In The Chernobyl Effect (Berghahn Books, 2022) Kacper Szulecki explores the legacy of the nuclear disaster on the country’s politics and the trajectory of the environmental movement. He explains how this movement, whose ideas initially struggled to gain traction even among the political opposition and whose methods faced severe repression in the post-communist era, survived and developed to become an increasingly influential force in Polish society and politics.

Green European Journal: Can you describe the environmental movement in Poland in the 1980s?

Kacper Szulecki: In the 1980s, what we would later call the environmental movement in Poland consisted of three separate groupings. One was the expert group of ecologists, biologists, and botanists. These experts often had engineering masters or doctoral degrees and they were most aware of the increasingly poor state of the natural environment and the specific local or regional issues. The Solidarity trade union emerged in 1980-81 and its environmental offshoot was the Polish Ecological Club. Akin to what we would describe as an advocacy organisation today, these experts would write letters to the authorities and understood their role as raising awareness of local issues.

Second, there were the state-controlled and state-initiated environmental groups with longer histories. Contrary to the country’s reputation today as a coal advocate in the EU, Poland has a long environmental and conservation history. In the 1920s, for example, the League for the Protection of Nature was established, which remained in operation after the Second World War, along with a youth wing. These official organisations had millions of members and organised activities that sometimes blurred the lines between civil society and government structures.

In the 1980s, a third protest group that would take up the environmental cause emerged: non-state-sanctioned, independent dissent groups. There is an anecdote in my book that illustrates this new strand of environmentalism and the wider opposition. Two young activists, from what would later become the Freedom & Peace movement, approached Jacek Kuroń who was a major figure in the dissident movement since the 1960s. They told him they would like to deal with environmental issues only for him to respond: “What are you going to protect? Lab mice?” For the older dissidents, the thinking at the time saw high politics, communism, and freedom as the political priorities, not clean rivers, or anything like that.

In your book, you describe the early Polish environmental movement as “grey ecology” because it was more concerned with environmental problems that impacted people, or what could also be described as environmental justice. What environmental issues sparked protests at the time?

The movement was preoccupied with things like water and air quality – things that affected people directly. I remember reading samizdat – the unofficial publications published outside of censorship [in the Soviet Union] – which noted that “environment” is a word that implies the presence of a human being within their surroundings. It’s very anthropocentric. There were groups that saw the intrinsic value of nature but that kind of deep ecology was marginal.

Heavy industry in the 1970s and ’90s had left the environment in central and eastern Europe in a dire state. Western and southern Poland, which bordered Czechoslovakia and eastern Germany, were pollution hotspots because of the way the winds converged there. From the 1970s, it became apparent that whole patches of forests were dying. If you visited the mountains as a tourist, you would see a dead forest. But protests only really began in the 1980s, after the acid rain from the pollution started causing visible damage to things like air quality, soil quality, and national monuments.

The Chernobyl effect is the politicisation of different causes and groups.

Do you think socialism and its particular relationship to nature played a role in the environmental degradation of that era?

For sure. Communism is a “high modernist ideology” in the words of James Scott and it treats nature as a resource for economic development. That was not something unusual – this is also how the capitalist West developed – but perhaps there was a corrective already in the 1970s through the environmental movement. Exactly the same processes took place in Czechoslovakia, in Hungary and also in Yugoslavia.

Your book is called The Chernobyl Effect. What effect did the Chernobyl disaster and the response to it have on the environmental movement in Poland?

It was not so much the radiation from Chernobyl that was the problem but how the authorities handled the plant, the catastrophe, and its aftermath. People felt that something was happening above their heads and they had no control. There was a slogan at the time: “They knew but never told us.” The natural reflex was to try to regain that control. It drove people to seek changes in the governance of how nuclear energy and environmental issues first, but then the entire country. In this sense, the Chernobyl effect is the politicisation of different causes and groups. The seemingly non-political issue of energy governance spreads to other areas and becomes a catalyst for very different protests and groups.

I wouldn’t say communism fell because of Chernobyl but the disaster created an environmental platform for protest. This platform united the opposition but also party elites, the authorities, and even the police under a seemingly apolitical banner, which had the advantage of shielding protestors from prosecution and backlash. We must also remember that was the time of glasnost and perestroika in the Soviet Union. Glasnost is about transparency, so the Polish regime was also reacting to public distrust by opening up and being a little more receptive to grassroots organising.

If the wider opposition were quite dismissive of environmental issues initially, did Chernobyl make them more receptive? And did they use the disaster to rally against the regime?

To some extent, but the Solidarity movement was in decline in the late 1980s as it had operated underground for years after being outlawed, and people were generally exhausted by trade union issues. The environmental movement grew to fill the gap left by the Solidarity movement. There was a certain overlap with some activists operating in both structures and there was also a sense of unity within the opposition that came from having a common enemy in the Communist Party.

The environmental movement grew to fill the gap left by the Solidarity movement.

Soon after Chernobyl, there were plans for the construction of nuclear power plants in Poland for the first time. 

The idea of a nuclear power plant in Poland dates back to the 1950s but nothing really came of it, mostly because the large volume of domestic sources of coal made other sources of energy economically uncompetitive. However, there were experts within the Communist Party who lobbied to secure the construction of nuclear power plants.

The first permit was signed in 1982, soon after the backlash against Solidarity, but people didn’t care about it. However, after the Chernobyl meltdown, people realised that nuclear reactors built with Soviet technology in Poland could experience the same problem. The most advanced of those construction sites was Żarnowiec in the north, very close to Gdańsk, the birthplace of Solidarity. Two other plants were planned but never constructed. Żarnowiec was stopped only at the very last moment due to opposition. A few months later and a few steps further in the construction and it would have been too late to stop that project.

To what extent was the environmental movement in Poland part of a wider transnational dynamic?

The democratic opposition as they called themselves – those organisations in Poland that dissented against communist rule – were transnational from the start. Since the 1960s, they had looked for ways to communicate their grievances to international audiences because transnational allies were a source of empowerment. Initially they spoke the language of reforming communism and allied with the radical left in western Europe. When the opposition began to speak the language of human rights from the 1970s on, they found organisations like the Helsinki Committee and Amnesty International as natural allies.

From the 1980s, the new generation of activists, mainly born in the 1960s or late 1950s, formed the more radical dissident groups and spoke the same language as western European Greens. In the book, we give examples of the Swedish and Austrian Greens, Greenpeace, and all the different Western groups that found partners and points of connection in eastern Europe; people with whom they had a natural affinity.

Since this shift was happening across the region, the opposition also engaged in dialogue across the Eastern Bloc. There were examples of collaboration, especially between Poland and Czechoslovakia: there were joint and solidarity protest actions about the mountains in the south and against Temelín, a nuclear power plant in then-Czechoslovakia. There was also a Slovak-Hungarian alliance against a hydroelectric plant and dam. Overall, though, it was easier to maintain contacts with Western groups than with those in the Eastern Bloc.

You argue that the democratic transition in Poland was not inevitable. Poland in the very late years of communism was a military dictatorship. How much weight would you give environmental protests in the end of communism? Did it renew a tired opposition? Did it give communism a final push?

This is a really difficult question. The alternative scenario for Poland would be something resembling China – a regime that would remain authoritarian but probably introduce elements of capitalism which would later grow. That’s exactly what happened in Poland in 1988. A year before the negotiated transition, the government introduced a market reform package. In a sense, if the communists had been determined to hold onto power, they would probably have succeeded.

The environmental movement was as an element of a broader youth dissent that brought a more radical impulse to the opposition. They had no interest in reforming socialism. The Communist Party vilified them. From the perspective of the modernisers in the Communist Party, it was easier to talk to the older Solidarity dissidents, who were interested in negotiating some sort of solution, than with those strange, radical ecologists, punks, and peaceniks.

In truth, the environmental movement was not radical. Some voices were radical in the sense that they often emphasised participation and more direct forms of rule, but they were not anti-communist as such. However, this radical opposition contributed to a negotiated transition in pushing the established opposition and the Communist Party closer together. It is a dynamic that we can also observe elsewhere in the region, as well as in Spain and Portugal when they were going through democratisation.

Is there something about ecological issues that crystalised the non-democratic nature of communism?

