Toward Local Resilience

For the last 20 years, the small village of Kapolcs has held an arts festival in the summer time. The town has fewer than 500 people, but thousands flock there during the festival to hear music, buy crafts, and eat traditional Hungarian countryside food. Kapolcs is also on the edge of a national park that encompasses a section of Hungary’s largest lake, Balaton. Kapolcs is rural Hungary at its best: lush, bio-diverse, and reasonably prosperous from tourism revenue.

I visited Kapolcs during its long quiet season. I was meeting Judit Vasarhelyi, a long-time environmental activist who had moved to Kapolcs. More than two decades ago, I interviewed her at a splendid old silk mill in the old section of Budapest where she ran the Independent Ecological Center. At that time, Hungary seemed to be leading the region into a Green future. Twenty-three years later, Vasarhelyi was considerably more sanguine about the environmental prospects for Hungary, the region, and the world.

“In those days we were thinking about Hungary turning into an environmentalist country coming out of the socialist years, which were environmentally quite careless,” she told me last May over a delicious home-cooked lunch of stuffed peppers and an extraordinary meringue dessert called Floating Islands. “It would have been practically a full change of paradigm, which of course was impossible for the economy to adopt. Even a liberal economist of the Blue Ribbon Circle said that in the midst of the economic crisis, in the short run, there were no resources to invest into the environment. Instead the new government offered a lot of money to those who were jobless immediately after the collapse of the economy. It then became very difficult to send them to work instead of their waiting for unemployment subsidies. On behalf of the prime minister this was out of good will and correct intentions, of course. But as the proverb goes, even the path to hell is paved with good intentions.”

Joining the European Union should have been a step up environmentally for Hungary. But it was a mixed blessing.

“When we joined the EU, we more and more realized that Hungary has a kind of dowry of biological diversity — because of socialism,” Vasarhelyi continued. “In such territories where there was military presence, either Soviet or Hungarian, there was no economic activity. The military activities somehow protected or at least didn’t use up those resources. We should at this moment be proud of this dowry and try to save it. We shouldn’t, like a bridegroom, go to the pub and drink it up! But many European institutions simply want economic development and growth, and they don’t seem to care about exploiting these remaining ecological resources.”

After many years of work in Budapest and at the international level, Vasarhelyi began to focus instead on local projects. Through a project called Sustainable Communities, she helped identify towns that might be interested in implementing their own environmentally sustainable project. “We would work in one town more than two years, with 60 volunteers,” she explained. “For example, in one small town the community decided to have selective collection of waste. They did a business plan. It didn’t cost the town a penny. It was zero balance. The whole community, through debate, expressed their desire for this program. And it still exists.”

She adapted the program to the countryside as well, including the area around Kapolcs where she now lives. But she no longer radiates the optimism of the earlier years. Instead, she is bracing for environmental catastrophe. She ended our conversation by recalling a pamphlet that the Stockholm Environmental Institute handed out at a follow-on meeting in New York five years after the famous Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.

“It was about various social scenarios of the coming disaster,” she said. “Three of them were terrible. In one, mankind disappears. Another is that mankind declines, the global village disappears, and then we try again with available technologies. In the third, there is a terrible dictatorship with a lot of environmental migration, and a thin layer of oligarchs is in possession of clean air and water and soil. The fourth scenario, and the only positive one, involved a turn to decentralization from globalization, a turn towards self-sustainable approaches. If an ecological collapse is to happen, it is better to act in a prophylactic way. Instead of falling down we might have a soft landing. That is resilience. And that was five years after the first Rio. I took this as a very smart analysis. And this is what I’ve been doing ever since. Probably in vain.”

 

The Interview

 

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

 

Hungarians played an important role in this, but I don’t remember where I was. It was not as sharp an event as September 11, where, after that moment, everything was different. It was one element within a long, continuously changing process.

 

In 1990, I talked to Zoltan Illes when he was in the Hungarian ministry of the environment, and he said he wanted to bring different people into the ministry, including you. But you said no. I’m curious why you decided not to join the government at that time.

