By Donella Meadows
–September 14, 1989–
In East Europe the environment is a hot topic these days, because, like nearly everything else there, it is a political topic. To be an environmentalist, as to be a trade unionist or an artist or an ethnic separatist, is to be against Government. No matter whether that government is Polish or Hungarian or Soviet, finally, after decades of silence, one can express one’s resentment against it.
There is so much to resent.
In a heavily industrialized district in southwest Siberia, half the workers have chronic, pollution-related diseases. The cancer level is 10-15 times the USSR average. An astounding 89 percent of the babies born there have mental or physical anomalies.
Only one percent of the fresh water in Poland is unpolluted. Forty percent of Polish rivers fall below the lowest classification on the official water quality scale. Polish coal mines pump salty groundwater into rivers; downstream the polluted water is taken in by steel mills, out of which new steel rolls already corroded. Contaminants eat away the pipes of the heating and water systems of Warsaw. One-third of all Poles live in “regions of ecological threat.”
The fact that you can now read information like this in Pravda does not take away the outrage of having to live in such conditions. The people of the East Bloc are becoming not only political activists, but environmental activists.
I spent last week in Hungary at a conference that included people from Lithuania and Soviet Georgia and Budapest and Moscow. They are biologists, agronomists, foresters, geologists. They know what has been happening to the soils, waters, and air of their countries. For years they have been telling me, quietly, of the environmental atrocities perpetrated by their governments. Now they don’t have to be quiet.
The Lithuanians showed videotapes of the old Lithuanian national flag flying high, people holding hands in chains stretching for miles, thousands of candles burning before patriotic shrines that until recently could not be acknowledged as shrines at all. Much of the Lithuanian protest is directed against a complex of nuclear power, cement, petrochemical, and aluminum plants, placed in Lithuania by Russian planners and built with no concern for pollution control. Around these installations the forest is dying in a spreading blight, miles in diameter. Sprouting like mushrooms amongst the dead treetrunks are the little colored tents of protesters.
The Hungarians talked of public demonstrations that have stopped, at least temporarily, the massive Nagymoros Dam on the Danube River. The Georgians talked of air pollution and soil erosion. The Russians talked of Chernobyl and the drying up of the Aral Sea. It’s my impression and theirs, now beginning to be supported by official figures, that the people of the East are enduring more pollution for less material benefit than any other people on earth.
My friends are excited by their new freedoms, but they are also apprehensive. Not one of them quite believes the present situation can last. Given their history and the personal scars each of them bears, their scepticism is understandable. They don’t know what will happen — how can anyone on earth claim to know what will happen next in Eastern Europe? While working for reform as fast as they can, they are also mentally preparing for the worst.
One of the most pessimistic is an old friend of mine, a Hungarian who was in the front lines of the brief, brutally suppressed Budapest uprising of 1956. He will not talk of that time. But he will talk of the present amazing time, when the heroes and the ideals of his youth, castigated for thirty years, are being reinstated, and when he can speak out again.
People are learning again that freedom is indivisible, he told me. Hungarians have half-believed for decades that, because they were a little more free than the people of the Soviet Union, therefore they were free. Now, he says, today’s young people are experiencing again what he experienced briefly in 1956 — real freedom. Even if it doesn’t last, there will now be a whole new generation to carry, as he did, the memory of freedom for decades to come.
I can only hope that his pessimism is unfounded and that freedom will be more than a memory in his country — and all countries. I hope, too, that the world takes note of the larger definition of freedom being forged now in the East. Freedom means the right to protect all the most precious aspects of one’s life — including the air, the waters, the soils, and the forests — against all who would assault them — even one’s own government.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1989