Another Internet Is Possible

Calling online behemoths “platforms” is misleading, as it suggests they are places of open exchange and democratic deliberation. In fact, our online existence takes place in a “virtual electronic shopping mall” operated by the likes of Alphabet, Meta, and other tech giants. Ben Tarnoff’s recent book, reviewed here by Konrad Bleyer-Simon, looks at how, as a result of political and material decisions, profit became the main driver in the development of the internet, with aspirations for inclusion, universal access, and stronger social connections left by the wayside.

Ben Tarnoff: Internet for the People. The Fight for Our Digital Future. Verso Books. 2022. 272 pages. 

Few would dispute that the early years of the internet were promising. But exactly when those early years ended is the subject of some disagreement. In 2011, the Arab Spring was widely considered a social media revolution, in which the democratising power of the internet could enable activists and freedom-loving citizens bring down dictators. Around the same time, WikiLeaks demonstrated the capacity of the internet to help citizens hold the powerful to account. As information spread ever more rapidly across borders, some controversial sites like Gigapedia and Sci-Hub managed to democratise knowledge by allowing scholars and university students of the developing world to access books and articles that would otherwise be locked behind the paywalls of publishing monopolies.

Yet these examples are far from representative of the internet and its power and influence as a whole. Not only has it failed to live up to the high hopes expressed by commentators, for a number of dominant players the internet has been a means to concentrate fortunes and subjugate marginalised communities.

The “open-source ethic” of public ownership

The US tech journalist Ben Tarnoff’s recent book Internet for the People starts with a historical and material assessment of the Internet. He explains how the political decisions (be they for the sake military strength in the context of the Cold War, or economic competitiveness in the 1990s), as well as the infrastructure and the physical locations of computers and cables play an important role in determining how billions of computers communicate with each other, and in turn, how the network of networks shapes the way society functions. One of the book’s strengths is that it provides a smart and well-written history of the internet’s “capitalist reorganisation” that forced the original research network into oblivion.

For a number of dominant players the internet has been a means to concentrate fortunes and subjugate marginalised communities.

It is now widely known that the internet as we know it could not have come about without public money (and in fact, there are still numerous contracts between the US military apparatus and Silicon Valley). Spanning from the late 1950s to the 1980s, or even beyond, the private sector would never have been able to take the kinds of risks taken by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in the 1960s and ’70s, and employ the labour needed to make this project a reality. Supported by the long-term perspective provided by a United States government agency, and free from market pressures, the early Internet came to life as a product of a fruitful, decades-long co-creation process by thousands of engaged researchers. While some libertarians might see this as a waste of taxpayers’ resources, Tarnoff points out that this public ownership and financing of the project had two major benefits: on the one hand, it sheltered the project from unrealistic demands for profitability, and on the other, DARPA “enforced an open-source ethic” which meant that researchers working on the project shared the source codes of all their creations, thereby allowing others to contribute and sparking creativity.

In the 1980s, another public institution, the National Science Foundation became involved in the project, with the aim of bringing more people online – from outside of the military and experimental networks. This led to the creation of the NSFNET, the basis of a new national network: the principal data routes that interconnected the networks that formed the backbone of the Internet.

Privatisation and access for sale

The privatisation of this – thus far heavily subsidised – network was always foreseen, but it took place in a far more extreme form than planned. By 1995, NSFNET stopped the operations of its own backbone network and gave way for private players to take over its role. The idea was to create a level playing field and prepare the ground for competition between private service providers, but given that only a handful of private companies had the means to run a backbone network, the former state monopoly turned into an oligopoly of five telecommunications companies. In the new millennium, they were joined by tech giants like Alphabet and Meta who were heavily investing in undersea cables and the creation of their own backbones. These telecom companies and the internet service providers that sold internet connections to the population soon became the “internet’s slumlords”, extracting high fees from users in America, but neglecting to reinvest them into better infrastructure. As a result, the service provided to consumers deteriorated over time.

