Israel Just Might Control the Fate of the Earth - What Will They Do Next?

Saving the environment is a popular cause today, but Israelis have been “going green” since before they were even a state.


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Saving the environment is a popular cause today, but Israelis have been “going green” since before they were even a state.

“It’s not enough to be up to date; you have to be up to tomorrow.”
-- David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel

To many people, Israel is a place of Bible stories and ancient ruins.

In hundreds of archaeological digs, Israelis are carefully preserving their past. But they’re also keeping an eye on the future. Not just their future but the future of the world.

“One of the Jewish commandments is tikkun olam, which means, to translate it into English, is ‘to repair the world under God,’” says Dan Senor, author of Start Up Nation. “(It is) to make the world a better place.”

“I see a direct correlation between our belief in tikkun olam and this incredible explosion of activity and innovation in the start-up nation,” adds Jonathan Medved, one of Israel’s leading high tech venture capitalists.

Today, the world is focused on saving the environment. But Israelis were green long before it was popular -- about a century before.

“It’s part of the Zionism dream to create a green land, a green country,” explains Itzhik Moshe, Southern Director of the Jewish National Fund. “Actually, with time, with experience and research, we have studied how to do it.

The prophet Isaiah wrote about a day when the desert would rejoice and blossom as a rose. To modern Israelis, that’s more than just an ancient prophecy, it’s a commandment.

Making the Desert Bloom

“Israel is a tiny state,” states Naty Barak, CEO of Netafim. “Look at a map of our region. We used always to joke, there is not even enough place on the map to write the name of Israel. So we had to conserve it, to keep it, to maintain it. This is what we have.

To the early settlers in Israel, “going green” meant planting trees. They started in the Negev Desert, a place that gets only one to seven inches of rain a year.

In the 1940s, Jerusalem was still under Arab control and Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, believed that the Negev was the future of Israel. He proposed the creation of a manmade forest there but his team of scientists said it couldn’t be done. Ben-Gurion’s response? No problem – we’ll get new scientists.”

The prime minister got his new scientists and the Negev Desert began to blossom. Today, the Yatir Forest has more than four million trees, including carob, pine, terebinth, olive, and fig.

“Israel is amongst the fewest countries in the world that at the end of the 20th century, there were much more trees than were at the beginning of this century,” Moshe points out. “Until now. We have planted over 240 million trees, which is a nice number to this small country.”

In the center of the forest is a vineyard, planted on the ruins of another one that existed here 2,000 years ago. Scientists researched to find the best plants to grow in the Negev and one of their sources was the Bible.

“There are plenty of archaeological ruins everywhere,” Moshe says. “Water systems, dams, terraces are everywhere. We have started with reconstruction of some of these ancient farms. We have planted Biblical trees and the trees are surviving without additional irrigation by collecting runoff water, the same systems that our forefathers did 2,000 years ago.”

The trees not only produce fruit, but also clean the environment by absorbing carbon dioxide. Scientists say that planting similar forests on just 12 percent of the world’s arid land would reduce carbon in the atmosphere by a gigaton a year. That’s equal to the carbon output of 1,000 coal plants. Today, scientists from around the world come to Israel to study the Yatir Forest.

“We like to serve,” says Moshe. “We are proud to serve all our achievements to other countries and, of course, we want to share our knowledge and study from other countries’ experience.”

Israelis are not only working to protect the environment, they’re also looking for new ways to keep the country running without oil.

“If you look at Israel itself, it’s a beautiful country, definitely a country worth visiting, with tremendous, lush, interesting areas, but we don’t have the traditional gold mines and massive oil and diamonds,” points out Medved. “We basically have a country of human resources rather than natural resources, so we very much value what little we have.”

Israel may be short on oil but it does have one natural resource that’s virtually unlimited.

Solar Energy

“Israel’s greatest natural resource: the sun,” says Senor bluntly.

“We do have a lot of sun here; it’s a hot place, so we produce solar energy,” adds Medved.

For much of the year, the sun beats down on a land that’s mostly desert. But what some might see as a liability, Israel has turned into an advantage. Israelis have been using rooftop solar panels since the 1950s when they were still unheard of in the rest of the world.

“Ninety percent of Israeli homes have a solar water heater,” Medved points out. “There’s nowhere else in the world that has that kind of thing.”

In 2011, Israel’s first commercial solar field was completed in the southern Arava Valley.

