Sustainability is the key to Israel’s future

Attorney-turned-environmentalist Michal Bitterman says a paradigm shift is needed to ensure a safer, healthier Israel

 At a 2018 TEDx event in Jaffa, ‘The Food We Don’t See.’ (photo credit: KARIN MAGEN)
At a 2018 TEDx event in Jaffa, ‘The Food We Don’t See.’
(photo credit: KARIN MAGEN)
Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)

Dr. Michal Bitterman has a mission: to transform Israel’s environmental mindset from preservation to sustainability.

“In 2006, when I told people that I was going to study sustainability in Sweden, no one understood the term here,” she tells The Jerusalem Report. “I enrolled for the program without even being familiar with much of the terminology myself.”

On her return from the enlightening one-year master’s program in Strategic Leadership toward Sustainability at the Blekinge Institute of Technology in Karlskrona, she had a calling.

“I felt I had an understanding unique in Israel. Sustainability is a broad issue covering so many fields. In recent years there’s a lot more awareness of the issues in Israel, but still a huge gap. It’s less about what not to do and more about what should be done,” she explains. “We need to reshape our society, to explain how we consume things, the energy we use. It’s not about a specific change, rather many. I don’t think Israeli society has grasped this yet.”

“We need to reshape our society, to explain how we consume things, the energy we use. It’s not about a specific change, rather many. I don’t think Israeli society has grasped this yet.”

Dr. Michal Bitterman

Israeli journalists and decision-makers also lack a wider perspective, she adds.

 At the Wholesale Market, Rishon Lezion, 2017 (credit: MICHAL BITTERMAN) At the Wholesale Market, Rishon Lezion, 2017 (credit: MICHAL BITTERMAN)

“When I returned from Sweden, there were two things I wanted to promote: I helped to establish the Israeli Green Building Council, and continued the vision of my doctorate dissertation on how to connect sustainability with conflict resolution. We live in a place of conflict and no one cares about sustainability. How we can shift this paradigm?

Bitterman, 43, has lived in mixed Jewish-Arab neighborhoods in Jaffa for the past 12 years, now with her partner and two sons, age three and nine months. “I feel that Jaffa reflects the complexity of our society. I love living here, although it’s a complex relationship. Community has to be part of the change.”

For a decade, Bitterman was engaged in the construction of public spaces via the Israeli Green Building Council, while honing her groundbreaking thesis at Ben-Gurion University focusing on strategic sustainable development to resolve conflicts.

Sustainability, she says, can be an engine for peace. “For example, it’s difficult to motivate farmers from Israel and Jordan to cooperate, but when a certain pest destroys crops on one side the other is also affected, so they work together.”

Voted among the 40 most promising young Israelis in 2018 by the Hebrew-language financial daily Globes, Bitterman served for five years as a consultant for Israel’s 15 self-governed cities on climate protection, while participating in national and international forums on sustainability issues.

The second of three children born and raised in Haifa, her fluent English stems from three years spent in Philadelphia from second grade, while her physician father was on sabbatical. “As a child I was active in the scouts, danced and loved hiking – I was socially involved, but not an environmentalist.”

After military service, Bitterman did what was expected of her and embarked on the tedious track of studying law, specializing in the Tax Department of the State Attorney’s Office, “but knew it wasn’t for me. I wasn’t in my right place and never became a practicing lawyer.”

Bitterman’s epiphany came during an unplanned two-month trip through under-traveled swathes of southern Georgia and Turkey after completing her studies.

“I was shocked to see how people live in undeveloped areas, with nothing but the food for that day. Despite the scarcity of resources, they seemed to live more correctly and make the most of natural resources without harming them. I entered their houses – they were neither hot nor cold, but what they needed to be, connected to nature. Also, each house was unique. I asked myself ‘how come in our modern environment everything looks the same? Why do we need air-conditioning for fresh air? Why the disconnection from nature?’ That’s where it all started.

“My mother, Noemi, who was then head of Industrial Design at the Technion’s Faculty of Architecture, invited [Israeli environmental activist] Limor Alouf to lecture about sustainability, after which she introduced me as ‘interested in the environment.’ Limor later told me about the course in Sweden, and I became the first Israeli to be accepted.”

Indeed, Bitterman was breaking new ground.

Together with international partners, she founded The Natural Step Israel in 2012 as a nonprofit organization that implements sustainable practices throughout Israel. The Natural Step Israel operates in three main channels: reducing food waste, getting the holistic message out to all strata of society, and promoting sustainable behavior through positive motivation. Its mission is to “catalyze a systemic change in order to create a sustainable society in Israel that thrives within its natural surroundings.”