 

On the one hand, I thought I was not well prepared for that, and it was too much responsibility for me. The other thing was Zoltan asked two women to be the head of the international department of the environmental ministry. He told us — Zsuzsa Foltanyi was the other woman – that we must decide among ourselves. This was obviously impossible. Another part of the answer is that, basically, I am a deeply rooted civic person. I was never a member of a political party though I always voted. I also refused the invitation to be the director of the Regional Environmental Center (REC) offered by the U.S. ambassador, Mark Palmer, who just died recently. I thought that was too much. In my mind, I was in an ideal job in the Independent Ecological Center (IEC) with an ideal potential for the Hungarian environment.

My vision has been always on the Danube and the energy issue. We consulted a lot of foreigners, and Americans as well, on how to find a substitute for the energy that would have been generated if the dam there were constructed. At that time, I lived with a state secretary in the foreign ministry who had also been a member of the Danube Circle earlier. When the minister of foreign affairs, Geza Jeszenszky left for Slovakia, and asked us what to mention to the Slovaks on the issue of energy production, we tried to lay out a vision of energy conservation instead of production. In those days we were thinking about Hungary turning into an environmentalist country coming out of the socialist years, which were environmentally quite careless. It would have been practically a full change of paradigm, which of course was impossible for the economy to adopt. Even a liberal economist of the Blue Ribbon Circle said that in the midst of the economic crisis, in the short run, there were no resources to invest into the environment. Instead the new government offered a lot of money to those who were jobless immediately after the collapse of the economy. It then became very difficult to send them to work instead of their waiting for unemployment subsidies. On behalf of the prime minister this was out of good will and correct intentions of course. But as the proverb goes, even the path to hell is paved with good intentions.

When Jeszenszky went to Slovakia, we suggested that he speak about energy conservation, energy efficiency, and retrofitting as a possible compensation of the cancelled Danube dam. As the Batelle Institute had detailed, Eastern European countries could have saved 40 percent of energy just through such measures. Slovaks should forget about the dam, we said, and do these things instead. But Jeszenszky was not able to communicate this message and/or the Slovaks were focused on the national importance of their dam.

The other idea that was a matter of national diplomacy was this debt-for-nature swap. Poland promised to clean up the Vistula in exchange for the forgiving of state debt. We sent a person to a Swiss conference to learn how to do this. Then we turned to Antall’s personal advisor, Gyula Kodolanyi about that and he answered “It was not possible to even speak. Not even the first sentence was allowed about any debt issues. They said Hungary would be legally, correctly responsible for all the debt of the former period.” Polish debt, he was told, was with other states while Hungarian debt was with private Japanese banks. So, it wasn’t the same situation, and we couldn’t have done it.

These were the things we wanted to do — but in vain. The only one we succeeded on is with us still now – there is still no dam on the Danube on the Hungarian side. This idea that the Danube is not be dammed is now written in the Danube Strategy of all the Danubian countries, negotiated by the Hungarian state when it held the presidency of the EU for half a year. Western interests have been focused on water traffic. Our slogan now has been: the Danube is not to be adapted to the ships but the ships adapted to the Danube. And the river should remain as it is.

There have been two Fidesz governments. When the first started, on the very first day, they invited Janos Vargha, who was also part of the Danube Circle, to be a special consultant to the state commission on the Danube. Then nothing happened. But with this appointment they were declaring that they were following the route of the Danube Circle concerning any dams. There was also a conference organized by Fidesz member Tamas Deutsch and others that also emphasized this message of no dams. The Danube Circle is no more. Instead there is the Danube Charta, which emerged when Gyula Horn came to power in 1994. There were rumors of secret negotiations with the Slovaks on this issue. So immediately we established the Danube Charta in case we needed to make noise if necessary. It exists, and makes noise when necessary in this respect.

 

That’s an important victory.

 

Yes, very important. I’m not able to describe the feeling when the Hungarian parliament in the same year voted for the continuation of the dam project and a few months later voted against it. It was fantastic. I couldn’t believe it.

