Sustainable growth is an oxymoron, Israeli environmentalist Alon Tal told a Washington audience last week. “There are biological limits.”
Israel, with a population of 8 million (not including the West Bank and Gaza) is approaching those limits and it’s time to start planning for the future, Tal said.
“At some point, we’re going to say that we’ve reached [full capacity]. But we can’t go back, right? So, now’s the time to talk. We need to reduce the birthrate.”
Tal, whose new book is “The Land is Full — Addressing Overpopulation in Israel,” was upbeat at his presentation at American University about Israel’s ability to put the brakes on growth. The founder of Adam Teva V’Din – Israel Union for Environmental Defense — and a faculty member at Ben-Gurion University — Tal emphasized that Israel’s tenfold growth from 800,000 at its founding in 1948 is an environmental and social crisis.
Increasing pollution and dwindling natural resources compounding an overburdened infrastructure and overcrowding are disastrous for sustainability, he said.
“For all of Israel’s great advances in technology, it cannot create another Kinneret Sea,” he said.
Restraining population growth will have the salutary effect of reducing poverty, he said, pointing to the haredi Orthodox and Bedouin communities as prime beneficiaries.
“Most poor children are in large families. Haredi families with two children are not under the poverty line. Same for Bedouin families,” said Tal, who also served on the Jewish National Fund international board for 12 years. “But it’s a decision by parents to have more children than they can support, and it dooms them to a cycle of poverty, and a lack of equality and opportunity. You won’t solve the problem of poverty without solving demography.”
Tal said the Israeli government should provide subsidies and fertility treatments for a family’s first two children. After that families would have to independently support any additional child. “This would [force] parents to be responsible,” he said.
Tal also recommended that contraception be given out for free throughout the country, something only done in Israel’s military.
Equality between among the sexes is paramount for Israel to maintain a vibrant and healthy society, he said.
“How do I expect to have a policy to lower birthrates? There are three things we have to do: empower women, empower women and empower women.”
All the rest is just interpretation,” he said. “We need to provide better opportunities for the ultra-Orthodox, haredi and Bedouin communities.”
A growing population will be an issue for decades to come, he added. Israel will have 50 million people in the next few decades, even if policies changed today. Said Tal: “Israel is a beautiful country, and we have a responsibility to protect it. And I believe we can do it.”