Israel’s leadership frequently warns of a demographic threat to the country’s Jewish majority. Although it is a touchy subject, it is nonetheless important to address how to reduce population growth.
By Zafrir Rinat | Oct. 2, 2013

Next week the Israel Society of Ecology and Environmental Sciences will be holding its annual conference. On the agenda is the rarely considered and sensitive issue of population growth in Israel and its implications. Considering the fact that the subject is almost completely avoided in Israel, for religious and national reasons, it is not surprising that the concluding presentation at that session is titled “Can we talk about population growth already?” Dr. Daniel Orenstein of the Architecture and Town Planning Faculty at the Technion Israel Institute of Technology will address the issue.

Population growth is hardly fading from the public agenda around the world, and a glance at several current publications provides an indication of what a major concern it is for those involved in environmental protection. But there is also a lot of controversy over demography and its causal connection to the environment.

Three months ago Cambridge University professor Stephan Emmott published a book called “Ten Billion,” which features gloomy predictions regarding the consequences of world population growth. Emmott writes that humans will need to triple their energy production capacity by the end of the century to meet their needs. That will require building more than 1,500 major dams and 14 million wind turbines. The alternative would be relying on coal, natural gas and oil, as is the case now, and building another 36,000 power plants.

But Emmott adds that the worst thing we can do from a global perspective is to continue to have children at the present rate. At current birthrates, he notes, Zambia’s population will grow by 941 percent by the end of the century and the population of Nigeria will increase by 349 percent to 750 million.

A group of experts recently submitted a document to the United Nations that proposes a global agenda promoting sustainable development. Even based on a projected moderation in birthrates in the countries of sub-Saharan Africa, they say the population of the region is expected to increase fourfold by the end of the century to 3.4 billion. Such a rate of growth will not enable the countries of the region to address the problem of poverty, and will exacerbate demands on natural resources.

A different perspective on population growth was recently presented by Prof. Erle Ellis of the Geography and Environmental Systems Department of the University of Maryland. In an article in the New York Times, he said it was nonsense to think, as many scientists do, that human beings were endangering the earth’s ecosystems. A totally natural environment has not existed since the dawn of history, he argued, because human beings have adapted conditions to their needs and can continue to do so in the future. The limitations that they face are not ecological and related not to population size, but rather to social and technological limitations, which can be overcome, he says.

For example, an effective approach to everything related to combating poverty, including food distribution, must be implemented. Ellis also contends that it was actually population growth that led to the development of the ability to produce more food on the same land area.

In Israel, the link between population and environment is particularly complicated. According to data from the Central Bureau of Statistics, over the past decade the country’s population grew at a 1.8 percent annual rate, similar to the rate in developing rather than developed countries. And the CBS projects that by 2035, Israel’s population will have grown from 8 million now to somewhere between 10 and 12.5 million people.

Israeli society is composed of distinct population sectors when it comes to birthrates. While the country’s secular Jewish and Arab populations have experienced a steady decline in birthrates, the fertility rate of the country’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish population has barely receded at all. If should also be noted, however, that the relatively modest lifestyle of many ultra-Orthodox Jews means that their environmental impact is the smallest of any of Israel’s population sectors. Ultra-Orthodox families live for the most part in densely populated areas rather than in private homes, and use public transportation to a larger extent than the average Israeli.

Although the situation is complex, on balance there is a clear need to rein in population growth, to maintain a society with an improved quality of life and to maintain stability of natural resources. This restraint must be similar to what is exercised in other countries, based primarily on practices such as investment in women’s education and employment, and the encouragement of family planning and smaller family size, in addition to improving women’s health and quality of life.

Last year the University of Pittsburgh published a book called “Between Ruin and Restoration” that deals with Israel’s environmental history and includes an article by Prof. Orenstein about population growth. In his conclusion, Orenstein states that the subject must be addressed here despite the sensitivity of the issue for religious, cultural and political reasons. Consideration of the issue, he writes, must involve decision makers, planners and the public at large in an effort to influence planning and the allocation of funds. The aim, he states, should be to deal with the results of population growth or to explore a halt to the policy of encouraging high fertility rates and immigration.

And one might add that it would be preferable if the Palestinians, who share this piece of land, are also brought into the debate. But in light of the relations between the two peoples and the demographic confrontation that the leadership of both sides promote, it’s difficult to imagine such a discussion taking place in the near future.