 

You continued to do a lot of work with the Regional Environmental Center.

 

Yes, during the first three years. Both Zoltan Illés and I were on the first board of directors, which was a silly thing to do because then my organization couldn’t apply for money for projects. More and more nations joined the REC. The Europeans came in. And the NGO period disappeared. When the more statist European countries entered, it was just promises. I can’t describe great results or performance. The only thing that really interested the global community was the state of the ozone layer. They gave large global grants to diminish that. That was the only one threat that they identified and did something about. But they ignored climate change and other environmental threats in those years.

 

When you started out in 1989-90, in terms of your expectations of what you could do for Hungary over the next 10 or 20 years, where is Hungary compared to what you expected in terms of air quality, water quality, energy sustainability. Are you at 50 percent?

 

In those days, we didn’t know the word “sustainability.” We used “organic” as in “organic planning,” which was similar. I was in the Hungarian delegation that travelled to Rio in 1992 for the Earth Summit. It was the smallest delegation: only seven members. It was ridiculous. Even though the Summit participants were very proud of themselves for dealing with energy over and beyond environmental issues, it was not understood to be part of the environment but rather a side effect. Now it’s considered at the very core. We had a very weak minister for the environment at that time. The Dutch minister, who didn’t sleep at all during those two weeks, started to gather the “like-minded countries”, mostly Scandinavian nations and smaller European countries like the Netherlands and Austria – and Hungary from Eastern Europe. The Dutch minister took the Hungarian minister under his arm and said, “You need to be part of our likeminded group.” And he was. Because our industry had collapsed, he could promise many things concerning reduced emissions.

 

The government could meet the stricter regulations because industry had collapsed.

 

Still, it was good to hear that Hungary had signed everything. William Reilly was the head of the Environmental Protection Agency at that time. He and President George H.W. Bush were also at Rio. Reilly was violet in the face when he was prohibited from signing the climate convention on behalf of the United States. Previously he had been an NGO and civil society person. All of us could understand this internal fight. We were very proud that Hungary signed everything that could be signed.

After Rio, we focused on retrofitting. For example, I organized the first hearings in the Hungarian parliament on energy efficiency and conservation issues. We produced a paper. There was an environmental committee. We explained that this was the route that we should follow because it was good for both the environment and the economy because it created jobs. People talk about Green industry nowadays but this also would have been Green industry. Never before had a foreign expert come to a parliamentary committee. They were just tolerant of this expert, Gregory Katz of the Rocky Mountain Institute, listening in a friendly way to him. We tried, but we weren’t really able to do anything.

 

The government didn’t enact any new policies.

 

It has tried to do something. After joining the EU, we have a quota of renewable sources that we need to use instead of fossil fuels. And there are high expectations attached to renewable energy. But one by one, they turn out to have unexpected side effects. Wind turbines turn out to be very expensive. Bioethanol destroys territory that could be used for food. When the EU gave support for biomass, they started to cut down the real Hungarian forests and turn the wood into energy. This was beautiful wood, and the forests had complex biodiversity. This was not “biomass.” An energy plantation is one thing, and a forest, which is the most complex ecological system, is something different. You can’t turn one into the other.

When we joined the EU, we more and more realized that Hungary has a kind of dowry of biological diversity — because of socialism. In such territories where there was military presence, either Soviet or Hungarian, there was no economic activity. The military activities somehow protected or at least didn’t use up those resources. We should at this moment be proud of this dowry and try to save it. We shouldn’t, like a bridegroom, go to the pub and drink it up! But many European institutions simply want economic development and growth, and they don’t seem to care about exploiting these remaining ecological resources.

We were very busy in the civic organizations here in Hungary working on a year-by-year basis on pressing environmental issues. I don’t think anybody had in mind a vision of what we would or should be doing 10-15 years later. There are plenty of Hungarian Green organizations, and they are well organized. Some are apolitical, and others advocate on a national level. But many focus on doing tangible things at a local level. When the Hungarian delegation came back from Rio, the government sent some very expensive shiny reports to the UN with a lot of blah-blah-blah. The part I wrote — I was on the committee of sustainability — described NGO activities, mainly doing this type of Local Agenda 21 projects. There were real activities and real concerns — something that later would be called a local agenda. These really meant something.

