As wealthy, developed, and technologically advanced as we are, ultimately, nature is the bedrock of our human existence, and the key to human resilience, health, stability, and wellbeing. By harming nature, we harm ourselves even more.
It is with mixed emotions and a conflicted heart that I am following the photos, videos, and news reports about how nature is flourishing right now, as human activity in public spaces has been almost entirely prohibited.
How heartwarming and wonderful it is, particularly for a nature lover like me, to see wild animals roaming unhindered in places where they are not usually to be found. However, headlines like “People in captivity, wild animals enjoy themselves” bothers me because of the message they convey. Such headlines suggest a false perception of “it’s them [nature] or us,” that the wellbeing of nature is at odds with, or comes at the expense of, the wellbeing of humanity and human welfare; that nature can thrive only when we humans are severely restricted in our activities, and when we are suffering.
For the same reason, I am concerned about the correlation that could be made between the improvements in environmental quality that are currently being reported, and the dramatic reductions in human activity. Here, too, the context creates a dichotomy whereby quality of life and of the environment—air quality, water quality, nature preservation—are the results of a downturn, an economic crisis, and a disruption to the routine of human activity. As with any crisis or upheaval, the Coronavirus crisis challenges the basic assumptions that we live by in various areas of human endeavor. One of the defining characteristics of an epidemic is cultural change. However, we do not yet know whether or how human culture will shift as a result of this current crisis, whose conclusion is, at this point, still uncertain.
There is no doubt that one of the main areas in which dramatic cultural change is needed is that of our relationship with nature. As far as we know, the Coronavirus, like other epidemics that preceded it, is a zoonotic disease originating in a mutated virus transmitted from animals to humans as a result of hunting and eating wild animals. The creation and spread of zoonotic diseases stem from the hunting, trafficking, and consumption of wildlife, the destruction of habitats, and largescale intensive farming of animals for the meat and dairy industry, which is an agent for disease transmission (as in the case of swine flu, for example). Moreover, the infrastructure created by globalization has allowed this disease to spread at inconceivable speed, from a single individual in China to millions of people across the globe.
Even before the Coronavirus crisis, the overexploitation of natural systems—the topic of a 2019 report by the United Nations—had deteriorated these systems so severely that our very ability to continue living on this planet was under threat. The report, written by 145 experts from 50 countries over the course of three years, found that the natural systems are in a worse state than we previously thought; if we do not take immediate action, more than 500,000 species will lack the sufficient living space to ensure their long-term survival.
Healthy, stable, and functioning natural systems are not a luxury. Nature is not a luxury. Natural systems are the bedrock of our existence in every single area of our lives: food security, our medicine cabinet, the genetic diversity that guarantees agricultural resilience. They ensure drug development resources, clean air, a balanced climate system, clean water, and, of course, serenity, inspiration, and peace.
Nature is our main ally in reducing the carbon emissions that drive the climate crisis, and in limiting its dangerous consequences. The more severely we harm nature, the more we exacerbate the climate crisis and weaken our ability to deal with it.
And so at this moment, we are under lockdown and wildlife is rejoicing—but this is not how it should be. We all share the same planet, and while nature can exist without us, we cannot exist without nature. As wealthy, developed, and technologically advanced as we may be, ultimately, nature is the bedrock of our human existence and the key to human resilience, health, stability, and wellbeing. When we harm nature, we cause ourselves even greater harm.
I think that all of us are awaiting a return to normalcy. But we need a new normal, one that is characterized by a strong, healthy relationship with nature. This must be based on an understanding of our dependence on nature, a sense of respect and humility in the face of this treasure we have been charged with protecting, and the recognition that we will pay a heavy price for the abuse and overexploitation of that treasure. But this does not mean giving up on comfort, economic prosperity, or wealth. Quite the opposite is true. Healthy natural systems and environmental quality are signs of healthy growth and of a stable, sustainable economy, one that recognizes the boundaries of natural capital—natural resources—and does not selfishly exploit these, depleting the bank for future generations and bringing them to the brink of existential bankruptcy.
Turns out your tree planted in Israel might not be so good for the country or protecting nature
Greetings from Israel as we get ready to celebrate Tu B'Shvat, the new year for trees.
The Jewish New Year for Trees in 2020, Tu B'shvat, will be celebrated by us and many Israelis starting on February 10th. It's a reminder of spring's renewal in the middle of winter. Lately, it also reminds us, if we are paying attention, of the need to live in harmony with nature. This Tu B'Shvat if you'd like to make a gift that truly helps Israel's nature, click here
One of the four "new years" mentioned in the Mishna, Tu B'shvat was first celebrated by medieval Kabbalists with mystical seders of fruits and nuts, and today has been adopted by Jewish environmentalists as a day of general ecological awareness. The ritual most associated the holiday these days is tree-planting in Israel, which, alas, is actually harming Israel's environment and biodiversity.
