For the Sake of Posterity

In the enlightened world, state commissions have been established to promote "durable" development, and governments have adopted positions to ensure that the interests of future citizens are taken into account.

Israel has the image of being a myopic country, with several good reasons - historic, economic and military, in particular - for this phenomenon. Thus, Israelis have become accustomed to living in a state that does not excel in planning, in policies reflecting long-range thinking or in innovative legislation that illustrates concern for the quality of life and the quality of environment today - let alone tomorrow.

For years, MK Yosef Lapid (Shinui) has criticized the objections of Israel's green groups and has, for the most part, preferred to side with the interests of the supporters of rapid development. In light of such, it was a refreshing surprise when, in March 2001, Lapid pushed through the Knesset an important, innovative law calling for the appointment of a commissioner for future generations - a law compelling parliament to consider the interests of future generations before passing new legislation.

According to the new law, the commissioner's job will be to ensure that the needs of the future are taken into account by the legislators before they enact primary or secondary legislation. The commissioner will be concerned with fields such as the environment, science, development, education, health and demography and his/her practical duties include reviewing pending legislation and, where relevant, submitting a professional opinion on the anticipated impact of a proposed law on future generations.

The principle of taking into account the interests of future generations is nothing new. When making decisions, Iroquois tribe elders had only one criterion: How would the decision affect the tribe seven generations into the future? The Talmud includes a story about Honi the Circle Maker (Honi Hame'agel), who decides to plant trees even though it is quite likely that he himself will never enjoy them. This tale is an important Jewish document on the commitment of today's generation to future ones.

The principle received international status in 1997, when UNESCO - the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization - issued a declaration on humanity's responsibility for future generations.

In the enlightened world, state commissions have been established to promote "durable" development, and governments have adopted positions to ensure that the interests of future citizens are taken into account. Sweden and Canada are two striking examples of such far-range thinking.

The Israeli invention - an official who sits in parliament and has the job of worrying about future generations - produced by Lapid, however, has no parallel anywhere in the world. In November 2001, retired judge Shlomo Shoham was appointed as the commissioner for future generations and, about a month ago, he began fulfilling his duties.

People are already calling for the elimination of this function. MK Yael Dayan (Labor), considered a relatively-concerned environmentalist legislator, has actually prepared a private-member bill designed to scrap the commissioner's role.

It is about time that Israeli society shifted to a mature stage of wise planning, strategic thinking and the assumption of responsibility for the natural resources at humanity's disposal. This shift in thinking is vital so as to ensure the quality of life for the present generation and certainly for future ones. Unfortunately, the trend in Israel seems to be in the opposite direction.

This month's enactment of the Economic Arrangements Bill, which has created an apparatus to approve plans in an accelerated procedure designed to circumvent existing planning institutions, is cogent evidence that the Israeli government has learned nothing from the rashness of the past. It is precisely the major national projects with immense environmental and social impact that require time so that they can be carefully studied and so that they will not have long-lasting and regrettable consequences.

If one can speak in general terms about the characteristics universal to all human beings, it would appear that parents are always concerned that their children will enjoy the good life. However, like many things in a country that has adopted privatization's principles too enthusiastically, the concern for future generations exists at the private level, but is scarcely felt at the collective one.

Unquestionably, our salaries are higher than those of our parents; our houses are bigger; and our cars are larger and more numerous. However, the number of open areas and open coastlines that can be enjoyed by citizens are steadily diminishing, while underground water sources are becoming increasingly polluted. Despite the Israel Nature and National Parks Protection Authority's impressive achievements of the past, the last decade has seen an alarming retreat in terms of the country's biological diversity - from Eilat's dying coral reefs to the Golan Heights' gazelle population, which has diminished by 90 percent.

In the race by MKs to represent communities and sectorial interests, several important - perhaps even highly substantive - questions have been forgotten. At most, MKs ask, "Is this legislation good for my constituency today?" But they do not ask themselves what will happen 50 years from now. Terms like reversibility and maximum capacity are not part of the discussion.

The new commissioner for future generations could change this dynamic in the Knesset's plenum and committees. It is truly difficult to imagine how Israel would look today if, for the past 50 years, the Knesset had consistently considered the impact of its decisions on future generations - for example, the kind of railroad infrastructure that Israel would have today, or the quality of the water pouring out of household faucets.

Future generations cannot cast ballots in Knesset elections today. Fortunate is the nation that provides them with a voice in the Knesset.

Dr. Alon Tal chairs Life and Environment, an umbrella organization of environmentalist groups in Israel, and is a lecturer in Environmental Law at Tel Aviv University.