When the political changes happened, Hungary went first. It was like a minefield. Antall wanted to get us out of Comecon and the Warsaw Pact, but everything was done very carefully not to trigger any brutal revolts. We knew what had happened in 1956 — bloodshed, murder, and Soviet repression — and we didn’t want that to happen again. So we were the sappers carefully going through the minefields and demining them, and we were nervous and we were worrying all that time. But when it was demined, all the other nations ran right through — with their Velvet Revolution and champagne and happiness! We were not happy because we had sweat on our faces because of all that nervous effort.

After that, the Antall government immediately created what I was told by lawyers was the most autonomous code on local governments in all of Europe. After this change, I spent my working life in the countryside doing several small projects in localities. When we came back from Rio and IEC was inaugurated, Madeline Kunin visited. She was the governor of Vermont and the president of the Institute for Sustainable Communities, and she wanted me to do a workshop on doing local work. It was suggested that IEC could and should do such local projects, like generating democratic, sustainable, and environmentally conscious communities. We at the IEC loved this idea. We very carefully selected those towns in terms of order of magnitude and also of political diversity. Almost all had populations between 18,000 and 20,000 – communities where everyone knew each other. They were the size not only to start a community but also to revive the good old community that was hidden under the surface. We did a lot of work just to learn these histories and pick a team that could work together. It was a brilliant program called Sustainable Communities, and it was really participatory in the truest sense. I know all the misuses of the terms “partnership” and “participation,” but this was the real thing. We would work in one town more than two years, with 60 volunteers. For example, in one small town the community decided to have selective collection of waste. They did a business plan. It didn’t cost the town a penny. It was zero balance. The whole community, through debate, expressed their desire for this program. And it still exists.

I realized that this project should be adopted in rural areas. This, presently, is a rural area in the basin around me. It’s an ecological unit as well. Since all the waters come from within, no one can pollute it from outside. If the inhabitants of this area decide to do organic gardening, then they can do that. We’ve gotten some Swiss and Dutch support for this project, as well as Hungarian government support. We produced scientific set of papers on how to approach an autonomous small region — autonomous was the key word, i.e. self-sufficient in terms of energy and other natural resources. Then we joined the EU, and they just laughed at us because these areas were too small. They told us that we must understand that Western people who give tax pennies to us want to see results.

Back to the Sustainable Communities project: for each town, we got $50,000 from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund on the condition that we create consensus on the first goal to be achieved. Wherever there was consensus, this amount of money was there. It was not just plans and papers and planners who make money from making plans. For instance, Hungary once received European money to save the great bustard. A Dutch person came and used up all the money writing a series of papers as high as the table!. And there was not a penny left for the real action. Sometimes the support from a Western country is just a way for them to deal with their own unemployment. They label it as support money, but they use it up themselves by hiring these experts.

 

The five villages — what was the consensus for them for the first step?

 

That was a completely different approach. These were very small settlements. In the Communist era, in 1976, a code on regional development classified all the settlements in Hungary, 3200 or so, according to five degrees. At the bottom, was a settlement without a role. All these small settlements are like that: without a role. First the doctor left, then the bus station, then the school. Everything left but the pub. All the inhabitants who were entrepreneurs with dynamism left the village and are now in the neighborhood as directors or entrepreneurs. Who remains? Sometimes only one-third of the original population. It’s okay to have dynamic and reflective people together. But only the reflective people have remained.

But now more and more urban intellectuals love this area because of its beauty. There is a new drive for self-sufficiency. So, they arrived. The very passive people living here who were basically abandoned people, the only way they can react is: these people just come and go. They are not clever enough to use these people, like me. I know all the people here — the mayors, the agricultural people. These two types of people – the newcomers and those who have remained — should be amalgamated in some way.

