Israel 2031: What Will Life Look Like in 'The Most Crowded Country in the West'?

If there is no change, says Prof. Alon Tal of Tel Aviv University’s public policy department, a decade from now Israel will be facing an overwhelming reality: 'Only South Korea and the Netherlands are more crowded now and by then, they won’t be'

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overcrowding illustration.
Moran Sharir
Moran Sharir

As we speak by phone, Alon Tal is taking a pleasure drive in the Jerusalem Hills. If Tal’s frightening vision comes true, in a few years the same drive will slow to a nightmarish crawl on a road jammed with cars. He says that while Israel sees itself as a young, growth-hungry state, in fact it is heavy, clumsy and fit to burst. But Tal is optimistic. We just have to take a few steps – to change our entire idea of who we are.

Prof. Alon Tal, of Tel Aviv University’s public policy department, is co-chair of the Israel Forum for Population, Environment and Society.

How do you see Israel within a decade?

“I see it as the most crowded country in the West. Only South Korea and the Netherlands are more crowded now and by then, they won’t be.”

Including the Negev?

Prof. Alon Tal, of Tel Aviv University’s public policy department.

“Including. Without the Negev, we’re already at the level of Bangladesh. I see a country where people will drive an hour more every day due to traffic and the inability to establish a normal transportation system. I see a country where hospital waiting times will be intolerable due to lack of beds. There’s already a small lack. Shall I continue?

It’s depressing so far, but go on.

“Classrooms are crowded and will be even more crowded; children will go to school in skyscrapers and they’ll be more cut off from nature. The greatest damage will be to nature; we’ll see a huge wave of extinctions. Today half of Israel’s mammals are in danger of extinction. Each year, 21 square kilometers (8 miles) of open space turn into apartments and other buildings. As for buying an apartment, prices rise constantly and only the rich will be able to buy. We’ll have skyscrapers like in Beijing. Israel is becoming an ugly country. They say: ‘So what? We’ll be like Manhattan or London.’ But I think we’ll be more like Mumbai.”

People wait in line at a coronavirus testing compound in Tel Aviv, this month.

What’s our growth rate?

“In 30 years the population will double. Every building, road, parking lot – we’ll need two. Anyone who thinks infinite growth is possible in a small country needs their head examined.”

How did we get here, apart from the obvious?

“We’re stuck in the ideology of the 1950s and ‘60s, that was legitimate after the Holocaust and the need to establish Jewish sovereignty. We can understand the founders’ worldview. But today, when we’re crowded everywhere you look and we see a decline in quality of life due to overcrowding, we’re still encouraging people to have large families? It’s insane.”

Beyond practical steps, you’re talking about changing a worldview.

Crowded skyscraper: A bird's-eye view of the central cities of Ramat Gan and Tel Aviv.

“There’s the adaptation aspect: How will we manage, in terms of infrastructure, to live here, so it won’t be hell. But we have to recognize that these are symptoms! A country that grew at a rate of 2.1 percent – there’s no precedent, certainly not in the West. Even if we add floors to hospitals and children grow up in skyscrapers, there’s only one Lake Kinneret and even now you can’t go there on holidays. And there’s only one Ayalon Freeway. We have to talk about the concept of ‘carrying capacity.’ It’s not free of political aspects.

“How much do we want to leave room for nature? It’s a matter of values. How much do we want to depend on imported food, on desalinated water? I’m sorry to say that could lead us to great vulnerability in war if, perish the thought, our hostile neighbors damage our water infrastructure. We’ll have to keep bottled water at home.”

Do you see the country starting to deal with this before we’re in a disaster?

Israelis queue for a COVID-19 vaccine in Jerusalem, last month.

“I’m an optimistic person, I think that we’re a country that knows how to plan and we’re pragmatic people.”

There’s something in the Israeli character that can improvise but not plan for the long term.

“Perhaps, but it’s a matter of maturity. When the state was young, like a young person you live only for tomorrow. Only later, from age 40, you say maybe I need to save for retirement. Israel is no longer young. It’s 73. It’s time to leave behind the fantasies and the ideologies of the pioneers that were right for their time but no longer, because we’re a very, very crowded country. We have to think differently, to fill the cities, build efficiently and protect our natural resources, if not everyone who can will flee for their lives.”

Is there something the individual can do besides not having lots of children?

“Of course it’s not only about the birthrate. There’s also the question of consumption. Everyone should see how they can reduce consumption. People will have to act differently. I’m happy to say we have a very intelligent public, very sophisticated. Our young people are amazing and I think they can do it. The main thing people can do is not to be afraid to raise the question around the Friday night dinner table, even if it’s unpleasant and they say ‘you’re Israel haters.’ Say ‘no! Once, being an Israeli patriot meant having a large family. Today an Israeli patriot has two children. That’s what’s needed now.”

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