The company, Arava Power, now has nine other fields under construction and plans for forty more energy projects in Israel over the next three years. Their goal is to eventually supply one tenth of Israel’s power.

The company’s founders are now building solar fields in several third world countries, like Haiti, Ecuador and Rwanda. The solar field in Rwanda is set to be up and running by the end of 2013, and will provide eight percent of Rwanda’s energy.

“Israel has been a leader in clean technology from the beginning,” Medved says. “Part of it also is that our neighbors have had a lot of oil and have sort of corrupted the world economic system and the world political system. (They have) used it unfairly to impose, I think, harmful ideologies. Therefore, if Israel can fight the world dependence on oil, what would be a better thing than that?

The Battery-Powered Car

In 2005, an Israeli software developer named Shai Agassi heard a similar question at a conference:

Says Agassi, “We were asked, ‘How are you going to make the world a better place?’”

Agassi’s answer: take a single country off oil. Then, the rest of the world will follow.

The first step in Agassi’s plan was to assemble a fleet of cars that could run without oil. So he started a company called Better Place which offered an electric battery-powered car. The car battery recharges overnight in special outlets in the owner’s home. For longer trips, drivers can switch out the car’s battery at stations all over Israel. The entire process takes less than five minutes.

The following is a transcript of my test drive of a battery powered car:

Gordon: I hear these go fast.
Julie, Better Place rep: They’re quite fast, because you have no gear box.
Gordon: Why is it so fast?
Julie: What you feel on acceleration is full maximum torque. There’s no gear box. It’s literally just drive, neutral, reverse, so as you will get the full torque of the motor.
Gordon: Zero to 60 in how many seconds?
Julie: About 6.9, I believe.
Gordon: Really? Maybe I can wipe out my cameraman out as I go by.

Gordon: I’ll tell you as a consumer, one of the things that’s really appealing to me is the absolute quiet.
Julie: The goal with this car was to make a car, and a network to support it, that appeals to everyone. You don’t sacrifice on price or performance, and you don’t have to be a “greenie” to say I want this car. You can say I like it because it’s fast, it has great power and acceleration, and I’d like to fit my entire family in it.
Gordon: That was fun.

Unfortunately, public demand for electric cars hasn’t caught up with the vision of better place and in May of 2013, the company filed for bankruptcy. Less than two months later, it was purchased by the founders of Arava Power, Israel’s premier solar power company and for the next few years at least, the battery-powered car will continue to ride.

In the meantime, Israelis have another option that’s just as green and thousands of dollars cheaper.

The Cardboard Bicycle

In 2008, an avid biker named Izhar Gafni had an idea.

“And all of a sudden, it struck me: why not make a bicycle out of cardboard?” recounts Gafni, the inventor of the cardboard bicycle. “Soon after that, I talked to two or three engineers whom I really appreciate, and they all said, it’s impossible. There’s no way it can be done.

While I was eating with my wife one day, she noticed that I was a little bit disturbed. I told her about all the things the engineers said about how it’s impossible. And then she looked at me and said, “I know you. If you’re not going to try it then you’re going to drive yourself crazy. Then you’re going to drive me crazy, then you’re going to drive the entire family crazy. So just go ahead and try it.

Four years and six prototypes later the cardboard bicycle was ready to ride. The finished bike weighs just 20 pounds and yet it can hold a 500-pound rider. Unlike regular cardboard it’s completely waterproof.

Mass production on the bike will start in late 2013. It will cost about nine dollars to make and sell for around $60.

“Where do you get this from?” Medved asks. What right do you have to dream that way? We’re a people of dreams. It’s all through the Bible. God gives us dreams. It’s for man to interpret them, it’s for man to experience them, and that’s really the roots of much of our innovation.

The fact that we’re so flourishing here, it’s a sign that this was God’s will -- that this is what was supposed to happen; this is the plan. We’re good people. We’re family-oriented people. We have an incredible army and society. I think that we have just begun to figure out that we have to tell our story about who we are, rather than engage in constant bickering over the Middle East conflict. We have to go convey what the beauty of Israel is.

“The Jews who will it shall achieve their state. The world will be liberated by our freedom, enriched by our wealth, magnified by our greatness. And whatever we attempt there for our own benefit will redound mightily and beneficially to the good of all mankind.” — Theodor Herzl, The Jewish state, 1896

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