Is Planting Trees Really Good for the Environment?
As Israeli environmentalists have been warning for decades, we’ve been planting the wrong trees, the wrong way, in the wrong places for a long time.
Twice in recent years, my organization, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, has succeeded in court to stop such ecologically harmful practices.
Now, SPNI's new study concludes unequivocally that, from an ecological perspective, the KKL-JNF’s traditional pine forests have done more harm than good. It’s not that Israel doesn’t need trees. We do, the planet does; they store carbon dioxide and provide shade to lower temperatures in a warming world. But we don't need trees in naturally unforested open spaces, we need them in Israel's urban heat islands.
The issue is complex, but in a paragraph, ecosystems with sparse tree cover - scrubland, loess, grasslands and calcareous sandstone areas -- are among the most threatened ecosystems in the country. Planting trees in these sensitive ecosystems alters nature’s balance, having a negative effect on Israel’s unique biodiversity and on the ecological function of the region. By actively continuing this activity, the KKL-JNF is acting against Israel’s international commitments to protect biodiversity.
The negative ecological impacts of planted forests are not restricted to the planted area; the forest has harmful effects on nearby natural areas, including spread of toxic pine needles, invasive plants, and species into areas they shouldn’t be.
Worse, planted forests in these open areas do not contribute to the positive balance of climate change mitigation because of heat absorbed dark patches of the forest compared to the previous heat radiated back to space by light-hued environments (known as the albedo effect)
So this Tu B'shvat, please consider the science before you celebrate by planting (or sponsoring) a new tree in Israel.
Think of the Animals
In fact, this Tu B'Shvat, I'm already thinking about the next "new year" on the Jewish calendar, one I just heard about from the esteemed London environmentalist Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg. The first day of the month of Elul on the Hebrew calendar, it turns out, is referred to by the same Mishna tractate as the "new year for the tithing of domesticated animals". In light of our new understandings about the effects and horrific conditions of industrialized meat production, and in the dark shadow of the unfolding of the Sixth Mass Extinction event, by our hands -- this is a re-branding just aching to happen: the New Year for Animals.
During the time of the Second Temple, this was a day on which shepherds determined which of their mature animals were to be tithed. The day is exactly one month before Rosh Hashanah, when a shofar made of a ram's horn -- hmmm -- is blown to herald the traditional time of heshbon nefesh, a personal accounting.
In 2009, at the goat barn of the campus of a Jewish retreat center in Connecticut just minutes from my hometown, the festival began to be revived, first by Jewish animal protection advocates and environmental educators to raise awareness of the mitzvah of tsar baalei chayim (banning cruelty to live animals). The source texts inform Jewish ethical relationships with domesticated animals, and, today, the lived experience of animals impacted by human needs, especially in the industrial meat industry.
Since then, the rebranding of the New Year for Animals has been rolling out very slowly, apparently, because no one I've spoken to has ever heard about it. Maybe Tu B'shvat seders and tree-planting had a slow go in the early years too?
A Message for the Climate Change era
But this is a rebranding worth happening, a dusting off of an arcane tradition and its updating with an important Jewish message to ourselves and to the world for the next millennium: we share this planet with other living creatures – animals wild and domesticated – and we must, for heavens' sake, and ours and theirs -- do a much better job of looking out for them and their well-being.
Tu B'shvat is a great, ancient idea with potential today to bring much-needed awareness and action to crucial issues of ecology and sustainability. But we can’t celebrate the ecological message of this day meaningfully while the science clearly shows that planting trees the way we do in Israel is harmful to the planet, our nature and our native animals.
Chag Sameach, a meaningful happy holiday to everyone
Are you on the fence about joining our next mission? Maybe this will help you make up your mind
In trucks that were configured to look like mobile bleacher seats, we quietly trekked through the Hula Valley nature reserve in northern Israel. We stopped at certain viewing areas to observe birds beginning their descent into the Hula Valley where they would rest on the lake for the night. We saw cranes, storks, pink flamingo, and other birds, either on their annual stop-over in Israel en route to Africa for the winter, or permanent residents who have settled into the good life in northern Israel. As we watched the sky, we saw hundreds, if not thousands, of cranes begin to arrive in groups. As we watched in hushed silence, more and more birds continued to arrive in larger groups. It was as if the birds had choreographed an intricate performance, beginning with their gradual descent and ending in a rapturous finale. It was an astonishingly beautiful experience. And, as if nature, or our Hula Valley guide, had planned it perfectly, the trucks manoeuvered into position to allow us a view of a radiant sun settling into the mountains at day’s end. At the Hula Valley, a natural space exists where birds, amphibians, and other animals, as well as humans, can thrive together.
