The Dam

It says a lot about Hungary in the 1980s that the movement that represented the biggest challenge to the Communist authorities was an environmental one. In Romania, dissidents focused on a tyrant. In Poland, striking Solidarity activists protested against working conditions and in support of labor rights. And in Hungary, the rallying point of the opposition was a dam.

It was actually an entire dam complex on the Danube, with one part of the water works at Gabcikovo in Czechoslovakia and the lower section at Nagymaros in Hungary. The two Communist governments were attracted to the potential energy, while the opposition movement in Hungary focused on the environmental consequences. Of course, the primary civic group on the Hungarian side, the Danube Circle, was not just concerned about the environment. It protested the lack of transparency on the part of the government. And that struck at the very legitimacy of the Communist state, and the anti-dam movement attracted more than just environmentalists to the cause. By 1989, 150,000 Hungarians had signed a petition against the dam.

Even before the political changes of the summer and fall of 1989, the Hungarian government withdrew from the project in May. Eventually the Slovak side went through with the construction of its facility at Gabcikovo, which entailed the diversion of the Danube waters. The Slovaks argued that the failure of the Hungarian side to build their part of the complex reduced the efficiency of the Gabcikovo water works. The Hungarians were upset over the consequences for Hungary of the diversion of the Danube. The two countries took the case to the International Court of Justice. In 1997, the ICJ ruled that both sides were at fault for breaking earlier agreements, and both sides owed damages. The dispute remains unresolved.

“I used to say that for both countries, the dam became a symbol,” Tamas Fleischer told me in an interview in Budapest last May. “For Slovakia, it symbolized independence, over and above the technical issues. From the Hungarian side, it became a symbol of the anti-Communist and anti-industrial movement.” Because the dam project had such powerful and contrasting symbolic value, it was very difficult to achieve a compromise.

Fleischer was involved in the dam movement in the 1980s and continues to follow the twists and turns of the issue. An engineer who specializes on sustainable transportation, he nevertheless understands the technical issues involved in subjecting the Danube to this half-finished effort to harness the river’s power.

“For Slovakia, it is very convenient because they are using the water,” Fleischer points out. “For Hungary, theoretically, we won because we didn’t build the dam. But our water resources are being used by another country. From that point of view, the water management people are right that we have lost money over the years.”

The conflict has a technical dimension related to the navigability of the Danube, the displacement of gravel from the riverbed, and the impact of the Danube diversion on water quality downstream. But the major problems between Slovakia and Hungary on the dam issue remain political.

“Such a problem can only be resolved by reliable politicians,” Fleischer concludes. “This is not an issue that a politician can use to advance a career. But there are no such politicians who have enough authority that they can afford to lose some of their power by resolving this issue. De Gaulle did this in France when he withdrew from Algeria. He risked the reputation he had from World War II in order to solve the problem. We would need something similar, but first of all both Slovakia and Hungary would need a ‘de Gaulle.’”


The Interview


Do you remember where you were and what you were thinking when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?


I don’t remember. The quick answer is I don’t know.


How did you first get involved in the environmental movement?


That’s a longer answer. I am a civil engineer. In the first seven years, after my diploma, I worked in a research institute for road transport. I did traffic analysis and such problems. In the meantime, I realized I had to learn economics. So my field became much wider. After these seven years, I changed my job a bit, and I went to a regional planning and research institute where I worked for seven or eight years. It was very interesting work. People from several different fields were working there: economists, architects, sociologists. While working with these people it became clear to me that transportation is not something in itself, but it plays a role in the larger society. I realized that I had to go beyond just economics and the technical understanding of transportation and evaluate the impact on the environment. Within the institute, a group was dealing with the dam issue — not water management per se, but the regional consequences of the dam construction. I began to listen to experts talking about this dam issue. But I was shocked in 1988 when [Danube Circle founder] Janos Vargha came to me and said, “There will be a conference in September. We would like to invite you as a speaker.”