“We need to show people the alternatives, to engage more and confront less,” says Bitterman.

Israel ranks second among OECD countries in terms of food waste. According to Leket Israel, 2.4 million tons of food are thrown away annually in Israel, of which 50% is edible and can be salvaged. Nowadays, food waste, a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions, is drawing attention worldwide. In 2015, the UN adopted a sustainable development goal to half global food waste by 2030.

“We don’t talk about saving food – that’s the easy part. When we started in 2012, no one knew it was an issue. The EU started regulating [food waste] in 2015, and the pope started talking about it soon after, but the climate change conferences didn’t mention the issue. It takes time to really change the system, but I’m positive.”

TNSI’s Sustainability Transition Lab for Food Waste Reduction, first of its kind in Israel, creates strategic systemic changes by collaborations of diverse stakeholders who together find breakthrough solutions. The Lab engages with over 40 organizations, including governmental ministries, local municipalities, food producers, retailers, the IDF, academic institutions and other professional bodies.

For the message to reach all sections of society, the organization has designed a series of learning experiences for strategic audiences, with tailor-made programs, workshops and courses for decision makers and executives. Its annual flagship training program Shikma - Sustainability for Decision Makers is an intensive immersion program that exposes current and future leaders from all sectors. Present and future leaders age 30-65, who are usually unaware of the relevance of sustainability, help expand the program’s influence in different circles of society.

“We have to make communities understand,” says Bitterman. “If they are expected to do something – it won’t work. The public isn’t aware enough yet. We need to meet them where they are right now. As there is wider awareness, more people consent to participate in the solution and change their behavior. People in Israel are so hectic and concerned by so many things – we have to make it reasonable.”

If all this sounds a little boring, don’t worry. The Natural Step Israel’s Joyful Impact Projects promote sustainable behavior through positive motivation, out of a belief that change starts with inspiration fueled by fun. Elements of gamification, fun and art encourage a sustainable behavior in public spaces.

Bitterman says that sustainability can be attractive, delicious, fascinating ... and even sexy. TNSI’s annual thought-provoking Massa (“Mass” in Hebrew) event demonstrates this through an unconventional experience combining culinary, arts and sustainability. The theme changes: previous titles were “Something from nothing,” “Not all that glitters is gold,” “Foodtech for food waste,” and “The future of food.” Each event invites participants to question: what if things were different?

In Yeruham, a run-down development town in the Negev flanked by two natural wonders – the Yeruham crater and lake – the mission was to inspire citizens to spend more time outdoors and take ownership of public spaces. TNSI’s ‘There is Here’ project connects residents to the natural environment that surrounds them, encourages local pride, and motivates preservation of both the public urban space and the environment. Meanwhile, abandoned apartment buildings in the town have been rehabilitated to create games that encourage opportunities for communication, social connections, mutual trust and a sense of responsibility for the public space.

The Israeli organization is a part of a global network active since 1989 that promotes strategic sustainability across the globe, with a robust, science-based methodology used for implementing sustainability in hundreds of businesses around the world. The network (China, Canada, Japan, the UK, Sweden, Italy, Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Portugal and Israel) works with organizations such as IKEA, Nike, Interface, Scandic, Phillips, municipalities and other organizations.

Gradual process

“It’s a marathon,” Bitterman sighs. “When I sat with philanthropic organizations [supporting TNSI], I told them not to expect a significant drop in waste within 10 years. What they will see is more recycling, less unnecessary trash, more awareness of these issues. Waste will be reduced through various interventions, but it’s a gradual process. In order to get there, we need to build a whole different model at all levels of society, for Unilever and Kraft to change their packaging policies, for example. The regulator needs to make it worthwhile for the public to consume sustainably. If the government passes a law but nobody cares about it or enforces it, nothing will change.”

Lack of leadership is a huge issue, she says.

“In general, the regulators in Israel lag far behind their European counterparts in terms of understanding these issues. It’s very hard to convince them regarding strategic projects. The thinking is not holistic or strategic, and short-term solutions are often preferred. It’s very hard to work with the Israeli regulator,” she sighs. “I really wish it was easier – it can be frustrating.”

What is your vision of the future?

“I hope that the urgency of sustainability will be understood. This message is not just for like-minded people – it has to percolate throughout society. We all want to live in a happy, healthy society, but we must live within the boundaries of nature. My hope is that our leaders absorb this message.”  ■