Increasing Density and Doing With Less

Reducing the rate of population growth is essential for guaranteeing a reasonable quality of life for the millions already living here.

Environment Minister Gilad Erdan explains his views on a variety of issues for which his ministry is responsible. But when asked recently about the environmental consequences of Israel's rate of population growth, which is among the highest in the world, he had nothing to say except that he saw no reason to address it. Erdan believes that the current situation is an excellent way to convince the world that special circumstances prevail that should allow Israel to continue increasing its emissions of greenhouse gases.

With this approach the minister is adopting the behavior of the environmental organizations. They have nothing to say about the issue either, as if it were a divine decree rather than a matter requiring important decisions.

At the Copenhagen climate conference, Erdan may convince the international community to be lenient with Israel regarding emissions of greenhouse gases. But that will not comfort the country's inhabitants, who will have to bear the consequences of the increasing burdens on the landscape and natural resources amid annual population growth of 1.7 percent. To this we should add the fast-growing Palestinian population, which shares water, marine and natural resources with Israel. Israel and the Palestinian territories are gradually becoming a country marked by an intolerable excess of transportation, roads, dirt and neglect.

The population increase can be changed by government policy as well as the exploitation of social and economic changes. Global experience proves this, as does recent local experience. According to a study by the National Insurance Institute and the Bank of Israel published this week, a change in child allowances can change the birthrate. Increasing these benefits encourages a high birth rate, while reducing them helps lower it. According to the study, it's possible that a sharp decline could be achieved within a few years.

Government policy that encourages the employment and education of women has proved to be an effective means of reducing the birthrate everywhere. These methods are currently vital in Israel among communities with particularly high birthrates such as the ultra-Orthodox and Negev Bedouin. Such a policy would also be effective among the Palestinians, if it is led by groups that are genuinely interested in the welfare of their people.

This is not a matter of green fanaticism, which is more concerned about nature than human beings. It's a matter of improving social welfare and quality of life, and creating gender equality.

Reducing the rate of population growth is essential for guaranteeing a reasonable quality of life for the millions already living here. A collapse of infrastructure, the disappearance of open spaces and the growing burden of pollution and waste will constitute a health hazard and a threat to quality of life.

We also need to emphasize a more frugal and efficient lifestyle. In order to ease the overall sense of overcrowding, there will be a need, somewhat paradoxically, to create greater density in infrastructure and living areas in a planned and rational manner. This would preserve the integrity of Israel's open spaces as much as possible.

Israel's environment ministers would be courageous if they placed the birthrate issue on the public agenda, even if they did not have the authority to change it. The most important obligation of any professional who claims to be concerned about future generations - and that includes green organizations and planning experts - is to point out the consequences of the current situation to the government and public, and to warn about what awaits us in a crowded and exhausted country.