I discovered something that is not well known in Anglo Saxon countries. These “folk high schools” are of Scandinavian origin. It was a Danish pastor, Nikolai Grundtvig, who invented them in the mid-19th century. This kind of education isn’t based on school achievement. It’s based on life experience and opinion, and all kinds of people can learn together. Such schools, which are closer to the community colleges of the United Kingdom then those of the USA, can create much better citizens and communities. They can be part of openness and participation in a small village where everyone knows everyone else but sometimes is very much afraid of leaders.

Between the two world wars, there was a very strong folk high school movement here in Hungary. It created a very strong peasant-citizens stratum. In the mid-1980s, they reappeared here and there without any legal permission. But they were monitored by the Party people and invited to report on what was going on in the village. The topic at that time was how to create an autonomous existence from the state, for example by producing mushrooms in your own cellars. That was a political issue in those days when everything was controlled — your telephone, your flat, your passport.

 

But not your mushrooms.

 

Through mushrooms, you could create an existence without an official job controlled by the state.

So, these schools returned. So this was my idea. We put together a program. Every week we went to a new village and put up a poster about a workshop. If the topic was interesting, people would attend. The first one started in 1992. Those who were involved, the mayors and the people, all wanted to remain together and do something together. They signed a letter of intent. We decided to apply for money and create an organic plan for development. Mainly landscape architects were taking the lead in this, but there were others as well: a special expert on bio-gardening, for instance.

I came to the conclusion that it was good for me not to be in Budapest dealing with national issues but to go to different parts of the country and do this local organizing. Antall died. People voted in Gyula Horn, who shot people after 1956 but was very good at saying to people that he was a leader just like them, taking out the garbage by himself at home. Local governments found themselves in a worse situation. The central government gave more and more tasks to the local governments and less and less money to finance that work. The localities simply couldn’t do it.

Perhaps the transition should have been introduced more slowly. But of course, nobody ever had a transition like we had. We were told during the Communist period about the socialization of private property. Going the other way turned out to be very complicated. There was a lot of stealing and corruption. All the public administrators were from the Communist power structure. Nobody from our circles studied state administration in university. Later on, everyone realized that this was a profession, something to be learned. You couldn’t just be a poet or a geologist and do that job. That was a very bitter lesson. Nobody thought about that part of the transition.

 

If you had a chance, would you have gone for training in administration?

 

I don’t think so. I’m not that type of person. It’s mainly a certain type of law. But I would have supported others to do that. We found out too late. Instead, I supported several people to become environmental lawyers, which was something absolutely lacking in this country. Laszlo Solyom, who later became president of Hungary, was a sort of environmental lawyer because he learned this area of the law and taught it in Germany. In the first five years, he was president of the IEC as well. When he became president of the constitutional court, he had to leave all these civic roles. Environmental lawyers are very much needed. But we realized this early on. With administration, we realized too late.

Another issue is the land. At the very beginning, I though it was a very smart thing for Prime Minister Antall to launch a compensation system. We didn’t have an original compensation structure as they had in Romania. You didn’t receive your original land directly. Instead, you received vouchers that you could use at an auction or you could sell your vouchers on the market. It was very complex, and it was also misused. As with any new system, people found the loopholes. It’s like with the police, who build security systems and then the thieves figure out new ways to beat those systems. It’s a race. The Romanian people tell us how good our system is because they gave back all those castles there, and there’s not a penny to repair them. And we think, “Ah, but it’s better for you because your forests were returned to the original owners.” A lot of silly people here used their vouchers to buy one or two hectares of forest. Sustainable forestry can only take place above a certain number of hectares. And these people, after just a few months, cut down all the trees in their hectare of forest. They took the money and said goodbye. That was terrible. Nobody had a vision of how to preserve all the potential that we fought for.

We also had a very complex way of dealing with the collective farms. It was up to the members of the farm, whether they wanted to stay together or wanted to be dissolved. If they stayed together, the land was no longer common property. It had to be turned into a Western-type of firm in which everyone owned something like the shares in a corporation.