But why did competition fail to uphold its promises? According to Tarnoff, Internet access is still treated as a luxury good by its sellers, although it has become as essential for citizens’ lives as housing and healthcare: it is “something people can’t choose not to consume”. If it was not clear before, the pandemic has made it incontestable: the internet is not just a place for socialising and recreation. Although these are part of what the internet can offer, it has become first and foremost a means for people to work, study, and deal with administrative questions, such as scheduling doctors’ appointments or doing taxes. In such a situation, competition only makes sense for higher end customers who can pay a premium for better quality, those who are poor or live in remote areas where infrastructure is pricey are seen as too burdensome to cater for.

The problem described here is all too familiar in many EU member states, where rural areas are missing out on digitalisation. Last year, the European Commission estimated that “only 60 per cent of EU rural households have high-speed internet access, compared to the EU’s total average of 86 per cent.” In Germany, for example, news media reported that people living outside of cities (especially in the country’s formerly socialist, Eastern part) had to continue working from their offices, as the old copper wires did not make working from home feasible. Again, the reason seems to be the privatisation of the telecommunications sector: while serving inner city users with fibre-optic cables was deemed profitable enough by the service providers, extending this service to the rural populations was not.

There is a need to find sufficient funding for publicly or cooperatively owned networks.

In response, publicly or cooperatively owned community networks in some underserved regions of the United States have stepped up to provide high-speed internet access to communities that would otherwise be left behind. In rural North Dakota, for example, a handful of rural companies teamed up, with the help of state subsidies, to set up the foundation for a rural fibre network. In Detroit, a city where 60 per cent of households fall into the low-income category, the Equitable Internet Initiative uses philanthropic donations to provide free or low-cost internet access to those in need. While large companies are trying all they can to sabotage the expansion of community networks, the issue might have gained political momentum in the US, with promises made by 2020 presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. But to move the issue to the mainstream, there is also a need to find sufficient funding for publicly or cooperatively owned networks. Tarnoff sees three possible ways of doing this: the introduction of a differential internet fee structure for rich and poor, a digital services tax on Alphabet and Meta, or a tax on the “broadband cartel” that has been making extreme profits from providing access to its meagre services.

The next step: selling online activities

In the 2000s, the dominant companies of the internet became the so-called platforms that chose to monetise activity instead of access. By calling their services online platforms, companies such as Meta and Alphabet can present themselves as open and neutral spaces that serve to support the online activities of users and help them join forces for a greater good, just as they did during the pro-democratic uprisings worldwide – while in fact they seek to influence and exploit their online actions.

Tarnoff observes that eBay was the first major (and comparatively rather benign) actor that understood that the internet was not just a digital storefront, but a social medium, thus providing users with a community marketplace. Instead of trying to aggressively sell a product, eBay (and its predecessor AuctionWeb) was seemingly just a mediator between buyers and sellers, who performed many activities that facilitated the sales for free. Users were the ones who rated each other’s trustworthiness or gave each other tips on the use or shipping of goods. Like later platforms, its founder Pierre Omidyar profited significantly from the network effects the site created: the more unpaying users it had, the more valuable it became.

With time, to the role of the mediator (or “middleman”) and beneficiary of network effects was added that of a sovereign who managed people’s behaviours with rules and algorithms to avoid fraud and misuse of the platforms, but also to further increase profitability. As such, eBay, one of the very few survivors of the 2000-2001 dot-com crash, became a role model for many of the platforms that followed.

In the late 2000s, and especially in the 2010s and 2020s, the providers of platform services like Google, Facebook, Twitter, or TikTok have created more and more sophisticated online “shopping malls” for their users, where they can mingle in a controlled environment, often not even realising that they are being nudged by algorithms or human “moderators”, while almost all of their activity creates data that can be monetised. As the author puts it, “Data is their organi[s]ing principle and essential ingredient.”

