Environmental awareness: The land is full... of people

How do we save the environment in Israel? According to Prof. Alon Tal: Have fewer children!

 Prof. Alon Tal: Keeping us cleaner (photo credit: ELAD MALKA)
Prof. Alon Tal: Keeping us cleaner
(photo credit: ELAD MALKA)

My sister-in-law’s family home on Galiano Island off the west coast of Vancouver is heaven on a hill on the edge of the Salish Sea. Decades ago we discovered it when she married my brother. We spent days watching whales and sunsets and bagging our used tissues – the Canadian Salt Sea Islands mandated even then that visitors take their trash home. Almost incredibly to us as Israelis, everyone complied.

Israel does not have a similar stellar record on Environmental Awareness; our beloved forests and trails regularly fill up with garbage from hikers and picnickers; our beaches are often unbearably littered. But environment and sustainability go beyond simple cleanliness; Israel, unfortunately, is not doing too well on other issues either.

Anyone who has sat in standstill traffic lately (and who hasn’t?) knows: the land is full. Anyone who watches housing prices rise each month knows: the land is full. According to Prof. Alon Tal, MK for the Blue and White Party, and Israel’s environmental guru, our land is fast reaching unsustainable population growth. He has a simple solution: Israelis should have fewer kids. Far fewer.

That doesn’t go down too well with some of our citizens. Israel’s population is growing by some 2% a year; most other developed countries grow at about 0.5% annually. According to the Taub Center, Israel’s fertility stands at 3.1 children per family; the highest in the OECD and almost one full child above the next highest fertility countries like Mexico and Turkey. Haredi women take the very first mitzvah in the Bible – be fruitful and multiply – to heart: ultra-Orthodox families average seven kids; secular and traditional Israelis exceed 2.2 children per family. Israeli Arab families, also traditionally large, now for the first time average below three children per couple.

A scary prediction slates Israel to be the most crowded country on the planet by 2065, with the possible exception of Bangladesh. Tal believes this will be catastrophic, and the only way to avoid it is through the pocket. 

“The government should get out of the proverbial bedroom,” he says. “There is no reason we should encourage large families through subsidies.”

In a country where passions run high about ice cream, playing around with the status quo of multiple siblings is explosive stuff. Many proponents of huge clans see babies as a sacred replacement of Jews murdered by the Nazis, others say it’s the antidote to antisemitism and intermarriage. 

However, insists Tal, today Jewish numbers have reached pre-Holocaust figures and Israel’s population is set to double over the next 30 years. If we overpopulate our homeland (never mind the planet), we are ultimately damaging ourselves irredeemably.

TAL, WHO is married with three daughters, comes with some impressive credentials to back his theories: born Albert Rosenthal he made aliyah from the United States, joined the army, fought in Lebanon in 1982, studied Law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, (where he played sax and fiddle in a rock band), and did a degree in Environmental Science and Public Policy at Harvard. In 1990 he founded Adam TevaV’din, the Israel Union for Environmental Defense, repeatedly sued the government for not implementing environmental law, and fought against blights like illegal sewage discharges, and air and water pollution. While living on Kibbutz Ketura he founded the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies where Israeli, Palestinian, Jordanian and international students study together. He recently chaired the Department of Public Policy at TAU, and has taught in Ben Gurion University and various universities worldwide including the USA, New Zealand and China.

Wherever there is earth or wind or the means to make fire, there is Tal, keeping us cleaner. He is associated with some of Israel’s most important environmental litigation, including successful class-action suits against oil pollution, and petitions for more stringent environmental regulations.

Tal, now our environmentalist in the government, has high hopes for change. 

“For too long a minority of very extreme people have held the country hostage,” he explains. The environment was not high on the previous government’s agenda; according to him there has been no significant new environmental legislation for the past 10 years. This is already changing: the new government recently put forward a plan to double the purchase tax on single-use plastics; a new 100% tax could take effect by early 2022. 

Israelis each throw away an average of 7.5 kilograms of plastic plates, cups, straws etc. every year – five times as much as in the European Union. Plastic waste can last millennia, cramming landfills and polluting the sea. One single-use spoon breaks down into billions of microplastics; we drink them in our water, sprinkle them on our food in sea salt, and even quaff them in our beer. The land of milk and honey is laced with microplastic; a 2019 study found that the average Israeli consumed about 50,000 microplastic particles a year. Israelis are addicted to plastic ware for a variety of reasons, including hectic lives and kashrut considerations; families with many children may not want to deal with mountains of dishes, especially on Shabbat. 

Doubling the price could almost halve consumption; it’s a beginning.

ANOTHER STEP forward is the Knesset’s recent plan to reduce carbon emissions by 2050, cut down on greenhouse gases and meet obligations of the Paris Accords for a minimal carbon economy. Although some of the far-reaching proposals were not approved – unlike other advanced countries, Israel has not made a commitment to net zero emissions by 2050 nor set renewable energy targets to drastically reduce carbon emissions – still the government did approve an 85% reduction of greenhouse gases by 2050 as compared with 2015. Proposals include reducing greenhouse gas emissions in 2030 from solid waste by at least 47% from the level measured in 2014, and reducing urban waste in landfills by 71% compared to 2018. From 2026 new urban buses will be clean vehicles; industry will cut greenhouse gases by at least 30%.

These targets are low in comparison with other developed countries because Israel’s Ministry of Energy and Finance stymied more drastic measures. Many are not enshrined in law; the government could simply not meet its goals, as has consistently happened in the past.

Professor Tal is pragmatic. It is a first step, he claims. It might be a while before every citizen takes their picnic trash home, and ditches disposable dishes forever; but we’re at least aiming for better. Hopefully we’ll turn ourselves around before floods and heat waves and tornadoes do us all in – all those of us, that is, who survive corona. 

And on that optimistic note: Shabbat shalom to us all.

The writer lectures at IDC and Beit Berl. Peledpam@gmail.com