Israeli Population Growth: A Ticking Bomb – or an Incredible Opportunity?

Victor Weis, Former CEO of the Heschel Center for Sustainability

Israelis, do you spend too much time in traffic jams? Do you think that’s it’s hard to buy an apartment in Israel? Are you worried about the Kinneret’s “red line,” the one that shows we’re running out of water? All these are symptoms, side-effects, of the accelerated growth of population in Israel. Let’s try to imagine what it might be like in Israel in another 20 or 30 years.

Israel is Growing

In order to understand the situation, let’s look at the numbers: Israel has grown more than ten-fold in its short 70-year existence, from 806,000 inhabitants in 1948 to over 8.8 million today. And what does the future hold? According to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS), in another thirty years, 2048, the centennial celebration of the State, the population here will be 15.2 million, almost double what it is today.

Fewer Available Resources

Imagine what this will mean in 2048. How will those traffic jams look – if we just double everything? How long will we spend on our way to work? Will there be any nature left? Where will we go to get away from it all? What about our agriculture? All this and more, even before we take into account the fact that we are experiencing a climate crisis. Climate change is expected to reduce the amount of precipitation in this part of the world (indeed, it already has). Israel is already having a hard time developing desalination technologies to keep pace with growing demand. The TV ads of a few years ago, warning us that Israel is drying up – are back.

We Need a New Plan

Population growth coupled with resource depletion demands creative problem solving. The State of Israel cannot continue using the same approaches that it has until now. We need to develop a new plan that will enable us to use the existing resources far more efficiently, in order to maintain, and even improve, our quality of life.

Sustainability is the Solution: A New Roadmap

Sustainability is an optimistic world view that provides answers to the fateful question of how we can continue to thrive over time, now and for future generations. Sustainability teaches us to adopt long term-strategic thinking and find real, creative solutions that are not stop-gap techno-fixes.

Recently, people working within the overarching view of sustainability have begun to develop innovative social and economic models. Countries such as Germany, France, South Korea and China have adopted the principles of sustainability as guidelines for national planning policy. Likewise, the U.N. has adopted the agenda of sustainability in the form of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): seventeen agreed-upon global objectives (from climate change and biodiversity to gender equality and the eradication of poverty) to steer development programs the world over.

Cities such as Paris, New York, Amsterdam and Seoul have adopted sustainability as the organizing principle for urban strategic planning. In smart cities with outstanding public transportation, the right mix of businesses, residence and commerce, integration of nature and urban agriculture, and varied avenues of communal and cultural life, density isn’t a problem, but an advantage.

When we start thinking sustainability, industry and commerce too take on new forms. Approaches based on a circular economy and the sharing economy change business models. For instance, instead of working to sell more and more products, many businesses are turning to servicizing: retaining ownership of the product, and selling the service it provides instead. One example is the electronics giant Philips that has begun to sell lighting services to airports. Philips owns the lightbulbs, for which they provide service and maintenance, and pay for their operation (electricity, etc.). As a result the whole incentive structure shifts: the company has a built-in incentive now to make bulbs that are super-durable, cheap to make and to operate over the long haul. Everything is modular, so that only the specific part that is out of service needs to be replaced. At the end of their use, all products are returned to the factory to become raw material for new models.

Our Opportunity

During the 70 years of the existence of the State of Israel, we have excelled at turning our challenges into opportunities. Security threats have led to developing advanced technological capabilities, water scarcity has led to developing desert agriculture, and knowledge that is used all over the world. The need to live in a small, crowded country can help us plan cities that are good to live in, with sophisticated mass transit, using renewable energies that will supply cheap electricity and clean air, establish diverse modes of employment that can help bring work and home closer together, promote smart sustainable agriculture that will supply healthy food and nutritional security to all, and education systems up to the challenges of the 21st century.

The challenges that the State of Israel faces are increasingly becoming issues the world over. Israel, which must deal effectively with these hurdles before most other countries, can serve as a laboratory, a hothouse for new creative ideas and solutions that can become an inspiration and a model to be copied elsewhere.

If we adopt the principles of sustainability as a systemic program in the main institutions of government, the economy and industry, in the education system, in agricultural policy, in the field of energy generation, in households and in all areas of our lives, we can live and thrive here and be among the world’s leading nations. We simply don’t have the privilege to remain apathetic and wait for other countries to lead the revolution, and for us to trail behind.

The window of opportunity is beginning to close. This is the supreme challenge facing Israel. We will determine how the future will look. Are we up to it?

Victor Weis is the executive director of the Heschel Sustainability Center, which works to promote Israel as a sustainable society through leadership development, transformative learning experiences, and being a home for change-agents.