The ills of the shopping mall internet

The massive amounts of data harvested by these online “shopping malls” drove the evolution of a number of new commercial practices on the internet. While often built around intrusions into users’ privacy, data harvesting, as well as shady (and often unrealistic) promises about what their services were capable of, online “shopping malls” have succeeded in attracting money from investors and other big businesses. The most obvious example is the surveillance-based advertising service many platforms offer. Despite increasing evidence of an online attention crisis, Google, Facebook, and a small number of other tech giants capture the majority of advertising revenues worldwide. Another well-known case is Uber, the ride-hailing and delivery company whose services turned workers into algorithmically controlled wage-slaves. The company continues to lose billions of dollars each year, yet investors keep pouring money into it.

Far from the empowerment, democratic access, and horizontal connection promised in the early days, on the platformised, shopping-mall-style internet, most of the inclusion is predatory. This means that although marginalised groups are afforded greater opportunities to participate in the digital environment than they had in the pre-platform world, their exploitation continues under these new conditions, as many of the risks that were previously taken by employers are being shouldered by employees. Those working for Uber, food delivery companies, or other players of the platform economy, for example, lose most of their protections, as they officially count as self-employed subcontractors, while they are constantly being bossed around by some algorithm.

Another predatory aspect of platforms comes to the fore when we ask about the “who” of the involvement in platforms, not just the “how”. Social media amplifies racist content, propaganda and conspiracy theories for the simple reason that they generate more traffic and engagements by users. Of course, too much Nazi content might alienate mainstream users and advertisers, thus platforms find themselves in a constant balancing act. They might remove the account of the former US-president when he ignites a bloody uprising, while ignoring other blatantly racist content.

Can we fix it?

Tarnoff believes that the source of all these problems is the for-profit turn of the internet, described in his book, that shaped the way in which the dominant online actors have behaved over the last two decades. To bring about change, the root causes need to be addressed, so that ordinary people can finally participate meaningfully in the online environment.

Alphabet, Meta, or Amazon will only play along with rules created by regulators as long as they can be reconciled with their profit motives.

As possible solutions, he recommends measures to tame the internet and create real public spaces. Common sense would suggest creating new rules or reducing the market power of the dominant players. Under President Joe Biden, two proponents of strengthened antitrust enforcement have gained prominence in the US: legal scholar Lina Khan was made chair of the Federal Trade Commission, and antitrust lawyer Jonathan Kanter became the assistant attorney general of the Department of Justice. In the EU, the European Commission’s antitrust chief Margrethe Vestager has been trying hard in the last few years to limit the market power of tech giants. While it may not go far enough, the EU’s Digital Services Act has tightened rules for the large online players.  At the same time, Tarnoff believes that antitrust measures, even if they are well designed, will not do the job alone, as they ultimately increase competition on the technology market, thereby making the situation worse. A slight increase in the number of players can ignite a surveillance war, in which platforms will do all they can to increase the amount of data that can be extracted from users, undermining any efforts to moderate content or initiatives that might improve the lives of online communities.

Tarnoff’s choice of response would be deprivatising the internet: building on some of the antitrust measures, he would provide alternatives to current platforms. He envisions an internet populated with a set of decentralised platforms, whose servers would be run independently, but could be interconnected through open protocols. A prime example of this model is the social network Mastodon, or the small-scale online communities Ethan Zuckerman is experimenting with at the University of Massachusetts.

The objective would be for community members to decide themselves about the rules that guide their interactions, enforce community guidelines together, and even make decisions about the use of the data that was created by their activities. In the end, this would be a new approach to the internet, in which users become genuine co-creators.

As appealing as this thought experiment may sound, for now, it is hard to see how this deprivatised internet could become reality. It is beyond the scope of the book to assess how the political momentum may be created for change in the digital environment but it is clear that we are not even close. Politicians in both Europe and the US have called for the breaking up of tech monopolies; Joe Biden openly spoke about tech giants contributing to excess deaths in the pandemic and the European Parliament gave a platform to Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen, yet the position of tech giants is largely unchallenged on both sides of the Atlantic. These companies have excessive lobbying power; and Alphabet, Meta, or Amazon will only play along with rules created by regulators as long as they can be reconciled with their profit motives. Legislative proposals like the Digital Services Act can provide some remedy, but they are not game changers. In the long-run, politicians, policymakers, and philanthropists need to go further, take stock of what is being done on the grassroots level, join forces with tech activists, and acknowledge the importance of investing in the alternative: democratically governed online services that can lead to what Tarnoff calls “an internet where markets matter less”.

