The environmental movement is supposed to play a leading role in society's criticism of decision makers, including those responsible for protecting the environment. But it appears that for the last three years this critical voice has all but been stilled, ever since Gilad Erdan became the environmental protection minister. He enjoys virtually wall-to-wall support from the various green groups.
It should be said at the outset that Erdan is one of the better environmental protection ministers the country has had. His commitment to and expertise in environmental issues are impressive. He has chalked up significant achievements in legislation and in influencing government policy in areas related to his ministry. He recently stated that this is the greenest government Israel has ever had.
It should also be said that there is a rationale for environmental movements working hand in hand with the Environmental Protection Ministry, which according to its definition is meant to represent the public's interest vis-a-vis the other ministries. But ministers need a critical eye on them to spur them on. They have to know that their decisions are analyzed not only at the declarative and legislative levels but also, and especially, by the way their policy is implemented.
Most of the green organizations, especially the large ones such as the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, have ignored the fact that Erdan recently took a vague, evasive stance on the hotly debated planning and building reform program, one of the greatest threats to nature and open spaces in Israel.
Erdan made do with inserting a few improvements into the proposed reforms and explained his lack of general opposition by saying that he is committed to the government decision supporting the reforms. Because of the importance of the issue, the environmental movement should have pressured him to take a much more decisive stand against the dangers inherent in the proposed program.
No environmental organization has seen fit to criticize Erdan for his enthusiastic support for continued accelerated population growth in Israel, which will make it even more difficult to confront the country's environmental crises. Only recently, at an environmental conference, the minister related to the rapid pace of population growth compared to other nations by saying, "Thank God, the population of Israel continues to grow," as if we were celebrating an environmental bonanza.
No one has questioned him about the Environmental Protection Ministry's significant spending on marketing and PR campaigns on TV, in newspapers and entertainment programs, to encourage change in our patterns of consumption and waste recycling. It is, of course, important to encourage and promote environmental awareness, but one may wonder at the basis of this investment: Has anyone looked at the results amid the population at large? Have the campaigns changed any behavior, as was the case with the government campaign to save water? One always has the sneaking suspicion that it's the politicians' way of marketing not just the issues under their ministries' purview but also themselves.
What is sorely lacking in the environmental groups' work with Erdan is critical analysis and assessment of the many programs his ministry has tried to promote in recent years, first and foremost the program to encourage recycling of home and construction waste by establishing a system of separating waste into separate "dry" and "wet" streams at the local government level.
Environmental organizations have not made life hard for Erdan on issues such as the government's ongoing failure to encourage recycling of construction waste and preventing its unauthorized disposal. The Israel Union for Environmental Defense (Adam Teva V'Din) gave the ministry critical support in promoting its home waste recycling program, but remained rather reserved in its criticism of the fact that the ministry has not yet done anything on behalf of weak local governments finding it difficult to adapt to these changes, and has still not ensured the establishment of facilities to take the waste the public is expected to separate. Erdan himself recently admitted that he doesn't sleep at night for worry that there will be no facilities to accept municipal waste that has already been separated.
The Environmental Protection Ministry should be praised for undertaking the asbestos removal project in the western Galilee and making progress in the project to clean the Kishon River bed for its last seven kilometers until it spills into Haifa Bay. (This river segment is an ecological disaster; heavy industrial pollution has wiped out many life forms and wreaked havoc on the ecosystem ).
By contrast, Erdan prominently made public various moves, such as the government decision to shore up approximately 45 kilometers of seaside cliffs against collapse and the formulation of a national plan to preserve biodiversity. In the meantime, the cliffs continue to crumble and no clear steps to preserve them are being taken. Biodiversity, too, is in danger of rapidly becoming a thing of the past, with no national plan in place.
Perhaps it would have been a good idea for some of the 132 member organizations of green groups' umbrella body, Life and Environment - The Israeli Union of Environmental NGOs, to continuously follow up on plans announced by the Environmental Protection Ministry, and also relate to plans that have not been implemented and to difficulties with implementation for which the ministry is responsible.
Even before Erdan's tenure the environmental organizations maintained a symbiotic relationship with the Environmental Protection Ministry, and it stands to reason that this will be the case also in the future, because of the ministry's financing of programs for these organizations and the appointment of environmental organization representatives to boards of directors of government bodies under the minister's aegis. But the organizations must find a way to go beyond the symbiosis and engage in relevant criticism every time it is necessary. Otherwise there's a danger that the environmental movement will become the PR branch of the Environmental Protection Ministry, rather than its watchdog.
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