What is sustainability?

Is it the same thing as protecting the environment?

Major Victor Weis can answer that question with examples from his 23 years in the Israeli army. Now retired from the IDF, where he led the army’s environmental efforts, Mr. Weis heads the Heschel Center for Sustainability in Tel Aviv. (Next month he will speak in Ridgewood. See box.)

Take, for example, the problem of a leaking oil tank that contaminates groundwater.

A simple solution to protect the environment would be to protect the groundwater by enclosing the oil tank in a protective box, Mr. Weis said,

For sustainability, however, “the real question is not just how to deal with the problem; it’s to ask why we have the problem. Why do we need to heat water with oil?”

So the army began looked for other ways to heat water. It turned out that using gas and solar power not only didn’t pollute, but it was cheaper than using oil.

“Don’t try to make a solution at the end of the problem,” Mr. Weis said. “Try to prevent the problem.”

The Heschel Center was founded in 1998. It serves as a think tank for the Israeli environmental movement and it offers training in sustainability to government officials, non-profit activists, and private citizens.

Mr. Weis was one such government official. After being assigned to deal with environmental affairs by the army, he studied at the center as a fellow. That experience convinced him of the importance of thinking about sustainability, and led him to make sustainability the focus of his IDF career — he had the chance to move on to a different post but chose not to. He cared about sustainability too much to stop working on it.

Another example of an environmental problem he helped solve: undetonated but unusable ammunition. Items like artillery shells, wire-guided missiles, and smart bombs.

“For many years we threw it into the sea,” he said. “After Israel signed on to the Barcelona Declaration, we couldn’t do it any more.”

So IDF engineers tried to find a solution.

“They took TNT and tried to bomb the ammunition,” he said. But they couldn’t be sure every piece was destroyed — and this made a big environmental mess.

The engineers were looking into using liquid explosives instead when they brought in Mr. Weis. “They were trying to find a solution at the end of the process,” he said. Instead, he convinced them that the unused ammunition “is a raw material,” he said. “It’s not garbage. Most of it is metal. Metal you can recycle.”

Victor Weis

Victor Weis

So he urged them to find ways to open the ammunition, reuse parts of it, and dispose of the rest.

The next step toward sustainable weaponry was to make it reusable from the beginning. Make it so if the circuitry or the battery were to fail, that one part could be replaced. If that wasn’t possible, then the entire unit could be taken apart safely for recycling.

“We saved a lot of money for the army,” he said. “It’s about how you frame the problem.”

So it’s worth listening to how Mr. Weis frames the question of how climate change will affect Israel.

He sees it as being about national security. “If you are Jewish, you need to be concerned about the future of Israel because of the influence of climate change,” he said. “It’s not going to influence every place the same way. In our area, it’s going to be much hotter. The influence of that is amazing in our geopolitical area.”

There are 85 million people in Egypt. Most of them live near the Nile “and especially in the Nile Delta,” Mr. Weis said. But “probably the Delta is going to disappear.

“All of Egypt’s agriculture system, all of its food system, depends on the Nile Delta,” he continued. “It’s going to disappear. All the fresh water they have from their aquifer is going to be contaminated because the sea level will rise.

“Millions of people will find themselves without houses, without jobs, without food, without water. Egypt is going to be a in a very bad situation. We know from history that in those times extremist political organizations, Islamic movements, rise.

“People start to be starved. No one can stop millions of people who are starved, who take everything they have left and start to walk. Where are they going to walk? To the neighbor with those resources, with food and water. In this area, it’s only Israel.

“How are you going to deal with millions of people who are starving and want to come to Israel?”

The situation is not much better in Jordan. Israel already provides Jordan with more than is mandated under its peace agreement. “It’s not just our responsibility,” Mr. Weis said. “It’s not just because we like the nation or people so much. It’s because we’re concerned about us. If people there overthrow their government, it’s not going to be so good for Israel.”

Already, he said, the region has seen the effect of the climate on the region’s geopolitical stability. The Syrian civil war followed a multiyear drought that devastated the country’s agriculture. Syrians were starving, and they got no help from their government. “When ISIS came, never mind who they are and what they want, everyone welcomed them just because they were so mad the government wasn’t helping,” he said. “They had no other choice.”

“That kind of thing is going to increase. We need to worry.

The impact on Israel of a heating climate and rising oceans may not be as dire as in Egypt, but it will be real.

“We take water from the sea. We have great technology. Where are all these desalination factories? They are near the water. Near the sea. When the sea levels rise, all our desalination plants will be gone.

“Look where all our electricity stations are. They are on the beaches near the sea. They too are going to vanish. This is critical infrastructure. It is about our national security,” he said.

Already, the hotter weather is contributing to a rise in food prices in Israel. “How is it going to influence our society? The rich people can manage. I’m not sure the poor can deal with it. That’s the part of society that is going to pay the bill for climate change.

“That’s why sustainability and economy and society are interconnected,” he said. “It’s about justice. It’s about how we spread our resources, how we use them smartly. Everything is connected. We can’t look at the solution from just one point of view, just from the perspective of the society or economy or the environment. Everything is connected. Sustainability combines everything into one way of thinking.”


Who: Victor Weis, executive director of the Heschel Center for Sustainability in Tel Aviv

What: Talk on the significance of climate change for Israel’s national security

Where: Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center, 475 Grove St., Ridgewood

When: Shabbat morning, June 10, immediately following kiddush, approximately noon