Investing in the Green Transition Is the Solution to Today’s Economic Crisis

After years of loose monetary policy, central banks are changing tack. But using the levers of the financial system to fight inflation risks cutting climate investment just as we need it most.

This article is part of a series on the “Inflation Debate”, looking at different understandings about why prices are rising and approaches to what should be done about it. Jonathan Marie, Virginie Monvoisin, and Richard Wouters also contributed.

Within a few years, central banks have shifted from worrying about the lack of inflation – and possible shift into deflation – to confronting the prospect of a stagflationary spiral. Debating whether current inflation reflects supply or demand-side pressures – or both – took centre stage at the annual meetings of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in Washington in October 2022. Diagnosing the sources of the shock, and understanding whether it is transitory or permanent, is critical for guiding central banks’ response function. The stakes for economic growth and development could not be higher: the reality of the climate crisis and the investment opportunities of the green transition are determined by exogenous planetary boundaries, not the fiscal and monetary conditions of the day. Failing to invest now would worsen economic conditions further, risking a continuous vicious cycle of underinvestment, slow growth, and high debt.

On the sources of inflation, the demand-side camp asks central bankers to look in the mirror: years of low interest rates and quantitative easing (QE) have propped up asset prices. This accelerated during the pandemic, when central banks abandoned their first steps towards normalisation to support the economy with fresh QE. Central bank balance sheets have more than quadrupled since 2008, standing at over 30 trillion US dollars in 2022. Pandemic-related QE alone was several times that of the 2009-11 period that followed the financial crisis.

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Whether monetary policy has contributed to the surge in inflation is a somewhat different question to whether central banks are to blame. Central banks point to government inaction as the driver of their own actions – particularly the reluctance of governments to push ahead with structural reforms and take advantage of low borrowing costs to make much-needed investments.

Pushed into a corner and constrained by their price stability mandate, central banks had little choice but to become “the only game in town”, attracting criticism for taking on what should have been the task of elected politicians. They did so uncomfortably. Time and again, they called on governments to support the recovery and drew attention to the limits of what monetary policy could achieve. Some went even further, cautioning against the risks of creating a government bond bubble, or warning that they may come to regret their efforts to create inflation.

Governments’ eventual turn to fiscal expansion during the pandemic contributed further to the surge in inflation. Innovative support packages to save lives and livelihoods came with the risk of generating excess liquidity and causing generalised price increases.

The supply-side implications of the pandemic and related deglobalisation are inflationary in several ways. First, there are the obvious difficulties in global supply chains and container ships, including disruptions in the trade of chips and other critical high-tech inputs. At the same time, the pandemic has reset people’s preferences regarding work, with many people refusing to re-join the post-pandemic labour market. Added to that, years of misguided energy policy and failing to diversify energy supply made key parts of the global economy vulnerable. Europe’s accelerated inflation is a result of inelastic demand for natural gas.

There are limits to how effectively the financial system lever can drive change in the real economy.

If unaddressed, climate change could create further inflationary pressures. If today’s “fossilflation” reflects the legacy cost of fossil fuel dependence, central bankers have also warned of future “climateflation” (as the greater frequency, intensity, and geographic spread of climate-related extreme events disrupts economic activity and agriculture) as well as “greenflation” (a higher risk in a disorderly transition scenario where the supply of critical inputs fails to meet demand). As remarked by former Fed chair Paul Volcker in 2013, “the challenge you face in running a low-interest-rate policy is when to end it. The easy part is easing; the hard part is tightening.” Raise too soon, and you may cause a recession. Raise too late, and you risk further entrenching inflation. The IMF’s advice to central banks was to err on the side of overtightening, despite admitting that the latter may “risk pushing the global economy into an unnecessarily harsh recession”. According to its chief economist Pierre-Olivier Gourinchas, “the hard-won credibility of central banks would be gravely undermined if they misjudge, yet again, the stubborn persistence of inflation” as this “would prove much more detrimental to future macroeconomic stability”.

A policy-induced recession would significantly damage the prospects of moving ahead with the investments to address the climate crisis. While there is a wide set of measures that central banks and financial supervisors and regulators can take to align the financial system with net zero, there are limits to how effectively the financial system lever can drive change in the real economy.

What is needed is a strong investment push to make a breakthrough on both climate and development goals, particularly in emerging markets and developing economies. The next decade will be critical, and the time to determine that course of action is now. Against a backdrop of worsening monetary and financial conditions, the catastrophic consequences of an “unnecessarily hard recession caused by overtightening” should not be underestimated. This is not only an economic priority, but also a security one. As German finance minister Christian Lindner put it, renewables offer “freedom energy” that reduces supply chain vulnerabilities. As the cost of such sources continues to decrease, such a shift would also be expected to be deflationary.

The case for investment remains far superior to that of inaction. Given climate boundaries, a high-quality investment push is the best – indeed the only – route to sustainable growth and development. Without it, we risk an even more limited policy space, making the choices for central banks even trickier.

This article is part of a series on the “Inflation Debate”, looking at different understandings about why prices are rising and approaches to what should be done about it. Jonathan Marie, Virginie Monvoisin, and Richard Wouters also contributed.

The Cost of Not Living in Europe

Despite the rising cost of living, most of us in the European Union lead privileged lives. Outside the EU’s borders, hundreds of millions of people toil for our prosperity and even fight for our democracy. If you take to the streets to protest against price hikes and job losses, be careful not to throw these people under the bus.

This article is part of a series on the “Inflation Debate”, looking at different understandings about why prices are rising and approaches to what should be done about it. Jonathan Marie, Virginie Monvoisin, and Danae Kyriakopoulou also contributed.

Some 200 million people in the Global South work long hours to produce raw materials, goods, and services for EU households. That is one poorly paid worker for every working person in the EU. It is no wonder that we would need three Earths if all of the inhabitants of our planet were to live like the average EU consumer. Whether through droughts and floods caused by climate change or the deforestation driven by the need to grow feed for our oversized livestock, the ecological impacts of this lifestyle are principally suffered by people in the Global South.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the (justified) sanctions against the aggressor spell more trouble for the Global South. Western countries are grabbing fuel, food, and fertiliser from anywhere but Russia to keep their economies afloat. Meanwhile, developing countries are missing out, and poverty and famine are rising.

Though it will be years before Ukraine can join the European Union, today Ukrainians are paying a high price for defending European values.

Living in the European Union could seem close to idyllic were others not paying the price for our way of life. Our ever-closer union, rule of law, (transnational) democracy, and welfare states may be far from perfect, but they are examples globally. For many outside the EU, they are sources of envy. Europeans can be proud of these achievements. They need to be defended against enemies from within and without, if only because the transition to a non-extractivist economy that respects planetary boundaries must be made democratically and cooperatively. The defence of European democracy today lies in the hands of brave Ukrainians. From Lviv to Mariupol, hundreds of thousands of men and women have left their families and normal lives to fight the invader. They are not only defending their nation against Putin’s delusions of empire, they are also protecting the international rule of law against “might is right” and democratic values against autocracy and kleptocracy. Though it will be years before Ukraine can join the European Union, today Ukrainians are paying a high price for defending European values. The EU is supporting Ukraine with arms, money, and sanctions against Russia. It is quickly weaning itself off Russian energy. Energy prices have surged as a result, driving up inflation and forcing some businesses to close. The higher cost of living and potential job losses may well erode public support for helping Ukraine and sanctioning Russia. However, persistence is key to defeating Putin.

It is therefore crucial for governments to help and compensate the vulnerable while demanding sacrifices from better-off citizens. The proclamation of the “end of abundance” by French president Emmanuel Macron was a fair appraisal of the “polycrisis” that we face, from ecology to geopolitics. Yet unless that message is accompanied by strong redistributive policies, it spells doom for the many Europeans who never enjoyed their share of that abundance. When you have to choose between heating and eating, revolt is understandable.