My first answer was: I don’t deal with this issue in my job, so why should I speak at the conference? But by that time I was working already at the Water Management Institute, in their environment department. If I answered that I didn’t deal with the biggest water issue in the country, I wouldn’t be able later to explain to myself what I had done in the environment department of this Water Management Institute. So, I said ,“Yes, I’ll try to deal with that.” I thought a lot about the issue. It was a 20-minute speech, and there were many speakers, so it wasn’t a big speech. But I began to deal with the topic and get involved in the movement with other people like artists and scientists. Because I dealt with the Danube issue, I began to deal more generally with environmental problems.


When I met you, you were working at the Ister Institute.


Yes, I always had an official workplace. At that time, I was either working at the Water Management Institute, which changed eventually to the Environmental Management institute, or the Academy of Science. Ister was a little institute that we tried to found to deal with environmental problems. Ister was a play on words. Ister was the old Greek name for the Danube, but it also referred to East European environmental issues. It was a private institution led by Janos Vargha. But it wasn’t really successful. None of us had any managerial skills.


You continued to work in the environmental agency?


Yes and no. In the late 1980s, I was invited into the Academy of Sciences. In Hungary, the Academy means different things. It’s both the big apparatus and also various research institutes. One of these institutes was the Institute for World Economics, which was founded in the 1960s to bring in ideas for Hungarian decision-makers from different parts of the world. My original occupation was as a civil engineer. I dealt with transport issues in regional planning. I was invited to join a small department, with only two people, dealing with infrastructure issues. The head of the department invited me because he’d read a paper I’d written. I’ve stayed there for the last 23 years.


Has the focus of your research changed over the years?


It’s more or less the same. I’ve dealt with technical infrastructure issues. Other people work on energy, and I focus on transport and environmental issues. My favorite issue is environmentally oriented transport.


Do you continue to work with informal environmental organizations?


There are several different NGOs that I am involved with. One of them is the Independent Ecological Center – I think you met with Judit Vasarhelyi. I am on the board of that. Another such environmentally oriented NGO is the Hungarian Traffic Club. It sounds like a drivers club, but it is actually a club of people interested in environmentally oriented transport.


In the paper you sent me, which I think was from 1993, you talked about the trajectory of the Nagymaros-Gabcikovo dam project. In the 1993 paper, you write that the Hungarian government cancelled its side of the dam, but Slovakia went ahead with Gabcikovo. I understand that there is still a dispute between Hungary and Slovakia over this issue. Are you surprised that this issue is still going on?


If you mean surprised because I thought the problem would be solved after 20 years, yes, I am surprised that it isn’t. I used to say that for both countries, the dam became a symbol. For Slovakia, it symbolized independence, over and above the technical issues. From the Hungarian side, it became a symbol of the anti-Communist and anti-industrial movement. In the Western countries, for instance in France, the anti-nuclear movement was the symbol of anti-industrial feeling.

The water management people always complain that non-experts are talking about the water issue. But that’s the way it is in society. It’s the same in a restaurant. You don’t have to be a very good cook in order to say something for or against the meal. Transportation people are the same, and maybe I made the same complaints when I was working within the transportation institute. Experts think they know better about transport, and everyone who doesn’t have the same understanding is against rationality and good development.

Time works for us in the movement as more and more people begin to understand the general importance of the environment as a whole and how the systems are embedded within each other so that you can’t just deal with one of them. The other side of the problem was that probably, because of its symbolic effect, the Danube movement overachieved what it wanted. For a long period, it was important to the movement not to build the second dam at Nagymaros on the Hungarian side. This was a symbolic place, near Visegrad, where King Matyas had a palace. The movement was not really against the upper dam in the common Czechoslovak-Hungarian section of the Danube. As the political turn came closer – and as the Communist government became weaker and the movement became stronger — we won on the upper dam as well. The last Communist government stopped it just one year before the first free elections. I’m absolutely sure that if the common Gabcikovo dam had been built at the time, then already the second dam at Nagymaros would be there. Eventually the Slovaks diverted the Danube in 1993, and Slovakia now produces electricity with a hydroelectric project on a side canal – using practically the whole amount of the water of the Danube. The two countries went to the International Court of Justice in The Hague. There was a decision.

