, and the high profile of their creators, havecreated a sensation, taking the message of energy efficiency out of a TomFriedman column and into the heartland. The aim is not just to raise awareness,David said, but to convince Detroit, Congress and the president that realsecurity means more fuel-efficient vehicles.

But does the president need convincing? There’s a passage informer Bush speechwriter David Frum’s new book, “The Right Man: The SurprisePresidency of George Bush” (Random House) in which he recounts a run-in withhis boss:

“I once made the mistake of suggesting to Bush that he usethe phrase ‘cheap energy’ to describe the aims of his energy policy,” Frumwrites.

“‘Cheap energy,’ he answered, ‘was how we’d got into thismess. Every year, from the early 1970s until the mid 1990s, American carsburned less and less oil per mile traveled. Then in about 1995, that progressstopped. Why?’ He answered his own question. ‘Because of the gas-guzzling SUV.And what had made the SUV craze possible?'”

“This time I answered, ‘Um, cheap energy?'”

“He nodded at me. ‘Dismissed.'”

Frum was chastened, but I am confused, and so was David whenI read her the passage. “There’s a disconnect, then,” she said, between the manwhose analysis of the problem is the same as her own, but whose solutions –drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), siding with the autoindustry against higher fuel-efficiency standards — seem to defy logic. Thenagain, during his White House years, President Bill Clinton, with none ofBush’s oil industry connections, didn’t raise fuel-efficiency standards either.

In the holiday spirit, I asked David, a Jew from Long Island,why The Detroit Project should be a Jewish one as well. “If you’re Jewish andyou drive an SUV, you need to think about what you’re doing,” she said. “If youcare about Israel, you have to see how Middle East oil money goes to suicidebombers and terrorist organizations.”

Unconvinced? See reports this week that Saudi money secretlyfinanced a series of anti-Israel ads in the United States.

As I’ve written before, Jewish groups such as AmericanJewish Congress and the Coalition for the Environment and Jewish Life havealready taken up the cause. But on Tu B’Shevat, it bears repeating that, whilethe problems facing the environment are vast, here is one we can eachindividually choose to address.

First, we can get rid of the gas-guzzlers in our garages(some SUVs get decent mileage, some sedans get much worse — you know who youare).

Secondly, we can help guide the debate over the environmentaway from special-interest politics and back to a bipartisan national concern.Remember, Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency and signedinto law the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act and Endangered Species Act.

And the ANWR? A creation of Dwight Eisenhower.

So far, Bush’s record on the environment does credit toneither of these men.

Here is this holiday, Tu B’Shevat, which comes once a yearto teach us that protecting the environment is not the charge God gave toDemocrats, activists, Republicans or environmentalists, but to us all.