Consuming and Trampling

The Israeli economy may continue growing in the coming years, and foreign investors will come knocking, but the environmental resources available to it will not be able to keep up with the rate of consumption.

A few years ago, scientists developed an index called the "ecological footprint," which they began using to measure the influence of consumer culture on environmental resources. An examination of this index in Israel, without giving it precise numerical expression, shows that the local ecological footprint is getting heavier and heavier. It turns out that alongside the numerous poor, who consume very little, there are enough Israelis from the middle and upper classes who weigh heavily on the environment.

The Heschel Center for Environmental Learning and Leadership and the Jerusalem Research Institute recently published a study on global consumer culture, translated from the original study by Worldwatch, an American organization, with chapters on Israel.

Eyal Berger, who wrote one of the chapters dealing with Israel, notes that the number of combustion-engine vehicles in the country has risen by 370 percent in the last 25 years, and that three out of four trips in a vehicle are made by one person in a privately owned car. The average age of a vehicle is 6.5 years and nearly half the cars on the roads were manufactured and imported in the last four years.

Asher Vatori writes that energy consumption in Israel has quadrupled in the last four decades. Some economic sectors have begun to recognize the importance of reducing energy consumption, for economic reasons, but the private consumer continues to use more and more. Domestic water consumption has also quadrupled in the last four decades. Of course, there are enormous gaps in the use of water: Wealthy suburbs like Savyon and Kfar Shmaryahu use 10 times as much water as Arab or ultra-Orthodox communities.

While the ecological footsteps of countries like the United States or China have global significance, in Israel's case, it is largely a matter of the trampling of local resources that are meant to provide not only physical needs but also a sense of space, freedom and belonging.

One of the most prominent expressions of the ecological footprint in Israel is the state's wasteful use of land, permitted through the various ways of establishing new communities or facilitating the expansion of detached housing over large tracts of land in the middle of the country or in ecologically important areas.

Last year, Dr. Tzaira Marouani of Bar-Ilan University completed a study on development initiatives and open-land preservation in metropolitan areas over the last three decades. According to the study, some 79 percent of the construction planning in urban areas and all the plans for rural areas were characterized by low density construction, with most being ground level construction. Often, the plans were focused on the city's edges, where expansion into open areas is possible on a wide scale; the developers were considerably miserly about developing public areas that did not yield profits like those generated by housing. Marouani's study showed that in the vast majority of plans, only a small area was preserved for public use, and in a significant number - 14 percent - no public areas were designated.

Changing consumption habits in Israel, by the government and households, does not require innovations but the use of conventional methods like appropriate pricing of water and energy, recycling of waste, saving water and using alternative energy sources. Gilad Ostrovsky and Tomer Yaffe, who wrote the report on waste management in Israel, note that it is possible to establish economically feasible, metropolitan waste recycling facilities where a resident pays for the waste they produce and gets credit for waste they save. Add to that the expanded use of anti-pollution technology and of course more efficient and more modest land usage planning policies.

The Israeli economy may continue growing in the coming years, and foreign investors will come knocking, but the environmental resources available to it will not be able to keep up with the rate of consumption. A country that in the last two years could shelve a master plan for energy conservation and is lazy when it comes to implementing a water conservation plan is still far from understanding the significance of the ecological footprint.