Such a problem can only be resolved by reliable politicians. This is not an issue that a politician can use to advance a career. But there are no such politicians who have enough authority that they can afford to lose some of their power by resolving this issue. De Gaulle did this in France when he withdrew from Algeria. He risked the reputation he had from World War II in order to solve the problem. We would need something similar, but first of all both Slovakia and Hungary would need a “de Gaulle.” This is almost the last political issue that a government wants to address. Only the Gyula Horn government did something in 1998. He wanted to do something behind the scenes. But then he lost the election. He’d been in a very good position, and he lost — not only because of the dam issue but it played a role. So, the politicians probably learned from this experience that the dam was not an issue on which to win votes — even if so many people say that something should be done.


I understand that there are still consequences from the Slovak dam for people living in Hungary, especially up in the area where there are a lot of small islands.


Szigetkoz? Yes, but not only there. This is always the problem with dams. When you dam rivers, it cause changes in the lower part as well. If you stop the water, the gravel decreases. Normally, the river brings gravel from the Alps and the riverbed. The river’s power to carry the gravel and the speed of the water flow eventually balance each other out. Because of the dams, the water slows down and the river puts down a big part of the wash. Under the dam, the bed of the river becomes deeper and deeper because the water pulls up the gravel and washes it downstream. That would seem to be good for navigation because the water is deeper. But no, the river is only deeper in certain places – not where there are large rocks. The deeper river is also not good for agriculture, because it means a lower water level and a lower level for ground water as well. After a while, the wheat —


The roots don’t go down far enough to get at the water?


Yes. So, there are problems. It’s always a question of who caused what and what we have to do. The water management people keep saying that we have to make more dams. This is one solution. Another solution would be take the gravel from upstream and bring it downstream. At the time they made the dams, this consequence was not clear. Nobody wants to pay for this, or to pay for another dam. And it’s not just a question of money. It’s also whether we even want another dam. Five years ago, the Hungarian ministry asked the water research institute to do research, with Dutch money, to prove whether it is possible to solve the river problem with traditional methods — to blow up those big rocks, for instance, and to stabilize the riverbed. There was a big quarrel. The hard water management people said the researchers were not asking the right question because they didn’t analyze the case of the dam. These people insisted that without a dam it was not possible to solve the navigation issue. But just because they always stated this, the important research question was to see whether it was possible to solve the problem without another dam. The institute’s research proved that we could resolve the problem with traditional methods at a certain cost. It’s another question whether we really need a deepened riverbed that’s 180 meters wide, because it is very expensive and sometimes narrower is sufficient. So this research was attacked from both sides. The water management people said it was not fair. The environmental people said that it planned for larger parameters than would be necessary. That shows that maybe the research was good!


Both sides were equally unhappy with it.


Zoltan Illes, the state secretary for the environment, put a stop to all these questions. The plan was ready. He was on the environmentalists’ side, perhaps a little too much. He rejected the proposal not only to build another dam on the Hungarian side, but also to accept the results of the research on using the traditional intervention. I know that it’s not a good solution to do nothing on this issue. But from the point of view of politics and power, I can understand that to do nothing on this issue is the best for the government.


That’s on the Hungarian side. The conflict with Slovakia continues in an international legal setting?


The Hague decision was a kind of suggestion. They said that what is already there is there. Earlier, Slovakia said that there was a contract and Hungary broke it. Hungary said that okay there was a contract and we wanted to change it. But in the meantime, Slovakia built something and used our water. Both sides are right. There isn’t a yes and no in this situation. The Hague court said that Slovakia was right in several points but at the same time the lower dam doesn’t have to be built. They didn’t say that the original contract has to be fulfilled. This was in 1997, and since then practically nothing has been happened. For Slovakia, it is very convenient because they are using the water. For Hungary, theoretically, we won because we didn’t build the dam. But our water resources are being used by another country. From that point of view, the water management people are right that we have lost money over the years.


I want to ask about your essay from 1993. Would you change any of your conclusions 20 years later about the decline of the environmental movement and the rise of political parties, the failure of a Green Party to emerge, the disappointments of the market?