I have been to Israel several times. This year I wanted to learn more about a part of Israel that we don’t hear enough about: the work to preserve its natural spaces, its animal (and bird) inhabitants, and the environmental challenges that Israel faces. A Google search brought me to the website of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI), the oldest environmental organization in Israel. On a 6-day nature tour in November, members of SPNI travelled with us to a variety of natural spaces, introduced us to experts in various fields, and showed us the beauty of Israel’s flora and fauna, including the wonderful Hula Valley. Additional highlights of the trip are described below.
In Jerusalem, SPNI welcomed us to one of its flagship sites, the Gazelle Valley Park; a serene wildlife oasis, set in an urban setting. Here, Israeli gazelles, of Bible renown, find a respite from an ever-expanding Jerusalem. It’s a place where Jerusalem residents and tourists can go to appreciate the vulnerability and graceful beauty of this endangered animal. The hope is that the group of gazelles will grow and SPNI will be able to extend their presence in other regions of Israel.
At the Jerusalem Bird Observatory, another lovely natural oasis located in bustling Jerusalem, we were joined by staff and volunteers, keen to share their love and interest in birds. At the birding station, birds are identified, weighed, and measured (including their wing spans). A band is attached to the birds’ legs, so that the team can track their migratory patterns, population growth and health. Then, the birds are released.
At SPNI’s Ein Gedi field school, originally established in the 1960s and located in a beautiful spot above the Dead Sea, SPNI has plans for the field school’s renewal, with the addition of environmentally-friendly living structures and common outdoor spaces that will allow visitors to enjoy the beauty and uniqueness of the Israeli desert. While there we were enormously fortunate to encounter another Biblical species, the rocky hill living ibex, with their doe-like eyes. The ibex were very accommodating as we shutter-bugged away.
At Hai Bar Carmel Nature Reserve, in Haifa, we learned about a re-habilitation and breeding program for Griffon vultures. Vultures haven’t benefited from a particularly positive image as a predator; however, a discussion about how vulnerable the vulture population is in Israel, including the small troupe in the Golan, and time to admire the vultures’ beauty and majesty, left all of us in awe of this species and its determination to survive.
Intertwined with visits to Israel’s nature reserves and rehabilitation programs, we benefited from the knowledge and engagement of Israeli experts, active in SPNI programs. They shared with us Israel’s current (and future) environmental challenges and their hopes and plans to preserve and grow Israel’s natural spaces.
In less than a week, SPNI took us on a journey through Israel, a small country that is blessed with geographical diversity, and a variety of flora and fauna. What we learned was that as Israel continues to grow, it is incumbent on all to ensure that Israel’s natural spaces are preserved and that nature, animals and humans can co-exist and thrive together in harmony.
As antidotes to the busyness of day-to-day urban living, people are increasingly looking to long-distance trails. I suppose that’s one of the reasons I walked the Israel National Trail (INT):
I wanted to sidestep the clamor of my life.
The Holy Land is the original pilgrimage destination. And while I am no spiritual zealot, I did want to learn firsthand about a corner of the world that—from an outsider’s perspective—seems incredibly complex.
In February of 2015, I arrived in Israel with a backpack and a bit of ambition.
I had never walked a long-distance trail in my life, but I hypothesized that with the technical support from a friend named Igal (who had previously walked the trail), I just might be able to succeed.
I started cautiously.
The first leg of my journey was in the north, from Tel Dan to Tel Aviv.
The beginning was muddy, and I didn’t come across any other thru-hikers for weeks.
I thought about giving up.
But my legs grew stronger and I began to feel more competent.The generosity of local trail angels was vital in maintaining my morale.
For the second leg, I left the INT for two weeks, and hiked in Palestine along a trail called Masar Ibrahim. With a guide named Mohammed, I walked from Jenin to Jericho. I stayed with Palestinians in their homes. The food was incredible, and the people were immensely welcoming, immensely gentle.
The third and final leg was the expansive stretch from Jerusalem to Eilat.
This leg daunted me the most. In Canada, hiking landscapes are typically cool, wet and green.
The Negev Desert was the polar opposite: hot and parched. Slowly, I made my way forward and, to my surprise, began intersecting with other people.