I read through all the government programs hunting for the word sustainability. There was one sentence in 70 pages of the Horn program. It said something like: “sustainable development will create a much better condition of health for the Hungarian people.” That was it. I went through the documents of the first Fidesz government, and there was no mention of the term “sustainability” either. Of course, the more PC thing — sustainable economic growth — does not exist at all. However, there was a plan to limit the size a family’s property holding to 200 hectares. This was a good size, not too small. This limit was sustainability itself. We had a choice when dealing with the agricultural population of almost half a million people. Either we gave them the land that they could use to survive. Or we would invest in industrial agriculture, which would force most farmers off their land to become homeless in Budapest.

The other thing in the Fidesz program that has reappeared now is this concept of “family taxation.” I don’t know how popular it is in other countries, though it seems to me it’s quite a novelty. The taxes are determined not according to those who earn the money, person by person. Rather, the whole family’s income can be taken into consideration, including the number of children. I think this protects the Hungarian family. We are fewer and fewer Hungarians, and it’s the right thing to do to think of the quality of life of children. There are certain government subsidies for all families and children. For instance, a mother can get payments to stay at home and raise the children. Now this approach has been changed in certain ways. If – mainly – a Roma child has spent 50 hours outside of class – and there’s no letter from a doctor or a mother that the child was ill — then this basic subsidy is withheld for a while. The Roma issue cannot be solved except through schooling and the workplace. The police have started to search for such delinquent children in the plazas. They found 12-year-olds who couldn’t name the school they were in or the headmaster’s name or their class. They spend all their days in the plaza. With this new regulation, the attendance of the children in the school improved.

 

You talked about your decision to do more work in the countryside and identify projects that could succeed based on participation. What about here in Kapolcs?

 

There have been improvements. We live within the boundaries of a national park, the Balaton Uplands National Park. It ends on this route you drove in on. This side of the street is not part of it, the other side is. That side has restrictions on what they can do to their houses. More and more the national park has to explain these strict rules and regulations. But a lot of books have been written on the national park, and people are proud to belong to this area. We have also contributed by collecting all the names of the birds and flowers. The locals will correct you, but they won’t compile this list by themselves.

The local identity was taken away and needs to be rebuilt. Community development and environmental protection go hand in hand with that. More and more, the mayor, the local people, and the local paper refer to this kind of activity. LEADER (Liaison Entre Actions de Développement de l’Économie Rurale), which is a very good European program, is a bottom-up system to map local strategies by consensus and give small grants to local people to realize the strategy that everyone has accepted. One branch of agricultural support in the EU is based on units of territory. And this LEADER program is the other one, but it gives out less money. Looking ahead from 2014 to 2020, a new program based on the LEADER principles will fund community-led local development projects. I’m writing this strategy just now for these villages. Through this, we can have another set of folk high schools. The action area involves 60 villages, and includes this area. Several of the villages are multiple deprived territories. A settlement without a role, even if it is in the most well-to-do region of Hungary, can’t by itself reach the average level of the region. And sometimes, the biodiversity is in better condition in those territories than anywhere else. That biodiversity represents important capital, but that needs to be explained to the local people. A folk high school can be very good at explaining that. I did two such series during the winter and look forward to two more at the beginning of the autumn. Community Breakthrough to Sustainabiity — that’s the title.

 

When you think back to what your perspective and your expectations circa 1990, what has changed in 23 years?

 

I was such a naive person. I thought that a lot of people and initiatives came here for altruistic reasons. I couldn’t identity the people who were just here to promote businesses and markets. The more I was able to identify the cynical ones, the more cynical I became myself. Inside I have my old self. But now I am a little bit more cautious.

In those beginning years, a set of American foundations came to the region. They were nice, and there were some fantastic meetings. But it was difficult to explain to Americans what socialism was like. It was easy to be leftist and not live here. Very few outsiders, maybe only George Orwell, were able to understand this.

