Israel teaches lessons in creating environment policies: scholar-activist
May 1st, 2012
Israel seems an exemplary place to learn lessons about environmental issues and policies — at least as Daniel E. Orenstein describes it.
Daniel E. Orenstein
Orenstein is senior lecturer at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, a faculty member at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, an activist with the Green Zionist Alliance, and co-editor of the book “Between Ruin and Restoration: Essays in Israeli Environmental History.”
He spoke March 27 at Congregation Sinai to an audience of about 50 on “Sustainability Challenges: Lessons from Israel.”
Israel is a tiny country many of whose borders are still under dispute. Therefore, a “feeling of impermanence” exists that is “very important when we talk about how making environmental policy takes place,” he said.
In addition, Israel within its small area is “rich in biodiversity,” Orenstein said. It has a “steep rainfall gradient” in which some parts of the country receive 800 millimeters of rain per year, while others receive 25 or less.
That means it has a “fast transition from green to desert” that gives rise to many different kinds of animals and plants, he said.
Moreover, Israel is located “at the junction of Africa, Asia, and Europe,” making it one of the best flyways for migrating birds. Orenstein said that some two billion birds fly over the area every spring and autumn.
Finally, “we’ve had people on the land for more than 10,000 years,” doing intensive herding and farming, Orenstein said. Therefore, “the animal and plant communities have had time to adapt and evolve in the presence of human activity,” he said.
Within that context, Orenstein pointed to three main lessons:
• “Environmental problems and social problems are mutually reinforcing,” he said. “When we have one, we have the other.”
Israel’s population is growing and may have passed 8 million people. Its rates of consumption of resources are rising, exemplified by its ratios of automobile ownership, from one vehicle per 165 people in the 1950s to one per four today.
It is experiencing a growing poverty and inequitable distribution of wealth, awareness of which made thousands of Israelis protest in the streets last summer.
All of these are “placing pressure” on the natural environment, Orenstein said. Orenstein said some wildlife species have become extinct partly because of the draining of wetlands for agricultural land to provide livelihoods and food.
• “Environmental policy is not a science-oriented task, but rather a social and complex process,” that often has “all kinds of stakeholder groups” involved, he said.
For example, Haifa, where Orenstein lives, has an air pollution problem. Its people and industries could improve the situation by using natural gas as fuel, which yields fewer pollutants than coal. Orenstein emphasized that this is only “an intermediate solution,” but it would help.
But how to bring natural gas to Haifa? At present, Israel buys it from Egypt, which is undergoing potentially anti-Israel political and social turmoil now.
Moreover, the gas has to be brought in pipelines that were going to be laid through Druze communities, whose people “already feel discriminated against” by Israeli land use planning laws, Orenstein said. (Eventually, he said, an agreement was reached and the pipelines were laid.)
Israel has recently discovered natural gas under the Mediterranean Sea near its coasts. But who will pump it?
Orenstein said, “five or six families own a disproportionate amount of the Israeli economy,” and many Israelis want this gas treated as a public resource instead of a new source of profits for one of those families.
Meanwhile, Lebanon, the Palestinian Authority, and Turkey are also putting in claims upon this new natural gas reservoir, making this now “an international issue.”
And so, the problem of Haifa’s air quality “has touched a raw nerve of almost every social, international, political, and civil rights issue within Israel,” Orenstein said. “These issues are all interlinked.” That leads to the third lesson:
• “Environmental and social problems can and should be addressed together,” Orenstein said.
“If people don’t have the food and satisfaction they need in their lives, they are not going to do a lot to solve environmental problems,” he said. “If we don’t resolve issues of poverty and economic inequality, we will have a harder time getting people to address [environmental] issues seriously.”
Orenstein said he could conclude on an optimistic note because of some positive developments.
For one, the Friends of the Earth Middle East chapter has members and officials from Israel, the P.A., and Jordan. In 2010, the chapter organized a “Big Jump” (into the Jordan River) publicity event in which mayors of Palestinian and Israeli cities pledged to work together to try to clean up their mutual water supplies.
For another, environmental awareness has been growing in Israel. Orenstein, originally from the U.S., said that when he moved to Israel in 1990, “there were probably ten environmental organizations.”
Now there are “more than 200,” plus a “social-environmental” group in the Knesset with members from “across the political spectrum,” plus “a very serious” minister of environmental protection, Gilad Erdan of the Likud Party.
All this “makes me really hopeful,” Orenstein said.
This event was co-sponsored by Congregation Sinai’s Israel and Social Action Committees, and the Jewish Community Relations Council and the Israel Center of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation.