In my last two posts, I referred to the sense of despair that attacks me in the face of the evil and folly rampant in the world. In this context, I find myself in deep admiration of people striving to make our world a better place. Just last week, I witnessed the endeavor of such a person -Dr. Michael Ben-Eli, the initiator, and founder (together with others), of "Project Wadi Attir ", a project with a group of Bedouins that serves as a model of change towards a sustainable community, and that is expected to improve the quality of life for many of the residents of the Negev. As a successful model, the aspiration, already becoming reality, is to "export" this model to other parts of the world.
The Bedouins call him Dr. Michael. Throughout the world he is known as Dr. Michael Ben-Eli. His Identification Card bears the name Michael Ben-Eli. For us he is simply Miki. Miki studied architecture at AA-School in London and received his doctorate at the Institute of Cybernetics at Brunel University under the tutelage of Professor Gordon Pask.
He later studied under and became a close associate of the renowned architect and engineer Buckminster Fuller who devoted his life to aiding humanity, as an individual, in a manner that nation states, corporations and large organizations are unable to do due to economic and political reasons.
Miki worked for many years with the World Bank as an advisor on sustainability projects around the world, acquiring significant experience in the field that has been gaining increasing recognition as vital for the continued existence of humanity on earth. Over time, he developed a sense of discomfort with the accepted definition of "sustainability" and his understanding of the difficulty in its practical application, especially when working with large international organizations that despite all their good intentions, are cumbersome, complex and have difficulty in implementing radical innovations. Typically, projects focused on specific issues such as water, energy, people… The need, however, is for development of a comprehensive approach combining all the elements comprising "sustainability".
In 2007, Dr. Michael Ben-Eli resigned his consulting work and founded the New York-based, International Sustainability Laboratory.
The Laboratory's uniqueness is based on the integration of 3 main approaches:
1. A whole system view that emphasizes internal interactions, and that works towards fulfilling a projected vision, as distinct from the accepted method of focusing on problems, an approach that tends to hinder progress.
2. Focus on a theory of processes of change. The transition to a sustainable lifestyle on earth requires an unprecedented change. There is no instruction manual for managing the planet, a situation that calls for creative experimentation. A change in elements within the existing system is not enough. A radical change of the system itself is required.
3. A new and practical definition of the concept of "sustainability", based on the interaction and mutual relations between a population and its environment.
Dr. Michael Ben-Eli defined the concept of "sustainability" thus:
A dynamic equilibrium in the process of interaction between a population and the carrying capacity of its environment, such that the population develops to express its full potential without producing irreversible, adverse effects on the carrying capacity of the environment upon which it depends.
Five core principles of sustainability, related to five key domains, are derived from this definition:
1. The Material Domain – Contain entropy and ensure that the flow of resources, through and within the economy, is as nearly non-declining as is permitted by physical laws.
2. The Economic Domain – Adopt an appropriate accounting system to guide the economy, fully aligned with the planet’s ecological processes and reflecting true, comprehensive biospheric pricing.
3. The Domain of Life – Ensure that the essential diversity of all forms of life in the biosphere is maintained.
4. The Social Domain – Maximize degrees of freedom and potential self-realization of all humans without any individual or group adversely affecting others.
5. The Spiritual Domain – Recognize the seamless, dynamic continuum of mystery, wisdom, love, energy, and matter that links the outer riches of the cosmos with our solar system, our planet and its biosphere, including all humans, with our internal metabolic systems and their externalized technology extensions; Embody this recognition in a universal ethics for guiding human actions.
Sounds completely utopian? Well that's the thing – it's not. These principles are being implemented, and with great success, here, in Israel, in the Negev, at Project Wadi Attir, where Miki and his partners—upon whom we will expand in a moment—founded a project that constitutes a pioneering initiative of the Bedouin community. The project establishes a model sustainable farm that combines traditional Bedouin values, knowledge and experience with the unique approach to development of the Sustainability Laboratory.
And so, last Friday we travelled south to the Negev, a curious group of people to see the Laboratory's flagship project with our own eyes. The previous day, Miki, together with his partner in this initiative, Dr. Mohammed Alnabari, had presented the project to the country’s President, Reuven Rivlin, and a group of civic and business leaders, at the official Presidential Residence in Jerusalem.
Project Wadi Attir is located near the Bedouin town of Hura. Miki was familiar with the area from navigational exercises during his days in the I.D.F. officers course. In a recent visit to the area in 2007, he was shocked at the plight of the local Bedouins. He joined with the Mayor of Hura Dr. (of organic chemistry) Muhammed Alnabari
and together they began to promote the idea. "Together" is one of the Laboratory's principles of sustainability. It became apparent that "together" was very difficult to achieve among the tribal, clannish Bedouin society. This is one of the reasons that the project was established in close proximity to Hura, but not on a site belonging to the town or to any of the tribes or families, thereby ensuring that the project site was free of any ownership claims, enabling the project's organization as a cooperative.
We meet Dr. Muhammad Al-Nabari and Younes Nabari, a manager in the project.
Younes expands on the personal opportunity given to each of them: "Don't ask what you have done to this place", he says, "ask what the place has done to you?" Younes's Hebrew is excellent, flawless, as is that of Dr. Muhammad Al-Nabari and all the others we met that day. "My Hebrew was not so good a few years ago", says Younes, who today holds an academic degree in Public Administration and is active in various organizations and forums promoting social issues, "Michael didn't 'invent us', Michael discovered something existing within each one of us and gave us an opportunity to develop". The personal development is re-invested in the project, and filters down to the Bedouin villagers that come to learn from the experimental farm.
The era of the Bedouin’s nomadic ways of life is long past. The ideas at the base of the Laboratory's vision – a systemic view of the community's needs, the inclusion of women, collaborations – all filter down to the Bedouin culture, and serve to support the re-fashioning of a society of urban dwellers in the twenty-first century. We also meet Gadir Hani, the administrative coordinator, and Lina Alatawna, a chemical engineer with a post-graduate degree in Business Administration, who serves as manager of operations and of the farm dairy plant – certainly an example of women's inclusion.
The highlight of the visit is going into the field. The project includes a number of departments – animal pens (goats and sheep), dairy plant, a sewage treatment system, a site for preparing compost, a field of medicinal plants, a line of superb cosmetics, a garden of authentic, local vegetables (the seeds of which have been collected from families who preserved them from before the era of supermarkets), grazing pastures, an olive grove, and thousands of planted trees. A solar energy system is also currently under construction.
The groves of young trees in the midst of the desert is a delightful sight.
The dry and arid surroundings emphasize the trees' greenness and all this amazing change has been achieved with a modest, relatively low-cost investment. The initiative to rehabilitate the ecological system is led by Dr. Stephan Leu from Ben-Gurion University in the Negev, whose enthusiasm is infectious. The initiative, that combines efforts to enhance the soil, harvest rainwater, and enrich the site's animal and plants variety, demonstrates a comprehensive approach to combating desertification. It begins with shaping the land to retain rainwater, scarce as it is. The loess soil has been worked into ridges, like long furrows and mounds, that prevent run-off and capture rainwater. Within only a few years the trees grew, flowers bloomed, insects fly and visit the flowers, small reptiles arrived followed by birds and other animals – the desert came to life.
In the brochure we are given I read that "the establishment of the Project Wadi Attir is supported by a broad partnership including a state consortium led by the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, the Ministry for the Development of the Galilee and the Negev, the Ministry of Finance, and the Authority for Economic Development of Minority Sectors. Other partners include: J.N.F-U.S.A., researchers from Ben Gurion University in the Negev, kibbutzim, NGO's, private sector corporations, foundations and private donors". This is an impressive coalition of organizations and I can only speculate at the effort invested in the recruiting each one of its members to support Project Wadi Attir.
It is important to know – the initial stages of the project were made possible by private donors who simply cared…
"Together", faith, determination, patience, optimism. I notice that Miki never says "I", but rather, "We," and a surprised smile appears each time he tells a story of success. He is still surprised, and I am even more so – it is possible to do good in the world.
"On March 9th, 2016, at the 6th Annual International Green Industry Hall of Fame (IGIHOF) Conference and Induction Ceremony in Clovis, CA, Dr. Michael Ben-Eli, Founder of The Sustainability Laboratory, was presented with the 2015 Lifetime Achievement Award and inducted into the Hall of Fame."