I was invited so many times to so many conferences. After a while, I just left the Green jet set. I wanted to do something genuine and real. As I’ve gotten older, and now I have grandchildren, I am now more conscious and more objective. When I was in the opposition, I wanted to go abroad. I was an aborted Scandinavian scholar. I wanted to go to Iceland, where I had a fellowship, and get another degree. I was not allowed. I am an alternative Nobel Prize winner, on behalf of the Danube Circle, and I was not allowed to travel to Stockholm to receive the prize in the parliament. A more brilliant brain was needed to know the world outside without being there. I was not clever enough. When I reread Forsythe Saga the second time, after Hungary had become capitalist the second time, it was such a different story. In the novel someone mentions a terribly high, usurious rate of inflation of 4 percent! — at that time, we had a 30 percent inflation rate! The post-socialist era was a period of repeating the early accumulation of capital the second time through a privatization process, when former socialist leaders became, all of a sudden, owners of huge enterprises and entire branches of industries without – among others – the least concern for the environment.

Of course, this whole change should have been done better but I don’t know how. We were acting in a fog. Sometimes when we were not — on the energy efficiency issue, for instance, which was the right thing to do from the beginning — nobody accepted it.

After the last Rio summit in 2012, people came back here and they weren’t talking about sustainability. The new buzzword is resilience — flexible adaptation to the coming changes. Even in the beginning of the 1980s, Hungarian agriculture researchers did a lot of research on different types of corn that could survive dry weather better than others. That is resilience, I suppose.

In between these two Rio conferences, there was a Rio Plus 5 meeting in New York. The Stockholm Environmental Institute gave everybody a leaflet on that special occasion. It was about various social scenarios of the coming disaster. Three of them were terrible. In one, mankind disappears. Another is that mankind declines, the global village disappears, and then we try again with available technologies. In the third, there is a terrible dictatorship with a lot of environmental migration, and a thin layer of oligarchs is in possession of clean air and water and soil. The fourth scenario, and the only positive one, involved a turn to decentralization from globalization, a turn towards self-sustainable approaches. If an ecological collapse is to happen, it is better to act in a prophylactic way. Instead of falling down we might have a soft landing. That is resilience. And that was five years after the first Rio. I took this as a very smart analysis. And this is what I’ve been doing ever since. Probably in vain.

 

Kapolcs, May 11, 2013

 

Interview (1990)

 

In a restored 18th century silk mill in the ancient section of Budapest called Obuda, two important environmental foundations will operate side by side: the much-heralded Bush Center and the more modest Independent Ecological Center. Judit Vasarhelyi will direct the latter. A philologist by training, she is a long-time environmental activist connected with the Danube Circle. She was hired by the Soros Foundation several years back to help with environmental work. In September, she will continue this work at the Center, actually a Foundation spin-off. Originally, I had planned to attend a meeting of Fulbright scholars at the mill where Vasarhelyi was to give a long presentation on her Center and on the Hungarian environment. The Fulbright scholars never showed up so I was the fortunate recipient of much coffee and carrot juice–and a personal presentation.

The Danube Circle, Vasarhelyi explained, did not consist in the main of scientists. Partly, this was because involvement in the movement was professionally risky and scientists more than most professionals were reliant on their laboratories: dismissal would have been fatal. Participation in the Danube Circle “was not much more than an ordinary Western citizen but in this context it was very important. You stepped out, took responsibility and took a risk. You could lose your passport, get detained. For the same kind of oppositional activity, you could get five years in prison in Prague or you could have been killed in Romania.” There were two tendencies in the circle: the fundamentalists and the pragmatists. The former emphasized ecological harm, and defined the Circle activities as pro-nature, not political. The leader of this wing, Janos Vargha, always stressed that pollution belongs to no particular political regime. The second tendency, to which Vasarhelyi belonged, was more political, recognizing that the lack of information they had about the Hungarian environment was intrinsically connected to government policies.