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With governments struggling to respond to growing poverty as energy bills rise and job losses mount, protests are likely to spread (especially as some are unwilling to tax the rich). But however angry we may be with our governments, Europeans still owe their solidarity to the people and places that are toiling and fighting for us.

Take the example of a porcelain factory in central Europe that will have to close if gas prices remain sky-high. Tragically, a hundred people may lose their jobs. You might feel inclined to join the workers’ protest. However, if the European Union were to import enough liquefied natural gas (LNG) to guarantee the survival of all its industries, the lights would go out in poorer countries that depend on imported gas for electricity. The soaring price of LNG due to high European demand has caused power outages in Bangladesh. As harsh as it will sound to the porcelain workers, people can get by without new china more easily than they can without electricity.

Every protest against the cost of living crisis in the EU is followed with great interest in the Kremlin. Putin’s gas weapon is a tool to divide the European Union and weaken its support for Ukraine. What little hope Putin still has of keeping control of occupied Ukrainian territory is likely to be sustained by demonstrations in European cities. Russian television is eager to report on such protests as signs that Europe is begging for Russian gas once more. As you paint your protest banner, ask yourself if the march you want to join will shorten the war or prolong the suffering of the Ukrainian people. And if you do take to the streets to denounce price surges and factory shutdowns, make sure to bring your Ukrainian flag.

Squeezing Wages Is Not the Answer

The idea that wage increases will push up prices is a common inflation fear. But rather than a “wage-price spiral”, it is Europe’s vulnerability to global shocks that is the key factor in inflation and its low wages that exacerbate the cost of living crisis.

This article is part of a series on the “Inflation Debate”, looking at different understandings about why prices are rising and approaches to what should be done about it. Richard Wouters and Danae Kyriakopoulou also contributed.

Inflation is high. The United States published an annual rate of 8 per cent in August 2022, while the Eurozone saw an average of 10 per cent in September. The European average masks significant differences between member states. France’s 6.2 per cent rate is the lowest in the Eurozone, while inflation in the Baltic countries topped 20 per cent. In response, the US Federal Reserve and the European Central Bank are raising interest rates, accepting a rise in unemployment as the cost of pushing inflation down.

High inflation reduces purchasing power when incomes do not rise in step with prices. Understanding the mechanisms at work is essential to calibrating the response; the return of inflation has not eliminated the need for a green transition, public services, and reduced inequalities.

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The inflationary “threat” is a favourite bogeyman of conservative and neoliberal economists. Quick to be moved by inflation, for them it is above all a question of defending savers and wealth and preparing the ground for austerity policies. But this vision fails to identify the actual reasons behind price rises.

It was not wage growth that caused the current level of inflation but rather excessive dependence on globalisation. Pandemic-related disruptions to global supply chains, the energy crisis intensified by the Ukraine war, massive speculation, and rising shipping costs have produced drastic cost increases for many companies. Retail price rises show that these costs are being passed on to consumers, allowing companies to maintain or even increase their profit margins. When profit shares increase, the wage share falls automatically. For the Eurozone, Eurostat estimates that this will drop from 57.6 per cent of GDP in 2020 to 54.9 per cent in 2023, the lowest level since the launch of the euro. To prevent nominal wages from rising in the name of the fight against inflation is to accept and encourage this trend. Declining wage shares are underpinned by a series of factors: restrictive European economic policy, declining trade union coverage, the effects of international competition on labour markets (weaker labour law, higher unemployment, short-term contracts), and the dominance of large corporations in certain sectors.

The fight against inflation goes hand in hand with the green transition.

In such a context, raising interest rates to fight inflation risks inflicting economic damage, reducing economic activity, and increasing unemployment. A terrible recession would be needed to bring inflation down. Admittedly, governments are adopting emergency measures to cushion the rising cost of living. But this support is insufficient for the most vulnerable. Often it benefits everyone without reducing inequalities nor encouraging changes in behaviour (as seen with fuel subsidies). Furthermore, these subsidy policies will not last: calls for budgetary rigour will get the better of exceptional measures.