Ecological issues are unique because they operate on different scales; from the very local to the regional, national, and global levels. This means that it’s very difficult to respond to them if you have a very rigid and hierarchical structure of governance like the Communist Party in Poland but also in China today. It’s all about the responsiveness of the regime and I think that environmental issues expose inflexibility very well. Environmental issues have prompted China to make many reforms to its local governance systems. It’s much easier now to petition the lower levels of the Communist Party of China to do something about particular issues, without getting arrested.

In the Polish case, environmental issues quickly exposed hypocrisy, inefficiency, and other deficiencies in governance.

In the Polish case, environmental issues quickly exposed hypocrisy, inefficiency, and other deficiencies in governance that would not be so visible otherwise. This is also a result of environmental issues being concrete and material. Talking about high ideals such as freedom and democracy is not always easy. But if you explain specific cases like: “this river is polluted because of this parkland, which is polluted because somebody paid somebody but then it was covered up and the media can’t discuss it because of censorship”, people understand. It can create a vicious circle for authoritarian governments, as it did for those of communist eastern European.

What has the environmental movement brought to the practice of democracy in Poland?

I think that in the second half of the 1980s the Polish environmental movement helped expand the portfolio of political actions and practices. During the transition, the liberal, post-Solidarity elite decided that all forms of protest were dangerous because there were so many people who had grievances that if you allowed anyone to openly protest this would derail the entire transition. So for a good part of the 1990s, street protests and all forms of open dissent were delegitimised. However, the environmental movement kept the tactics alive. They didn’t have much of a following but they remained in the background. And then in the 2000s, this smoldering environmental protest movement converged with the liberal mainstream when the right-populist government pushed for the construction of a highway cutting through the precious Rospuda river valley.

And then, protest and civil disobedience were suddenly virtuous again. By keeping the protest tradition going, the environmental movement inspired Polish people to defend the environment and their rights.

Today, people see demonstrations as something which is a civic duty that everyone should participate in. I take my kids to protests regularly when I’m in Poland because there are so many protests now. To the extent that – unlike the 1990s – nowadays you have to choose which demonstration you’re going to take part in.

What role do you see ecological movements playing in opposition to the current right-wing government in Poland?

With demonstrations on environmental, climate, and political issues, a new generation of activists are joining the movement. As in communist times, environmental issues are forming the basis of anti-governmental movement. Whereas at first issues such as smog and the logging of the Białowieża forest were the largest issues, the movement has also been successful at putting climate issues on the political agenda. In the last elections in 2019, all political parties were expected to have a strong opinion on climate and environmental problems. You see different takes on it from centre, left, and right but now there are even calls to create a right-wing green politics in Poland because it’s such an important issue.

Overall, the environmental movement has shaped a progressive force to be reckoned with.

Many parties, not just the Greens, are adopting green agendas. You have political parties that now have a stronger green portfolio which do not necessarily have a women’s rights agenda because of their conservative roots; it’s just so mixed. It’s very difficult to say but, on the whole, there is a progressive left-of-centre political unification programme which contains green, feminist, LGBT and general rule of law plus human rights issues. It’s a basic platform on which everyone can agree. Of course, there are differences and infighting but overall, the environmental movement has shaped a progressive force to be reckoned with.

Looking at the influence that social movements like civil rights movement in the US, women’s movements, and the labour movement had on democracies in the West, does the environmental movement also have a stake in the development and deepening of democracy?

Absolutely. The birth of green politics in Western Europe in the late 1970s and early 1980s created a new political landscape. It broke the monopoly of older, established political parties and the very division we had between left and right. From having conservative parties, liberal centrist, and social democratic parties ruling the continent, suddenly Green parties made inroads, first in Germany and then elsewhere.

I believe Greens have changed how politics is practised in terms of bringing the emotional element of direct action and the very rational expert-driven side of politics together. In Polish politics right now, the environmental movement is making these two contributions. Direct protests and civil disobedience were not very popular in the past, but now other movements like pro-democracy activists are learning these tactics from the green movement. Its other influence in Poland is greater value for expertise and scientific knowledge. Climate debates today rely heavily on science. You’ll hear Greta Thunberg say: “listen to the scientists”. Though such discourse is imperfect, encouraging fact-checking and helping debates become more grounded in facts is important in a so-called post-truth era.

The emotional part is important because populism, which Poland is struggling with along with other European countries, is strongly based on emotional communication. In this regard, the environmental movement has something that liberal democracy has dismissed in political life: a connection to something deeper.

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