For the Bar Mitzvah of the New Century, A Grown-Up Agenda: Sustainability

The young 21st century has entered its bar mitzvah year, and it’s time to grow up. 2013 has entered just as 2012 left us: with a jolting reminder we’re living on a warming planet where extreme weather events are becoming the new normal. The wreckage of superstorm Sandy  not yet cleared from the Jersey shore,  the calendar year turned and Australia found itself in the most intense and widespread heat wave in its history. The Bureau of Meteorology there had to add two new colors to its weather maps  to account for temperatures over 122 degrees Fahrenheit (!)

Many thought that 2012 was the year in which global society should finally have woken up  to the dangers of climate change. Others thought that that was the year we should have, as a society, freaked out.  Let’s face it, the warnings range from dire to deadly. Our worries about global warming a generation ago turn out to be not just prescient but, if anything, conservative. Melting polar ice and glaciers, rising seas, extreme drought coinciding with extreme rainfall, collapsing biodiversity in our oceans, endangered mammals in every ecosystem, growing deserts, raging wildfires – this is not our future but our present.

Yet our governments exhibit a strange complacency, like the proverbial nonplussed frog in the pot of water slowly being heated to a boil. When will we figure out that we need to jump  –  that is, we need to take a leap, to radically adjust our worldview? Here in Israel now, as in America last November, an election campaign for national leadership has taken place with nary a word of these issues on the agenda.

We need and deserve more from our politicians. Environmental protection is still viewed as a narrow, sectorial issue. President Obama is at least trying to make the case that renewable energy is good for the economy, producing not just clean power but good American jobs. But there as well as in Israel, the political leadership is not connecting all the dots: as humans on this planet, we all have an equal stake in advancing sustainable practices in the environmental sphere (not over-fishing our oceans, for example), the economic sphere (replacing dirty, declining fossil fuels with renewables) and the social sphere (transparent, open public decision-making).  The dangers of inaction are great – we are almost literally the frog being brought to slow boil — yet here in Israel, no political parties have yet internalized this paradigm. The number of Knesset members conversant with these issues, and willing to advance them as legislators, is no more than a handful.

So our leaders haven’t led, but to be honest, it is not just our governments. We the people have not yet demanded action, not really, not the way we should have by now. Occupy Wall Street, and the social protests in Israel, were promising starts of the grassroots paradigm shift  necessary to confront climate change:  that all our actions are connected; our political, social and economic choices must all be just, and, hence,  here’s the main point – sustainable.

In Israel and the US, we deserve broader access to better public transportation because it is necessary economically, crucial for social justice – and critical to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Same with planning processes: only when they are open, transparent and democratic can we better society and address climate change.

But these grassroots protests have not gone far enough, fast enough. If they had, the UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio in 2012 would not have ended so bleakly, with no real commitments to address global warming. Instead, the most optimistic take-away from Rio was the commitment to action of an increasingly sophisticated and interconnected civil society global network of NGOs.

Here in Israel – where a large civil society delegation to Rio returned fired-up to win hearts and change policy despite official inaction of the authorities – the paradigm really is beginning to shift, spurred on by a slew of sophisticated NGO’s.  It is true that Israel still lags behind the US in terms of some basic environmental protections, and much of the environmental movement’s resources  are needed  to protect our beaches, our air and water quality, our open spaces,  our health.

But the context is changing. More and more, NGO’s are spurring the government on one side, and industry on the other, to turn towards sustainability. They are engaging  government ministries,  municipalities, and businesses large and small in green building and design practices; in utilizing solar and wind power, and bio fuels; in the vision and practice of modern urbanism ; in advancing public transportation and bike-friendly policies;  and perhaps most importantly — in fostering an atmosphere of innovation to address sustainable development needs.

Climate change is real, and urgent. Every sector has its role to play in addressing this challenge. For civil society – the NGO’s and their philanthropic partners – road is not always clear, nor easy. But the direction is locked in: having introduced and defined the concept of sustainability, we must now turn it into the movement that will save the planet.





About the Author
Jay Shofet is the director of partnerships and development at the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, the oldest and largest environmental nonprofit organization in Israel. He previously served as the executive director of the Jerusalem-based Green Environment Fund.