I danced with Bedouins. I spent Pesach near The Big Crater (HaMakhtesh HaGadol) with a family from the Golan Heights. I met a fellow foreign hiker from France. Paradoxically, the desert wasn’t so deserted.
For me, walking across Israel and Palestine was a seminal journey.
Due to the complexities of borders and landscapes, however, visiting Palestine and/or hiking across the Negev desert is not for everyone.
These words and photographs are not intended as an itinerary, rather they are a glimpse into how one Canadian man experienced the region. I continue to talk about my journey simply because it’s a story that doesn’t make headlines.
My story is not conflictual or shouting to be heard: one person walks quietly across Israel and Palestine—and all goes well.
Daniel Baylis is a writer and photographer. As the official photographer for The Great Trail, he spends much of the year visiting and photographing trail sections across Canada. He is currently completing a memoir about his experiences walking across Israel and Palestine. Recently, Daniel returned to Israel to photograph sections of the INT.
Category: Nature Trips
Tagged under: Israel National Trail, Hiking INT
Though a cliché, it is no less a truism that the environment knows no borders. While the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel focuses inward on what's happening in Israel, we cannot afford to ignore the environmental concerns and best practices that are negatively and positively impacting our region and areas around the globe.
As the largest environmental NGO in Israel, SPNI often interacts with other civil society players in our neighboring countries in the Middle East and with countries that are part of a European Union-designated Mediterranean Basin Biodiversity Hotspot. In the Mare Nostrum project (“Our Sea” in Latin), for example, SPNI took the lead in coordinating with other civil society organizations across the Mediterranean Basin to create a shared framework to protect the Mediterranean Sea and coastline.
A signature international project that has been driven by SPNI for decades focuses on teaching farmers to use barn owls and kestrels as natural pest control in order to reduce the amount of pesticides. This project now involves some 5,000 nesting boxes across Israel, Jordan and Palestine.
SPNI also organizes an international birdwatching race called “Champions of the Flyway” that draws hundreds of professional and amateur birders from around the world each year and has raised $350,000 for bird conservation across Europe and Africa. It is now among the premier international birding events. Our expert ornithologists visit North America regularly to lead birding adventures in local hotspots and engage in conferences and competitions, all with the aim of raising support for protection of the world's crucial migration flyways.
Our relationships with other organizations in Europe have created cultural exchange opportunities for education and environmental professionals and young people from Israel, Italy, Germany and throughout the EU to share their knowledge and exchange ideas regarding how best to protect our planet and confront the challenges of climate change.
SPNI has valued supporters in countries around the globe, with affiliates in the United Kingdom and France, and of course in North America. On a recent visit to Ottawa, I met with local supporters, Canadian parliamentary officials, and the leadership of CIJA, the non-partisan Israel and Jewish advocacy arm of the Jewish Federations of Canada. These fascinating interactions will hopefully spur more international cooperation between Israeli and Canadian policy professionals regarding the shared challenges of environmental protection, such as renewable energy, land conservation, and sustainable fishing.
But we don’t only engage environmental professionals, as they alone cannot turn the tide in many environmental struggles. The citizens of every nation around the world must join the efforts as well, and so we engage with as many of them as possible. Meeting with our supporters – and people interested in environmental issues in Israel and locally – at parlor meetings, synagogues, JCCs and business offices always rank among favorite encounters when I travel to North America. When I hear about dry riverbeds and wildfires in California, overfishing in the Chesapeake Bay or urban planning in Seattle, I know that we are not alone, and I can share what SPNI is doing about these and similar issues in Israel.
(Please let me know if you'd like me or one of SPNI’s other environmental professionals to visit your community in the next several months!)
Our shared environment, the biosphere on this blue planet, our healthy habitats, flowing rivers, polar ice packs, forests, jungles, savannas and deserts, and our desire to preserve them – this is what unites us.
Here in Israel, we have a humble Mediterranean scrubland habitat called batha. It stretches throughout much of the country, along our varied topography and climatic zones. It’s not flashy, not naturally forested, but rich in biodiversity and under the twin threats of encroachment and climate change. We tackle challenges like these daily – protecting the batha habitat, renewing Israel's rivers and wetlands, and helping make our cities dense, sustainable, and the best possible places to live – and we wouldn’t be able to do so without the continued support of our extended conservation family in Israel and around the world.
We invite you to join SPNI's activities and meet-ups abroad, by contacting our international affiliates as follows:
USA: Robin Gordon, firstname.lastname@example.org
CANADA: Avi Sadiv, email@example.com
FRANCE: Norbert Lipszyc, firstname.lastname@example.org
UK: John Levy, email@example.com
Category: Our Global Community