The first little black blob in the sand I saw was about the size of a shekel. I reached down to poke it to determine whether it was tar or just a rock. It was soft. Tar. Within a minute, the sticky residue that remained on my rubber-gloved index-finger spread to the adjoining fingers and palm of my hand. The image of the young, dead sea turtle we were shown by the clean-up organizers minutes earlier resonated. What a gruesome death it must have been — to be swimming across the open Mediterranean Sea, only to swim into successive floating globules of that black sticky gunk. Sticking to its fins, clogging its airway, burning its skin, and leaving it dead on beach, where sea birds risk facing a similar fate. Sea turtle conservation efforts have been set back years.
Volunteers fan out across the Neveh Yam Beach south of Atlit, just as they have been across 100 kilometers of Israel’s beaches, to rake, shovel, and pick with their fingers the tar mixed in with the sand and stuck to the coastal rocks. In the cool morning, the tar is still viscous enough to pick up, but as the day warms, the globs become increasingly runny and sticky. It’s a Sisyphean task, but it helps that environmental organizations like EcoOcean and Zalul, and government agencies like the Nature and Parks Authority and local councils, are organized with tools, protective gear (plastic bags and tape to cover our shoes), and instructions. It helps, too, that friends have joined; their optimistic spirit of volunteerism brightens the otherwise depressing task.
I start the work by standing straight and wielding a shovel, but quickly realize it is useless for catching the small tar blobs, while leaving the sand. I move to a squatting position, using a small garden shovel. Within minutes, I am on my knees picking through the sand with my fingertips, and my colleagues are mostly doing the same, while others rake the more polluted sand patches, where the high tide moved most of the tar, into piles. While we’re down there, we’re picking up respectable amounts of plastic waste. It doesn’t take long for our pants to be covered in the black, sand-speckled goo. We can, with some effort, wash it off our hands and clothes. The birds, fish, and turtles aren’t so lucky.
The source of this petroleum mess is, as of this writing, still undetermined, and several ships are being investigated. What is certain, however, is that our dependence on fossil fuels bears ultimate responsibility for this ecological disaster that damaged our beaches, claimed the lives of uncountable number of sea and coastal organisms, and sent volunteers cleaning up the beaches to the hospital from inhaling the poisonous fumes.
This is a disaster in a long, sordid history of disasters, including the Torrey Canyon (in which 30 million tons of petroleum were spilled into the English Channel), the Exxon Valdez (11 million gallons of crude oil dumped into Alaska’s Prince William Sound), Deepwater Horizon (210 million gallons released into the Gulf of Mexico, and still killing marine life 10 years later), and the Aliso Canyon gas leak (100,000 tonnes of gas leaked into the atmosphere above Los Angeles).
But these disasters distract from the pollution continuing day-to-day due to our fossil fuel dependency. Fossil fuel, whether it is coal, petroleum, or “natural” gas, has altered our climate cycles, bringing extreme heat and cold events to every corner of the planet, and is highly likely to be driving increased wildfire intensity and frequency and more deadly hurricanes. The same fossil fuels are the main contributors to urban air pollution, with all their health implications (for instance, 8.7 million deaths in 2018, by one recent research estimate).
Fossil fuels have granted us the seemingly boundless energy source that powered humanity’s industrial, transportation, and second agricultural revolutions, and continues to fuel our material consumption and population growth. But, with so many viable alternatives already competitive and with a fraction of the environmental and health impacts (see, for example, here, here, and here), the role of oil, coal, and gas in powering society should be nearing its end.
To hasten the end of its use, in Israel, that means joining more than 200 environmental scientists in calling for the immediate cessation of a proposed expansion of oil facilities in Eilat. It means phasing out polluting industries, including the Bazan oil refineries in Haifa Bay. It means rolling back our growing exclusive reliance our Mediterranean gas fields, and a cessation of oil and gas exploration across Israel. Simultaneously, we need to double down on investment in renewable energies and energy efficiency, and refocus on conservation.
More radically, we must engage in a fundamental reassessment of our modern throw-away consumer culture, which substantially increases our demand for energy by requiring more extraction of raw materials, transportation of raw materials, production of finished products, more transportation, marketing, more transportation, and disposal. Every stage is energy intensive, and the pollution is embodied in every product. Fossil fuels have not only given us the opportunity to grow and prosper, but through their side product of plastic production, they have turned us into a throw-away society, wasting energy and material, and creating a landscape of plastic waste. It is more than symbolic that our beaches this week are covered with both plastic and tar.
As a teacher of environmental studies, my favorite lecture is when I conclude with an overview about how the environment has improved over the past decades, in sharp contrast to the otherwise dismal outlook. I point to the fact that tar was a permanent feature on Israeli beaches until the 1990s. Kids today don’t conclude their trips to the beach with the routine scraping-of-the-tar off their feet, as their parents did.
Similarly, despite numerous threats, I discuss how wildlife conservation efforts have slowly and stubbornly brought back the population of sea turtles, who were being lost to pollution, habitat destruction, and hunting.
In February 2021, we have been bitterly reminded that even our advances can be stolen from us by an errant or insubordinate ship captain, combined with lax or underfunded environmental enforcement agencies.
A lesson from Israel’s beaches this week: our environmental advances will continue to be fleeting, so long as we remain dependent on fossil fuels.