I think not. Sometimes people mix up their expectations with reality. Ambitious people believe that something will come true if they simply want it hard enough. There is a small mount of truth to this. I’m very modest. I don’t want power, so that’s why I don’t have any. But in politics, it’s important to believe that you can win, and if you do you can win. But this is not how things work in science. So, I am sensitive to this issue. I did a lot of work on the transportation issue. The logistics people believe that if Hungary simply builds a huge transportation infrastructure, the world will send its goods through Hungary, and we will be rich and happy. We should just build this and wait. This is wishful thinking. And then they get upset when Slovakia or Serbia builds the same infrastructure and more than half the goods go through those routes. These logistics people always say to the government that Hungary occupies a central place in Europe, since the north/south and east/west lines cross here and that’s why we have to spend our money on building this infrastructure. And I’d say, “Just look at a piece of graph paper. At every point on the page the north/south and east/west lines cross. So it’s not a unique situation!”

At that time, we were generally happy. We expected that with Soviet troops gone, the one-party system gone, and the planning system gone, we would become the next day like Holland or Belgium. Shortly after that, both east and west realized that it was not so. But the western side realized it first. Maybe you have heard about the European Danube Region program.


For regional development?


It stars with Ulm, in south Germany in the upper Danube area. It involves two German lander, Baden and Bavaria, then Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania — within the EU — plus a couple other countries, like Ukraine and Moldova that are not in the EU but are on the Danube. The Germans wanted to make a big macro-region because there are common problems. But there is a big difference in income between Germany and Austria on one end and Moldovans on the other end, with Hungary somewhere in between. The Germans are 140 percent above the European Union average, we are at 70 percent, and Romania is at 40 percent. So, even if we have common problems, we have very different short-term urgent problems. We’re really not one region, like the Visegrad countries, which has a similar history with the Communist period, similar relations with the big neighbors, and so on. There are differences — Poland is bigger — but in general we form a region. For this Danube “region,” we don’t really have common problems — other than water management, which can be solved in the Danube committee. The danger is that this is not the way to close the gap with the richer countries. Rather, this can become an economic territory for German and Austrian industry.

Instead of recognizing our common interests within similarly developed countries, what is happening is just the opposite. Each of the countries here wants its own contacts with the western neighbors: the first road to Vienna, the first road to Berlin, the first one to get into the EU or the Eurozone. It is terrible. We all think we can get into these regional bodies earlier than our neighbors. As everywhere in the world, the neighbor is always the enemy.


What do you think the current government is doing right on environment issues, and what do you think it is doing wrong?


I will try to be fair, but I am not neutral. I don’t like anything that this government is doing. But I am neutral to the extent that I see that the previous government —


Was even worse?


Not worse but not much better — almost as bad. At least from the environmental or transportation point of view, it is very similar. The Danube is an exception. Generally, the environment is not an issue. In the early 1990s the East-Central European countries were expected to be environmentally cautious. But as we adopted the capitalist mentality, it became worse and worse with the chain of corruption. Then we started to revert to a feudal mentality, with authoritarianism,. And that step wasn’t the same in the earlier government. So, it’s difficult to say anything positive after that. There’s also anti-Semitism, which I don’t like to speak about because I am Jewish and I haven’t been personally attacked. But at the same time it’s a problem. There’s a kind of belief here that it is always because of some “other people” that we can’t move forward. In the past century, from time to time these “others” could be the aristocrats or the rural rich or the intellectuals or the Jews or the Communists or the clerics or the non-clerics. A country can’t move forward if it is always getting rid of its intellectuals. It takes time to learn how to lead a country. By the time people have learned to do this, they are removed.


There’s a process, in other words, of constantly removing the people who have competence because they belong to a minority.


If you are clever you are a minority!


You mentioned Zoltan Illes, the state secretary for the environment. Do you think he will have any impact in his position?


I have good contact with him. One month ago, he invited me to give a lecture at the Central European University. So, I don’t really speak against him. He’s energetic. Sometimes he does things too suddenly. I am not able to think with the head of someone who wants to have power. But from that point of view, he’s still among the less harmful ones. When he was state secretary before, he was removed for standing up for something he believed in. That’s already something. Even if I don’t think that what he did was good, he took a position knowing that it wouldn’t be accepted by the party. I suppose he knew that it was politically dangerous.

There have been others removed from this government, like Janos Bencsik, who was state secretary for climate change and energy and who resigned in 2011. And in agriculture as well: Jozsef Angyan resigned from his positionbecause he was very much against the kind of reprivatization of the land that concentrated it among people close to the government. He was state secretary and began to speak against that procedure.


You mentioned that the focus of your work is environmentally sustainable transport. What do you think is the most promising development in this field?


In this field, as in other countries, the most promising development is taking place in the urban areas. Earlier, it was a long process since the 1960s and 1970s — and in America since the 1950s — to reshape the urban areas for cars. We took away the trams and the trees and reduced the sidewalks, and still it turned out that we couldn’t reduce the traffic jams. It turned out that other cars were the problem. By now it has become clear that we have to share the public space and give back something to the pedestrians and urban life. We saw this first in Copenhagen and Vienna, where they were debating this 10 years ago. We also should have begun the debate earlier so that we weren’t so behind them.

Hungary has always had the problem of being overly centralized. About 160 years ago, Hungarians said that Pest and Buda and Old Buda must combine to make a big city to compete with Vienna, and that’s why all the big roads and the rail lines had to start from Budapest. It was successful. Budapest really became as big as Vienna. It’s another question how the country became smaller, and Budapest became too big relative to the country, but they couldn’t anticipate that in 1848. Of course we knew all this already in the 1970s when I started working on transportation issues.

The main road network was already there, over-centralized, and we couldn’t change that. But in the last 50 years, we constructed a motorway network beside the main roads. Most of the traffic used these main roads, and getting into Budapest was difficult. There were only two lines each, and we constructed four more motorway lines in addition. In the 50 years, we not just reconstructed but strengthened this very centralized hub-and-spoke structure. So it’s gone in the wrong direction.

But you asked about good developments. Something is happening in the downtowns of smaller towns. There are more and more pedestrian zones in these downtowns. If the municipality decides to turn a road into a pedestrian zone, everyone is initially against it because they want to drive their cars there. Even the stores say that this will lower the volume of their sales because the cars can’t come into the street. But it always turns out that the sales volume becomes much higher. The value of living within the city and walking and cycling outweighs the value of the car-use. The climate works for us as well, because we’ve begun to move toward the Mediterranean climate where the summer is a little longer and we can use more the outdoor areas. More and more people are beginning to understand that there is life without cars. More people use bicycles. However, I don’t think constructing a lot of bike lanes is a good idea, because the streets are there: the problem is that now only cars use those lanes. Calmer traffic – with a 30 km/h speed limit — makes the bicycles equal participants on those streets.


When you think back to your perspective in 1990, has that changed at all in 23 years?


Yes. Twenty or 25 years ago, I was optimistic. Even if I wrote that essay, I believed that this change would be a big one and things would be better. It is a big disappointment that things are worse. The income differences are bigger – the big problem here is really the drop in the income of the lower half. Just yesterday I read that in the last five or six years — but it’s even more true for the last 25 years — more and more people are living beneath the poverty level. More and more people have no jobs and no hope of getting jobs. The low-income jobs available through the public works program are terrible. That money is not enough to live on and doesn’t help people get out of the unemployment either. The program just meant more money for the people organizing the program. In the meantime, there are many tasks to do in the country, so there would be space to employ people in real workplaces.

Yes, I am disappointed. I’m also 23 years older. That’s not unexpected. But I should be happy because I’m still alive. And I have three children and five grandchildren. So, I would like to be optimistic because of my family. But I am pessimistic when I look at the next decades of the country.


