The case for a new environmental ethos
Recent events in Japan demonstrate that Israel's future lies in solar energy and not the nuclear variety
For years now, the environmental community has been urging mankind to treat the earth with care. In Israel, this idea has been embraced in various forms, from fish cages in the bay of Eilat to the Dead Sea canal project. Sometimes, the idea is taken too far, but at other times, arrogance and hastiness have given rise to ecological disasters.
The devastating news from Japan also contains a message of modesty and restraint insofar as our attitude to technology is concerned.
In the sphere of energy, where Israeli policy vacillates between apathy and negligence, the arrogant position adopted by the National Infrastructure Ministry, according to which nuclear energy is an "inevitability," must be re-examined.
In the 1950s, Japan was struck by ecological disaster when chemical industries polluted the Minamata Bay, and an entire city suffered ailments resulting from mercury exposure. The victims included a generation of infants born with birth defects. Since then, Japan has served as an exemplary model of environmental protection.
Environmental laws in Japan are so strict that most cars found today on New Zealand's road are Japanese vehicles, which failed mandatory emissions tests in Japan.
In the 1990s, before the world had discovered packaging and recycling laws, the Japanese were disposing with only 20 percent of their waste, finding other uses for the rest. Indeed, a culture of environmental responsibility has long distinguished Japan from the rest of the world.
And yet there in Japan - not Chernobyl or some other developing country - talented engineers are helplessly scratching their heads today as nuclear reactors malfunction, praying that the meltdowns do not reach the point of no return, when radiation exposure begins affecting masses of people.
The hundreds of thousands already evacuated from their homes in Japan signal the potential scope of such a tragedy which, up to now, has been averted.
It is important to remember that it could have been much more lethal. The nuclear issues Japan is facing right now are the most urgent. Nuclear waste, which will pose grave environmental threats for tens of thousands of years, is an issue that will have to be dealt with later.
What can we learn from recent events in Japan, a country 15 times the size of Israel whose environmental policy is infinitely more advanced than ours?
Despite countless cabinet decisions meant to promote solar energy, and declarations made by President Shimon Peres at the UN climate conference held in Copenhagen last year, the State of Israel lacks the vision and leadership necessary to develop a genuinely safe energy policy.
Less than 1 percent of our energy comes from renewable sources, unlike Denmark, for example, where renewable sources account for 25 percent of the total.
Israel remains dependent on coal, and its electricity generates the highest amount of pollution in the Western world.
No decision has been made about where future solar stations in the Negev will be located - hundreds of thousands of roofs remain empty and defective agricultural lands are not being exploited - but in the meantime, Israeli companies are spearheading the revolution in renewable energy technology and use abroad.
Here in Israel, there is no vision and no action. Even the "big" decisions taken by governments to save energy turn out to be trivial, when compared with other countries that show true global responsibility when it comes to climate change.
Instead of reducing greenhouse emissions, the State of Israel increases them markedly from year to year. That is not trivial.
Each one of us is part of the problem. Our culture of consumption - and the comfort we take in air conditioners and other electrical appliances - is not likely to change in the near future.
But some events do change perceptions, and the tsunami in Japan appears to be one such event.
The State of Israel must not cling to the blind assumption that "in the end, nuclear energy will generate large quantities of electricity without pollution."
This is not the time to go into the dangers posed by burying nuclear waste. Clearly, a country like Israel that lacks both political and seismic stability requires a more responsible and "cautious" environmental policy.
The State of Israel should adopt a viable "green" economic policy as its vision for tomorrow.
Just as this country has taken a world leadership role in areas like hydro-technology, high-tech and biotechnology, it can also assume an world leadership role in the environment, provided that it adopts a policy aimed at creating genuine energy independence, one based on solar energy.
The first step in this direction is to begin applying immediately the lessons learned in recent days from the catastrophe in Japan.
Prof. Tal is co-chairman of Israel's Green Movement.