Alternatives are necessary. Rather than blindly attacking inflation with restrictive monetary policy, we must rethink the hierarchy of economic policy objectives. The current cost of living crisis, which follows on the heels of the health crisis that underlined the importance of frontline workers, points to the need to rebalance the wage structure. For inflation cannot be understood without analysing the balance of power between workers and employers. When the scales are tipped against workers, wages receive less of the valued added relative to the return on capital. This is precisely what has happened in Europe since the 1980s.

The harmful effects of inflation on real wages can thus be counteracted through indexation – a mechanism used by many European countries in the past. Indexation will be all the more essential if inflation persists, especially considering that the wage share has been shrinking for years. Large companies, especially in the transport and energy sectors, have been well-positioned to benefit from current inflation. As such, price controls should be considered where and for as long as necessary and excess profits such be heavily taxed. Going forward, European economies need to be made less vulnerable to global shocks, the real drivers of inflation. This goal calls for reduced dependence on imports – in particular energy – and greater investment in transport, renovation, and agriculture, as well as supportive trade policies. The fight against inflation goes hand in hand with the green transition. Squeezing wages is not the answer.

This article is part of a series on the “Inflation Debate”, looking at different understandings about why prices are rising and approaches to what should be done about it. Richard Wouters and Danae Kyriakopoulou also contributed.

Solidarity in an Age of Shocks

Buffeted by an onslaught of shocks, living standards across Europe are under pressure. More than just short-term turbulence, the cost of living crisis signals that Europe’s social, geopolitical, and ecological security rests on rebalancing a failing socio-economic model.

With the world still reeling from the pandemic, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 unleashed a new level of suffering and horror. Not only is its human cost incalculable, with the people of Ukraine the first victims, the war has deepened the global energy and food crises, though both precede the invasion. The disasters keep on coming and even the weather has taken on a new, menacing role. The droughts and floods in Europe and many world regions are reminders of the dangers of a changing climate. Combined with an economic system that allows an outsized role for financial speculation, the collision of these events has forced the cost of living upwards across Europe and the world. The effects have proved cumulative, tipping economies into generalised inflation that risks becoming recession.

A break with 30-year trends, the return of inflation to European economies has plunged many people into poverty and put pressure on household budgets for much of the middle class. Driven in particular by energy and therefore also transport prices, the distributional effects of the rising cost of living reignite the conflicts most visibly expressed by the gilets jaunes movement in recent years. Will the poorest have to pay the price for Europe’s energy transition? These stresses are all the more acute considering that life has become increasingly insecure in recent years, with soaring rents in major cities and the hardships that many people, especially the young, experienced throughout the pandemic.

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More than a simple monetary phenomenon, price rises contribute to an uncertainty that pervades people’s outlook on the future. Sri Lanka was the canary in the coal mine. In July, protestors driven to revolt by unaffordable fuel prices stormed the presidential palace. A photo of a face-masked protestor, waving a loaf of bread and standing before flames lit outside a government building, encapsulated the mood. European countries may be rich enough to shield much of their societies from the full extent of these shocks – at a cost for the rest of world – but even with this support many people cannot meet their basic needs. In this context, a sense of impoverishment can prove politically toxic. In September 2022, far-right parties were the main winners of the Italian and Swedish elections, tapping into widespread dissatisfaction with promises of hard borders, energy security, and a firm hand.

Explaining the economic situation comes with political stakes. A focus on inflation leads you down the road that central banks are already taking: raising interest rates and thereby risking the jobs of some for the purchasing power of the majority. On the other hand, a framing based on the “cost of living” politicises inflation, pointing to how rising prices undermine access to essentials such as food, housing, transport, and energy. Nevertheless, talking about the cost of living still implies that access to these essential rights should be a matter of budget balancing for households.

Who do people turn to in such times? The classic conservative answer is to tighten our belts until the economic situation improves. Whereas for the traditional Left, fighting falling living standards is a simple matter of pay packets and redistribution. On the extremes, far-right and populist forces are always present to offer easy answers to whoever will listen (helping Ukraine is too expensive; blame the migrants).

