Sustainability, Resilience, and a Minister of Minor Nuisances

Israel's most urgent environmental nuisance? Bereaved families demonstrating for democracy in Haifa. 22 April 2023. (Photo by the author).
Israel's most urgent environmental nuisance? Bereaved families demonstrating for democracy in Haifa. 22 April 2023. (Photo by the author).

It must be difficult to be the Minister for Environmental Protection in today’s government. As minister, you are essentially responsible for asking passengers of the Titanic not to litter or make excessive noise. All the while, your captain and his staff are determinedly steering the ship head-on into an iceberg that will be the end of the ship and its passengers. But unlike the Titanic, Israel is full of passengers who know exactly where we are heading and the catastrophic results that await us, and they are eager to share this information with the crew. Unfortunately, and despite the obvious conflicts with her responsibility to the well-being of her passengers, the Minister is a full partner to the collision with the iceberg.

Although surrounded by some of the finest environmental scholars and knowledgeable professionals, Idit Silman, Minister of Environmental Protection, seems to define her task as being limited to scolding unruly citizens for making excessive noise (at demonstrations opposing the judicial coup), littering (at demonstrations opposing the judicial coup), and releasing noxious gasses into the atmosphere (at demonstrations opposing the judicial coup). In her response to an angry, booing audience of environmental scholars and professionals, who were attending the annual conference of the Israel Society of Ecology and Environmental Sciences, she scolded:

All those who talk about the climate and protect the environment, I have not heard any of them come out against the fireworks that were fired in the demonstrations in Tel Aviv or the tires that were burned and polluted the environment or the number of flyers that are being posted everywhere and making everything dirty. None of them came out against this. Amazing. This is what we call hypocrisy.

Really, Minister? Those are the most important environmental challenges facing Israel? If Silman stands by her scolding, rather than recognizing that the true environmental threat to the country is her government’s destruction of democratic and professional norms, she should more appropriately be named the Minister of Minor Nuisances.

Former submarine crewman demonstrating for democracy, Haifa, 13 May, 2023 (Photo by author).

Silman’s responsibility to Israel’s environmental well-being does in fact include excessive production of garbage and noise violations (although it would be nice if she dealt with single-use plastic and urban leaf-blowers rather than focusing on demonstrators). But it is much more than that. As Minister of Environmental Protection, she is responsible for the long-term sustainability of Israel and its resilience to present and emerging environmental threats. And since both sustainability and resilience depend on the structure and function of government and civil society, and her government is destroying both, Silman is culpable for degrading sustainability and resilience in Israel, and for severely weakening our potential to secure a better future for our children.

On multiple occasions and with diverse voices, environmental professionals and scholars have tried to explain to Minister Silman and her government colleagues that it is their “reform” of laws, education, judicial system, and planning bodies that spell disaster for the state of Israel’s environment. Even in the best of times, Israel faces a four-headed hydra of climate change, open space loss, rapid population growth, and over-consumption of energy and materials, which will demand all of our best policies, behaviors, and technological capacities to overcome. Current government policies and proposals will make it impossible to deal with those challenges. To understand why, consider the meaning and implications of “sustainability” and “resilience”.

Sustainability, or the desire to assure quality of life for the current and future generations within the capacity of the earth to provide that quality of life, stands on three pillars: an egalitarian society, a thriving economy, and a healthy environment.

The current government is not building an egalitarian society. Quite the opposite. Through its incitement against broad sectors of society (including judges, police officers, army generals, retirees, university professors, journalists, activists, and more) and its steady stream of racist, homophobic, and sexist rhetoric and legislation, the government is transforming hatred and intolerance into an accepted way of life.

The government is not developing a thriving economy. Quite the opposite. Government actions continue to threaten the country’s credit rating and long-term economic forecasts, as the high-tech industry has already reported an 70% decline in foreign investment over the previous year. As of this writing, Israel’s stock market is stuck in place, while foreign markets recover from last year’s slump.

The government is not working to allay Israel’s environmental threats. Quite the opposite. Whether considering direct actions (like cancelling taxes on disposable plastic dishes and sugary soft drinks) or indirect actions (like trying to cancel the “reasonableness” clause, which can be the last line of defense for public opposition to environmental nuisances), environmental protection is demonstrably low on the government’s priority list.

Sustainable planning and policy depend on the best available scientific knowledge and technologies, broad consensus-based decision making, transparency, and community engagement. All four factors are weakening under the current government. They altering every relevant societal institution in order to concentrate power to the government, all to the detriment of the environment, including the judicial system, the media, higher education, the judicial system, and – significantly – the planning system.

Druze citizens demonstrating for democracy. Haifa, 27 May, 2023 (Photo by author).

Resilience to current and emerging threats like climate change, pandemics, or foreign belligerents depends on many of the same factors as sustainability. In addition, resilience depends on mutual trust between government and the governed and it depends on respect: respect for the earth and respect among people, regardless of who they are. The same respect that has become so out of fashion to the parliament members of the current ruling coalition.

The government, with Minister Silman’s full support, is degrading the factors on which resilience rests. Resilience demands distributed governance (for example, strong municipal governance and an independent judicial branch). Resilience demands diversity and redundancy in crucial infrastructures (for example, a diversified health care system and diverse and redundant energy supplies), and reserves (such as food and water reserves and abundant open spaces for nature and agriculture). Each of these factors are threatened by the government’s narrow, extremist agenda which operates in opposition to the principles of resilience.

There is a better way. The way in which public participation in planning and governance are strengthened, the independence of the judicial level is respected, and local government is empowered. The way that encourages integrity of governance and law enforcement. The way that encourages professionalism to protect the quality of the environment and public health. Minister Silman can work towards these ends by restraining the government’s extremism in the name of sustainability and resilience for Israel. Or she can continue to scold protesters in her role as Minister of Minor Nuisances.

About the Author
Daniel Orenstein is an associate professor in the Faculty of Architecture and Town Planning at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology. His research interests include human-nature interactions, environmental issues in Israel and globally, and public engagement in environmental policy. His general interests are much broader.
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