Environmental problems – such as air quality, open space preservation, exposure to toxins, endangered species – cannot be addressed and resolved by defining the problem in narrow environmental terms. Environmental problems are symptoms of broader social, economic, political and ethical challenges, and so must be addressed broadly under the umbrella concept of “sustainability.” Sustainability is an ambitious goal of assuring long-term social, economic and environmental well-being for people. Getting to sustainability cannot be achieved through a narrowly defined environmental agenda. One cannot expect, for example, that a community lacking food and health care can be motivated to respond to climate change and global biodiversity loss. Recruiting the population to stand against air polluters is difficult if many of those citizens depend on the polluters for their livelihoods. To address environmental problems, we have to address the larger issue of people’s livelihoods.
With this is mind, and with no intention of lessening public support for Israel’s environmental organizations, I advocate that Israeli environmentalists identify and promote three non-environmental organizations as part of a broader sustainability agenda. Each of these organizations (and there are many more) has the potential to catalyze societal changes that tackle the underlying drivers of our environmental problems, including loss of open space, over-consumption, and unsustainable resource use.
The Movement for Quality in Government (התנועה לאיכות בשלטון). One of the most important characteristics of good governance in general, and environmental policy in particular, is public participation. Many tools are built into democratic administrations to assure efficient public participation, including rules assuring freedom of information, transparency of decision-making, public representation on government committees, and periodic elections to assure the accountability of elected representatives. Accordingly, the enemy of good governance (and environmental wrongs) are corruption, lack of accountability, and lack of transparency. In Israel, many development projects that are today public eyesores built at the expense of open space and good urban planning – Jerusalem’s Holyland Affair and Haifa’s Leonardo Hotel, were the result of shady deals between by planners, policy-makers and developers and resultant corrupt decisions. The Movement for Quality in Government is an organization at the forefront of assuring accountable governance, in which the tools of public participation are strengthened and corruption does not go unpunished. Their successes, invigorating in their own right, have direct and cascading effects on environmental quality in Israel and should be on the agenda of every environmentalist.
The next two organizations I endorse with the following caveat: I fully endorse the agenda of these organizations for their added environmental value. However, I cannot vouch for the organizations themselves. In the case of one of them, The Israel Consumer Council, serious questions were raised the Marker this week regarding its governance practices. So, I advocate the agenda, if not the current administration.
The Israel Consumer Council (המועצה הישראלית לצרכנות). With bursting landfills and an ever-growing waste stream, assisting the public in assuring that the products they purchase are both high quality and reasonably priced should be a goal for any environmental activist. And there is a government-funded organization for that. This Council is responsible for supporting consumer rights and encouraging good consumer habits. According to their own public-relations material, they also make a strong connection between these responsibilities and positive environmental outcome. Stronger involvement by environmentalists and collaborative projects between the council and the environmental NGOs would address the economic well-being of consumers and have positive effects on contemporary environmental challenges connected to rampant over-consumption, waste generation and resource depletion.
The Association for Housing Culture (that’s a not-satisfying translation of האגודה לתרבות הדיור, but I could find no better one on their website). To facilitate for its population growth and demographic changes, Israel requires construction of between 40,000 to 60,000 new housing units each year. Those new units will come at the expense of desert and forest, farmland and urban green space. They will be accompanied by more roads and electric wires, more sewage systems and commercial zones. Open-space preservation is one of the most central and critical issues on the local agenda. Since Israelis are loath to address population growth as an environmental challenge, we can only achieve open space preservation concurrent with construction goals through densification of residential areas. And this requires strong social and cultural mechanisms for dealing with living in dense cities. The Association provides educational, administrative and legal tools to allow residents in shared housing to get along and assure the highest possible quality of life in these conditions. Their success could translate into a weaker tendency of urban residents to flee to the single-family home in the suburbs, because living in the city, in a shared residential building, can be the desirable and preferred option.
In pursuit of sustainability, people must have good and secure lives. Environmentalists can make their work even more relevant to the general population if they work to secure the population’s economic and social well-being alongside of environmental quality. Strengthening and collaborating with these organizations can contribute to achieving these goals.