For many years, the relations between environmental organizations and industrial factories have been conducted in an almost unchanging ritual. The green organizations blame the factories for polluting the environment and demand that they put a halt to this and pay compensation to society for the damage they have wreaked. The industrialists contend that the environmentalists are distorting and exaggerating, and declare their commitment to the standards set by governments, and not by environmental organizations.
A slightly different model has developed in recent years. This model is based on an approach called "responsible care," which is the accepted norm in the world's chemical industry today. This is a system of management in which industry is supposed to demonstrate responsibility for the environment and for the community in which it operates, and to conduct a dialogue with residents and representatives of environmental organizations.
This model has also arrived in Israel and is deserving of support. At the same time, it should be critically monitored so that the environmental organizations participating in this process do not surrender their essential demands.
During the past two-and-a-half years, several public forums have operated according to this approach. One such forum brings together representatives of the chemical industry in the Negev, local residents and environmental activists, led by Bilha Givon, the founder of the non-governmental organization Sustainable Negev. This forum meets every three weeks to discuss ways of solving environmental problems related to the factories.
Givon says this approach entails recognition by environmentalists that the chemical industry is an existing fact and serves as a direct or indirect source of livelihood for half of the Negev's residents. Therefore, the industry must adapt itself to the environment and society, and the environmental organizations should help it do this.
Givon was roundly criticized by her environmental colleagues for collaborating with those who are regarded as the enemies of the environment. One can understand the environmentalists' concern about granting legitimacy to operations that pollute or harm nature, but they have an obligation to examine different ways of tackling environmental problems, including the path of dialogue.
An ongoing conversation with industry might help to create a new environmental reality. One cannot reject in advance the possibility that a commitment by the factories may develop during the course of meetings in which they are asked to reveal information and demonstrate that they are taking action to reduce their impact on the environment. Givon recently appeared before the umbrella group of environmental organizations, Life and Environment, and noted that the factories are demonstrating considerable transparency and are indeed succeeding in reducing the pollution they generate.
An additional and significant advantage of public forums is that they enable the environmental groups to improve their level of information and preparedness in disputes and confrontations that are liable to develop with industrialists. After such meetings, the industrialists will have a hard time claiming that the environmentalists do not know what they are talking about and are not thoroughly familiar with the industrial activity.
A critical assessment of the new collaboration should focus on results. If there is full information on the environmental ramifications of the factories' activities, as Givon says, it should be publicly disseminated and studied over time to determine whether real progress was achieved, or that only cosmetic changes were made for the purposes of public relations. If it turns out that the factories make do with reporting to the community but do not reduce the pollution they impose on it, the public representatives in the new forums will be obligated to expose this fact.
Most importantly, the green organizations must simultaneously maintain all of the means of struggle that put constant pressure on industry to meet environmental demands. If the factory owners think that by participating in a public forum they will no longer be the object of stormy demonstrations or painful lawsuits (in cases where these measures are justified), they should learn that this can only be achieved by removing the reasons for which the environmentalists take to the streets or file lawsuits.
Industry in Israel has for many years polluted the air, land and water, and destroyed landscapes in the Negev and other places. Sometimes this was done due to a lack of awareness or a lack or environmental legislation in previous decades, and sometimes due to economic interests. The industrialists now have the ongoing obligation to demonstrate that they are treating environmental hazards and responding with sensitivity to public concerns. The environmentalists must not be satisfied with slogans about hazards, but must acquire a full and precise familiarity with the factories' activities and provide them with the required support when they fulfill their commitments.
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