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During the past 20 years of driving from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, two significant environmental developments along the way stand out.
It used to be that from the hills of Jerusalem, just before beginning the descent down through Sha'ar Hagai, on most days one clearly could make out the Tel Aviv skyline some 70 km. in the distance.
Today it's the opposite; rare is the time when the semi-permanent layer of smog and haze over the Coastal Plain makes possible that kind of visibility.
The other change is the scenery bordering the stretch of highway between the Jerusalem hills and Ben-Gurion Airport. For the most part, until recently it consisted of unbroken vistas of agricultural fields or natural landscapes stretching off into the distance on both sides of the road. Now though, the growing residential construction of nearby communities (such as Modi'in), together with the building of both Route 6 and the new Jerusalem-Tel Aviv train line, have robbed the scenery along this ride of most of its bucolic character.
I regret both changes - but with very different degrees of concern. And given the growing public awareness of environmental issues and the increased activism to do something about them, making such distinctions is increasingly important.
The one that causes me far greater concern is the deterioration in local air quality, which on some days one can feel as well as see.
Given Israel's relative lack of heavy industry, most of this is clearly from car pollution, aggravated by the basin-like geography of the Coastal Plain. Of course we haven't nearly reached the levels of some industrialized states - such as China, where the smog is so heavy in parts that it is threatening the Beijing Olympics. But this country also isn't China-sized; if the air quality significantly deteriorates in heavily populated areas, there won't be many alternatives here for those who are particularly sensitive to the problem.
IN HIS speech earlier this month to the opening session of the current Knesset, President Shimon Peres chose to stress environment challenges, declaring that "Israel is able to be a pioneer in alternative energy, especially solar energy, and to be more advanced than others in managing the cleanliness of its water and earth with new methods."
Peres, as usual was mocked in some quarters for some of his far-reaching claims - such as the assertion that Israel could be the first country to fully switch to electric cars - and equating the threat of global warming with that of terrorism.
Given the imminent security threats we face, it's perhaps understandable that environmental concerns as a governmental and public priority still lag behind here compared to other Western nations.
But make no mistake - ecological degradation can, over the long term, pose a genuine security threat to the health not only of individuals, but of society itself. There is no question, for example, that this was the case to some degree with the unraveling of the former Soviet Union.
Air quality is the fundamental ecological issue for human existence, and we have precious little of it here to squander. It may be a long time before we ever get that view back of Tel Aviv from the Jerusalem hills, but if the degradation of the precious bit of atmosphere above our land continues at this rate, we are risking much more than just scenic vistas.
SPEAKING OF which, I am already beginning to miss some of those pastoral views I used to enjoy while driving to Tel Aviv - rolling fields of wheat, cotton, even sunflowers, stretching off into the distance.
Israel is developing its precious territory at what sometimes seems an alarming rate, and local green groups have been fighting to preserve what unspoiled land is left. I support those efforts - up to a point. And that point is when environmental activism veers away from realistic compromise with the natural tendency of human society to expand and develop, and hardens into a type of instinctive Luddite-like antagonism toward any form of progress (the anti-globalization movement is particularly afflicted with this tendency).
The fact is that Israel is a small country with a growing population - and one in which, for several reasons, it is in our national interest to grow more. It would be nice to preserve our undeveloped open spaces wherever they exist, but that's not a realistic model for this nation. We will have to pick and choose where we preserve, and where we allow new building to take place.
Emphasis on preservation should naturally be given to those areas in the Galilee and Negev that are relatively far from population centers.
Retaining wide-open spaces alongside one of the busiest highways in the country, as nice as that may be for drivers, can hardly be a priority - especially when much of that property is being given over to construction of a new Jerusalem-Tel Aviv train line that hopefully will reduce some of the traffic along Route. 1.
OF COURSE, if, as some environmental activists have argued, most new residential building were limited to high-rise apartments in high-density urban areas, we could retain our undeveloped areas in their pristine state.
But even in a small country like this, people should have the option of living in private homes in country settings - something I've noticed many environmental activists in particular seem to enjoy.
That doesn't necessarily mean we are destined to live in a concrete jungle along the Mediterranean, as long as we follow smart and sensible development policies. The Netherlands, for example, has a significantly higher population density than Israel, but through effective land management and urban planning it has been able to preserve its pastoral character while cramming in an average of nearly 400 persons per square kilometer (compared to some 300 per sq. km. for Israel, not counting the West Bank and Gaza).
What the Netherlands doesn't have is large open stretches of unpopulated territory - and that may be the way we will have to go also at the end of the day. But we can continue to build up this country, and build it up just about anywhere, as long as it is done with a proper balance of social, economic, political and environmental concerns.
That may not be easy for a country known more for seat-of-the-pants improvisation and a yiheye beseder attitude, than its long-term planning skills. But the Promised Land won't hold much promise for future generations, if we don't find a way to safeguard its land, air and water, while continuing to fulfill the pledge to be fruitful and multiply.
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