ecological - Tomer Appelbaum - June 21 2011
An organizer working to save Palmahim beach in 2008. Photo by Tomer Appelbaum
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Israeli environmental organizations have expanded their activity and influence significantly in the past few years, but still face budgetary shortfalls, a lack of skilled manpower and insufficient financial support from the public, a new study by Ben-Gurion University shows.

The researchers said these findings explain why many environmental problems remain unresolved despite growing environmental awareness.

The study was conducted by a team of researchers led by Prof. Alon Tal, who also chairs the Green Movement. The findings will be presented today at the Knesset's annual Environment Day.

Tal and his colleagues conducted interviews with leading environmental activists and experts. They found that over the past 20 years, the number of green organizations has grown from 25 to over 100, but more than half of these are organizations comprised of 50 activists or less. Only 10 percent of these groups had between 1,000 and 5,000 registered members.

The study found that in recent years, the organizations have expanded their activity into a variety of environmental fields. They have also learned to cooperate, and thus gained greater leverage over environmental issues. Their most successful campaigns included the fight against seaside construction, efforts to reduce pollution in major cities and the passage of a string of environmental laws, including the Clean Air Act and a law to protect the beaches, promoted by the Israel Union for Environmental Defense and the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel.

Yet for the most part, these organizations remain dependent on donations from international foundations, whose contributions constitute the lion's share of their budgets. The rest comes from various other sources, including the government. The organizations thus have trouble maintaining financial stability and are often pushed to pursue projects that will appeal to funders but don't necessarily have great environmental impact.

One prominent exception is the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, which manages to support itself largely through membership fees.

Another significant issue is the activists' professional qualifications. "A number of interviewees noted a decline in the influence of activists who enter the public debate armed mainly with ideology rather than expertise, statistical knowledge or coherent information," the study said. "Many pointed out that this evident superficiality - which results from a shortage of professional experts on the green side, as well as the populism of some of the organizations - has eroded the green movement's credibility among decision makers in the government and in industry."

The researchers also noted that Israeli organizations generally focus on addressing the effects of construction and pollution rather than their root causes, which include accelerated population growth and the development of a Western consumer culture. Unless the green movement starts confronting these issues, they warned, Israel will become "an ecologically desolate and socially intolerable place."

Nir Papai, SPNI's deputy director general, rejected the study's criticism of Israeli organizations' professional level. "Environmental organizations' main power lies in activism in the field, and experts merely provide backing for this," he argued.

In contrast, "the criticism of our lack of engagement with population growth is quite correct," he said. "But we did step up activity on the consumer culture issue over the past year."