Budapest, May 10, 2013



The Interview (1990)


“Ister” is the old Roman name for the Danube, but it has the added significance of sounding like “Eastern”: the Ister Institute therefore combines the concerns of Eastern Europe with the particular interests of Danubian Hungary. I talked with Tamas Fleischer, a trained engineer and economist who has concentrated on ecological issues for the past several years. He is a senior researcher in the world economics section of the Academy of Science. He also spent ten years working on regional policies. He started his movement work with the Danube Circle, work which consumed a tremendous amount of his time. In the early days, he related, the Circle had to operate just like the Ministry: every week there were thick packets of material to pour over in order to keep abreast of the Gabcikovo-Nagymaros dam project. The ten or so experts who belonged to the Circle (including Fleischer) had to go everywhere. The ministers of course were paid; the movement people of course were not.

After the movement’s success in stopping the dam project, several of the people involved decided to create an independent institution, something like a non-profit non-governmental organization. Nine people, including one of the chief leaders of the Danube Circle Janos Vargha (who won the Goldman Award last year), put together the Ister Institute last summer; it went into operation this past January. The institute consists of three economists, an international lawyer, a sociologist, a journalist, a biologist. Unfortunately, Fleischer lamented, the Institute lacks a manager. Therefore, projects and topics have proliferated. The priority project, however, remains the dam. It has been more than a year since the official halt of the Nagymaros part of the dam, but nothing more has happened. The Austrians have said that they are owed 3 billion shillings but if the Hungarians pay 2.8 billion by the end of July, then that would be sufficient. The Hungarian government has responded with their own figure: 2.5 billion.

Fleischer then gave me some helpful background on the dam project. “Like everything in Hungary,” he said, “it goes back to Trianon.” Before the redrawing of its borders, Hungary had lots of mountains where it was relatively easy to construct dams. But under the provisions of Trianon, the mountains went elsewhere (chiefly Romania) and water management was left with no natural conditions for dams. A second historical reason for setting up a dam on the Danube were Soviet plans to expand its navigational capacity. The third reason was that the Slovakians had traditionally wanted a bigger stretch of the Danube.

The development of the dam’s actual shape resembles the construction of a Rube-Goldberg contraption. The power output of a dam depends on the amount of water and the difference in height that the water falls. The problem with the Gabcikovo-Nagymaros site is that it is located at a basin–there is very little natural height differential. So the dam engineers decided to make a channel that ran parallel to this basin section: in essence a second river 20 km long with the dam at Gabcikovo in Slovakia near its end. This helped on the height problem but not the amount of water problem. To increase the amount of water that would flow through this second river, they decided to make a reservoir that could store 2 and 1/2 days worth of Danube flow. But this reservoir would block water through both the Danube and the parallel “river” so a second dam had to be constructed at Nagymaros. The Gabcikovo dam was the larger (700 megawatts); Nagymaros, located Vysegrad near the historic site of Hungarian kings, would produce only 150 megawatts.

The movement in Hungary against the Nagymaros dam was helped ironically by the fact that legal political opposition to the government was impossible. “The environment question was a substitute for politics. Even people who normally wouldn’t care about the environment joined the movement,” Fleischer said. The case then grew more significant than the dam itself. In 1989, Prime Minister Nemeth recognized that his political position would be substantially improved if he stopped the project. So he did, in May. “This was not any more democratic than the starting point. It was just as authoritarian,” Fleischer observed.

The government then decided to commission a study from the Academy of Science, a research project that would last for three years. At the time, in October, it was not clear that the Czechoslovakian government would fall thereby changing that country’s position on the project. The Academy of Science investigated therefore three alternatives: continue according the original plan; make a smaller reservoir that would decrease energy output but would not cause as much environmental damage; suspend all operations. The problem with those who wanted to continue the dam project, Fleischer said, was that they always looked at the Danube simply as a source of energy. But it is much more. To the south of basin stretch in Hungary, for instance, is a very valuable wetland that would be turned into an industrial landscape should the dam project continue.