The Circle was founded in September 1984. In 1986, Vasarhelyi went to work for Soros. In 1988, Bill Moody of Rockefeller came by and asked her what was needed in Hungary. She suggested many things but stressed environmental education: “There are people in school who can’t recognize a squirrel. Really!” No literature existed; no environmental literacy. She also stressed the need for funds to allow scientists to have an independent professional existence “so that they could be more courageous.” The Soros Foundation partly fulfilled these needs. But it was only later, when information leaked out that Bush was to announce a $5 million environmental initiative in Budapest, that the “dream list” found its way to the top. The result: two centers, one focusing on the region (Bush Center) and one on Hungary (Independent Ecological Center). The contrast between the two operations is enormous, though both are housed in the same building. Vasarhelyi and one other person work in her office, doing everything: the atmosphere is casual with discarded airplane seats leaning against the wall, bird mobiles swaying in the air, a loft where children often sit and learn about animals. The Bush Center hasn’t quite opened yet. But huge boxes of expensive Italian furniture sit unopened in what will eventually be the office. It will have several staffpeople. One immediate problem with the Bush Center is that the 5 million was originally planned for only Poland and Hungary. Now, it will probably be spread across a wider region. There will, however, be additional funds: the EEC is contributing as are individual governments.

(“This society is exhausted,” Vasarhelyi digressed, “This transformation has had a terrible social cost. Our children are the orphans of this struggle.” She worries whether Hungarians will have enough time and energy to continue building these non-governmental organizations and movements)

The Center has planned several projects: a Green library, a people’s high school (patterned on the Scandinavian model) dealing with environmental issues, a post-graduate program that trains teachers, a children’s club. Its Board, she notes, is excellent: three biologists, an ecologist, an economist (Tamas Fleischer), a physician, a poet, and so on. None of these people have been corrupted and none are dilettantes. An immediate project she would like to undertake with financing from the Bush Center is a meeting of open-minded utility people from various countries in the region (she doubts whether she will be able to find any in Czechoslovakia!). The children’s club meets every second week–30 or so elementary school children. The postgraduate program will also try to put together a new textbook. The Ministry of Education has announced that the curriculum will be modified: 1/3 will be national and 2/3 will be determined by local schools. A team of 40 reform teachers of biology will be lobbying the government for the inclusion of environmental issues in that 1/3 nationally mandated section. The Rockefeller Brothers have already given $10,000 for the library

She was also involved in the recent Earth Day celebrations. Dennis Hays came to Hungary, spreading the gospel. The Hungarian movement responded with actions in Budapest as well as in the regions, T-shirts, buttons, a Green consumer guide, an Earth Day newsletter. It was significant that Earth Day came a week after the “rude and disgusting” elections in which the Democratic Forum and the Alliance of Free Democrats engaged in a “dogfight.” It was “gratifying” that a lot of newcomers came to the Earth Day events. One of the chief actions was giving the new government a new proclamation: the new leaders are not responsible for the damage, but they are responsible for cleaning it up.

(The last Minister of the Environment, Vasarhelyi explained, was terribly corrupt. In one typical demonstration, activists lead a goat to the gates of the ministry and placed a cabbage next to it. There is a proverb in Hungarian: it is not wise to allow a goat to take care of a head of cabbage. And, as the proverb predicted, the goat promptly devoured the cabbage in front of the ministry. There were rumors, she continued, that the Minister shot deer from a helicopter with a machine gun. This would be characteristic even if not literally true.)

So, the activists presented the new government and the new ministry a clean white sheet of paper. The new government is “responsible if they allow foreign capital into the country that behaves in a neo-colonial way. Because there are indications that this region will be treated like the Third World.” They also demanded that the government not accept the French offer to build the additional nuclear reactors at Paks. The new Environmental Minister met with representatives of Western organizations such as Greenpeace and the Nature Conservation Fund and gave a speech filled “with the best intentions.” The activists also encouraged the government to foster relations with NGOs in the Dutch manner. But, Vasarhelyi stressed, it would not be “collaboration because there will always be conflict on these issues.”

 

 


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