Alon Tal

Extinction is forever

That’s why we need a law that ensures we constantly monitor the state of nature in Israel

Mr. Chair, Member of Knesset,

Extinction is forever. When we annihilate entire populations of animals and plant species, they leave this world, never to return. Not unlike the rest of the world, nature in Israel finds itself in a crisis of staggering proportions. The proposed “The State of Nature Report” law is designed to provide an answer.

For some time, scientists have defined the present era as the “Sixth Extinction”. In other words, during the history of the planet, there have been five periods during which an ecological collapse took place. The last extinction was 65 million years ago after an asteroid fell near Mexico and dramatically changed the conditions on the globe. One fine day, half of the animals and plants that lived on the earth — and all the dinosaurs – were simply erased.

Today, we are witness to another kind of global extinction. The Sixth Extinction is different from the previous ones. It is different because it is not the result of extreme, natural phenomena. Rather, it is a direct result of the proliferation of humans and their exaggerated activities, greed, obtuseness – and sometimes foolishness.

According to the most recent report of the World Wildlife Fund, a report that assessed more than 4,000 species of animals of every type on every continent – the number of individual animals living in nature has dropped by 68% since 1970. I would like to repeat that alarming statistic: over two-thirds of the animals: mammals, reptiles, birds – that were found in nature fifty years ago, today are no longer alive.

Members of Knesset, it happened on our watch. And the thing is, I assume that none of us here were paying attention. Another statistic to emphasize just how catastrophic nature’s situation is: according to recent research, if we weigh all of the biomass on the earth, 96% of the weight would be made up of humans and their domesticated animals; only 4% would be animals in the wild.

Thirty years ago, the international community started to get organized. The UN Biodiversity Convention stipulates, as a first step, that its member nations monitor “as far as possible and appropriate” biological diversity in their respective states. In 1995, Israel ratified the convention. Unfortunately, since then, our implementation has been spotty.

In the meantime, the biodiversity crisis can no longer be seen as some distant, global phenomenon. It has not “passed over” Israel. It is right here; right now. Anyone following the zoological data emerging from the past ten years is likely to feel themselves to be an accessory to a serious crime.

The Zionist dram was supposed to deliver a blessing to the land of Israel and its ecological systems. And, this was indeed the case during the first days of the state when a stringent hunting law was enacted, a network of nature reserves established along with an enforcement authority. Sadly, in recent years, the trends are reversed. Today, nature suffers greatly from our presence here in the land of Israel.

Friends, I would like to emphasize: this is not tree-hugging propaganda. Fauna and flora do not know how to lie. They simply disappear… quietly. We are talking about a collective omission. But worst of all, most of the public, indeed, most of the members of the Knesset and the ministers in our government don’t even know that the crisis exists.

That was my impression five years ago when the first State of Nature report was presented at Tel Aviv University. The report is the outcome of rare, but welcome, institutional cooperation known as the “Maarag” project. The Maarag is a consortium of the Nature and Parks Authority, the Jewish National Fund, the Ministry of the Environment and the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel. The idea is that rather than bicker, it makes more sense to bring all the relevant bodies that work in monitoring and document nature in Israel together. The reports of the Maarag are unfailingly comprehensive, meticulous, professional, but most of all…. worrying.

From the initial publication five years ago, we learned that nature’s decline in Israel is greater than we thought; the crisis more severe than we expected. Open spaces in Israel disappear at a rate of 21 square kilometers a year. Eagle species are disappearing. Reptiles are waning. And the few amphibians we have are almost entirely gone.

Over a third of the local vertebrate species in Israel are defined as: “in danger of extinction”. Even the Israeli gazelle, the same keystone species on which the ancient geographical nickname: “the land of the gazelle” is based, was recently classified as an endangered species by the IUCN, the relevant, authorized international body.

At the same opening ceremony of the first report, I was astonished when the Minister of Environmental Protection at the time, who was slated to speak at the event, did not bother to attend. Apparently, he too had no idea of how bad the situation was.

I decided to write a law that would ensure that at least on our watch, we would be aware, “as far, as possible”, of the state of our natural world. Not only would the environmental minister know what was happening with biodiversity here, but the cabinet ministers and the Knesset as well. Along with my friend, Professor Uri Shanas, an ecologist from Haifa University, I wrote the proposed “Annual Report of the State of Nature and Biodiversity in Israel Law”. Low and behold, it is the same draft legislation we are voting on today.

Formally, the goal of the proposed law is to support the crafting of policy to prevent deterioration in the state of nature and biodiversity and lead to its improvement. The general strategy to promote this objective involves granting statutory status to the existing State of Nature report, in order to ensure meaningful government and public awareness. The Minister of Environmental Protection will be required to present to the Israeli government and the Knesset, in real time, the primary, ongoing trends, and the threats that nature faces. A scientific advisory committee is to be established to recommend a monitoring program, to select the list of species to be observed and the appropriate geographical units. The statutory report is to include desired policy options, goals and warnings about any serious deterioration.

Four days ago, on Shabbat, we read “Parshat Noah”. We recalled again, how one person, working on his own, was able to save all the creatures of the planet. During the past years, Noah’s Ark has emerged as a symbol all over the world, not only of the Creator’s commitment to preserving creation, but also of our ability, in this generation, to be partners in the same, sacred mission. Ultimately, this constitutes a solemn obligation.

During the course of the narrative, the Almighty promises that he will never again “curse the land”. And since that time – this promise has ostensibly been met. The problem is that we have not kept our part of the covenant that emerged after the flood, to protect the planet’s fauna and flora.

Members of Knesset: seven hundred years ago, Dante the great laureate, wrote that “the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who prefer in times of crisis to remain neutral.” Voting for this law is a statement – it’s a statement that we are not apathetic and we are not complacent.

A thousand years before Dante, the sages put forth their famous axiom: “You don’t have to finish the task – but neither are you free to avoid it.”

Systematically and precisely documenting and monitoring the flora and fauna of Israel and then publishing the results will surely not guarantee that we save our precious, but endangered, natural world

But it is absolutely a critical first step that we cannot avoid.

I ask you, members of Knesset to vote in favor of a law that promises that during our watch, the state of Israel will make a supreme effort to understand the state of nature within its borders, and convene experts to recommend how we can heal it. This is the least we can do for the many creatures with whom we still share this good land.

The above speech was made in the Knesset on October 13th prior to a unanimous vote, including both coalition and opposition Knesset members in favor of new biodiversity protection bill.

About the Author
Alon Tal is a professor of Public Policy at Tel Aviv University. In 2021 and 2022, he was chair of the Knesset's Environment, Climate & Health subcommittee.
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