What is the environmentalists’ counterproposal? In conjunction with neighboring countries, Ister would like to turn the dam complex into an international ecological park. It would combine Gabcikovo, Nagymaros and a third site: Heimberg. In 1987, a public referendum stopped this proposed dam in Austria (the Austrian firms who had planned on constructing Heimberg turned immediately to the Hungarians for commissions on the G-M dam). The three-site stretch along the Danube would combine environmental protection areas in Austria, Moravia, Slovakia and Hungary. The plan not only would protect the existing ecosystem but would preserve access to drinking water (under the basin area of the Danube there is drinking water for 5 million people: the huge proposed reservoir would destroy the self-cleaning mechanism poisoning drinking water supplies). Compared to the proposed energy production of Nagymaros (2 per cent of Hungarian energy needs–and for the first twenty years most of it going to Austria in payment for the dam), drinking water for 3 million Hungarians (the other 2 million are Slovakians) is far more important. A third priority would be the living conditions of the people living near the site. Ister would not want these people to be “prisoners of a national park.” Rather, appropriate agriculture and industry would be encouraged. A final priority would be the navigation of the Danube, accommodating the demands of neighboring countries. Instead of changing the river to fit the boats, however, the comprehensive plan would encourage the changing of boats to fit the river. On this plan, Ister is working with both the EcoInstitute of Vienna and Bratislava’s institute of nature protection.

Foundations such as the World Wildlife Fund have promised money. Even the Ministry of the Environment has promised a million forints. The Ministry wanted to sign a contract with Ister for a study of navigational possibilities but the institute refused: the ministry would own the rights of the research. So the situation stands like this: the Academy of Science is gathering data. Ister, the Ministry and the Academy will all develop plans and then a competitive process between the plans will ensue.

A second project Ister is planning concerns the energy problems of Hungary. Fleischer showed me a very interesting graph of energy consumption per capita measured against gross domestic product. All Western European countries were clustered along a single vector, with energy consumption increasing proportionately with GDP: Japan and the U.S. at the top right, Ireland and Portugal at the bottom left. All “socialist” countries, meanwhile, were grouped along an arc at the top left: low GDP and extremely high energy consumption per capita. As Fleischer pointed out, it is not easy to “jump” from one line to another. The question is also not the amount of energy any particular industry uses: Hungarian metallurgy for instance uses only 20 per cent more energy per output than Western metallurgy. The problem is that there is much more energy-intensive production in “socialist” countries than in the West. The key to the shift to lower energy consumption was the move to an information/service economy. It is important to note that Fleischer was not naive on this point. He recognized that the shift to an information economy in the West relied on a shift of industrial and agricultural production to the Third World. He realized that Hungary might also need this Third World–whether in the south of Europe or in the southern hemisphere proper–in order to make the jump. “It is not so clear as we thought before!” he said.

A critical problem in this area is the strength of the energy lobbies in Hungary: coal, nuclear, gas. These lobbies use a “risk” philosophy: Hungary needs a lot of energy in order to jump into the developed world. So energy could be imported in order to restructure industry to be more efficient but the energy lobbies prefer to pour funds into the energy sector to provide domestic energy sources. But then no money would be left over to restructure industry: a trap. The radical decrease in Soviet oil and gas shipments only makes the Hungarian government more likely to buy the arguments from the energy lobbies. Another problem comes from abroad. At least four firms have offered to build additional reactors at the Paks nuclear plant. The offers are seductive. Fleischer doesn’t so much worry about a Chernobyl type catastrophe. A more pressing problem would be nuclear waste: “it is not included in the price of the energy.”

Nor is that fact that the entire plant would be waste after 30 or 40 years included in the initial price. Fleischer points out that nuclear plants have traditionally had an important strategic purpose: providing the fuel for nuclear bombs. This is the major reason why France relies so much on nuclear energy and simultaneously has an independent nuclear force. With disarmament, the nuclear industry in the stratetic countries will be looking elsewhere to build plants (Fleischer worries about Hungary but the argument could easily be extended to the Third World). “There is not yet an anti-nuclear power movement,” he says, “and no real experts on the question.” Another major nuclear power problem is the Slovakian reactor at Mohovce near the border: Hungary gets all the ecological risks and none of the energy benefits!

A third project that Ister plans is on general environmental policy. Thus, they are looking at the transportation network in Hungary. Here again, Trianon is a root cause. Before the treaty, Hungary had several large cities besides Budapest. Now however, Budapest is 2 million and the next largest city is 200,000. Most of the bridges across the Danube run through Budapest causing major traffic congestion and a worsening of air pollution problems.

Fleischer had nothing particularly nice to say about the Green Party: mostly people who want to make political careers. “It was clear to everyone that it wasn’t a movement.” Some “official” environmentalists went into the Party leadership. A split in the leadership led to the kicking out of several people–the “true” Greens. At one point, Fleischer relates, a Green Party member called him up to ask him quick questions about the dam project because the member was to be interviewed by the press. The Party therefore does not include the truly knowledgeable.


Materials from the Ister Institute:


1) “The Most Important Environmental Tasks in Hungary”

An analysis of the chief ecological problems in Hungary compiled for a group of Western observers. These are some of the salient points:


* potable water lacking in nearly 1000 communities

* acquatic habitats threatened

* soil filled with heavy metals,

* 8-8.5 billion forints of health damage caused by air pollution

* increasing death rate and mental problems


The report also points out that Hungary is a prisoner of its geography: the country lies in a basin partly enclosed by Carpathians rendering it “defenceless” from many air pollution problems. Chief industries have contributed to industrial pollution: cement production (Labatlan, Vac); aluminium (Almasfuzito) oil refining (Szony, Szazhalombatta); steels (Dunaujvaros). The water management ministry compounded water pollution by extending the public water supply without ensuring sufficient sewage treatment. The actions of the government and, by extension, the industries have provoked considerable protest including regional protests in Dorog, Ofalu, Ketpo. The previous environmental ministry, in a series of ironic self-serving statements, said that these protests “hampered” environmental protection. The report concludes with a warning about uncritical acceptance of market solutions: “But while the failure of centrally-planned economies and centrally-directed societies is now widely accepted, it is much less known that the societies based on a market economy have been equally unable to tackle the environmental crisis.”


2) “Economic Policy: Environmental Regulation”


In this paper, Fleischer reviews the relationship between environmental issues and economic priorities in both market and plan economies. He quickly traces the development of the interventionist capitalist economy in which the state, following Keynes, intervenes in the economy to stimulate demand. This has led to a crisis in the market economy: an overheated economy because of stimulated demand causes the overuse of the environment. This problem of environmental degradation to fuel economic growth exists as well in centrally planned economies but in an accentuated form since such economies have no “alarm systems,” no method by which consumer or citizen dissatisfaction is communicated, however indirectly, back to the producers. The problem of resource depletion then is not specific to any economic system. The matter is further complicated by the fact there is no state to provide regulations for global resource depletion caused by, for instance, the debt crisis.

These problems, Fleischer notes, are characteristic of industrial economies. The solution to the problem lies not in either the market or the plan, but rather in a post-industrial economy. In a post-industrial economy, sacrifice (of pesticides, of mass production) is replaced by positive values (clean air, health, etc). Production switches to services: there is efficiency and no waste because of traditional consumer feedback and market information, flexible technology, and networks. While a service economy provides the basis for this change, because of the enormity of environmental problems, economics does not provide the only solution. Environmental considerations may run counter to “rational economic efficiency” and thus extra-economic factors must occasionally take priority.


3) “Non-Efficiency Calculations”


The essay, which is more technical than the other two, mischievously contains a very apt passage on fallacy of technocracy: “A myth prevails about “specialists” competent to make decisions in purely technical issues, or in technical issues intertwined with political ones: they are believed to be in possession of the Essential Information because of their Position (and any information they do not have is non-essential!) as well as in the possession of the Methods. It is common in social debates that the “specialists” refer to the laymen’s ignorance and non-initiation, whereas it is not the man in the street who should learn the professional jargon, the specialist should be able to present alternatives for decision making to politicians, to MPS, to the community in plain language. The layman should be entitled to call specialists to book if they fail to give a comprehensible answer to his question; but what he gets instead is a rebuke for asking “non-professional” questions.”


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