Green politics has always sought to be radical – in the literal sense – understanding and tackling problems at their roots. This summer, French president Emmanuel Macron proclaimed the “end of abundance”, seeing our confluence of crises as signs of coming scarcity. For some ecologists, his analysis rang true. Indeed, the current economic turmoil cannot be explained without factoring in resource constraints, unpredictable climatic conditions, and disrupted global flows. In short, planetary boundaries. But what the diagnosis fails to offer is the emancipatory vision that has always been at the heart of green politics. For Greens, achieving social justice and ecological sustainability relies on defining new approaches to prosperity.

The long-awaited social core of the Green New Deal is more urgent than ever.

Amid a cost of living crisis, the Greens should not bring a message of austerity and hard times ahead but stand up for social protection and redistribution, as well as asserting the possibility of providing for our needs differently. For public services, think of the rail fares slashed in many countries. For households and businesses, subsidies provided to renovate and save energy just when people need it most. At the level of communities, those renewable energy cooperatives supplying cheap electricity in decentralised and democratic ways. From precarious individuals depending on vulnerable systems over which they have no control, the Greens can reclaim rights and protect living standards by building shared institutions based on resilience and abundance.

Throughout history, social rights have often been extended in times of war. Europe’s firm solidarity with Ukraine is now driving the continent’s efforts to break free from fossil fuels. This transformation cannot succeed without deepened solidarity within and between European societies. More than temporary relief, they need a new direction. After 2008, the call for a Green New Deal was not immediately taken up. But it went on to inspire an investment-led approach that continues to shape the green transition in Europe and the United States. The long-awaited social core of the Green New Deal is more urgent than ever. In driving this point home, the Greens can take up that leadership role once more. Investment in the common good and the green transition go hand in hand. Europe’s future hinges on radical solutions to uncertain times.

With the social question burning, parties across Europe are striving to respond to the urgent needs of citizens. The task brings what are at once challenges and opportunities for Green parties. Whether in power or opposition and across levels of government, the first is the window to force through change with speed and urgency. The same logic may require compromise on red lines, as the extension of nuclear power plants in some countries speaks to. But the current moment is a chance to make leaps towards establishing new solidarity mechanisms and social rights while accelerating public investment in the green transition. It is a matter of finding the openings and seizing the moment. Relationships with other forces and allies are a second challenge. Trade unions and climate activists have pivoted to new forms of militancy. Green parties will have to navigate and channel the demands of these constituencies to achieve their own objectives, thus entering a more conflictual terrain. A third challenge is to be the political force that connects the levels of European politics and builds a real sense of European solidarity between societies. The social agenda at the European level has gained renewed momentum but its success rests on national support. The capacity of local, national, and European authorities to respond to social challenges also depends on effective cooperation across borders. Coordination is the only way to manage the tensions and imbalances between European member states. If the Greens do not do it, then who will?

Is Climate Diplomacy Dead?

COP27 will take place in a bleak geopolitical context. Yet there are reasons for cautious optimism. Broad mobilisations of civil society offer glimmers of hope, building networks and alliances across borders, and exerting a growing power that is becoming harder to ignore. Rather than proclaiming the failure of climate diplomacy, we should seek to redefine it, argues Lucile Schmid. A new climate agenda must extend to all areas of politics, society, and the economy.

As COP26 drew to a close on 13 November 2021, its president, British minister Alok Sharma, fought back tears. The pact’s ambition had just been significantly watered down. At India’s insistence, the text now spoke of a commitment to “phase down” rather than “phase out” coal. The Indian government had prevailed in Glasgow with the support of its Chinese rival, while the divergences between countries of the Global North and Global South remained unreconciled. Whether on priorities – mitigation, adaptation, loss, and damage – or financial commitments, the gap had widened. Despite a 4 per cent increase since 2019 – including an extra 40 per cent for adaptation – in 2020 there was still a 17-billion-dollar shortfall in the Green Climate Fund for developing countries. The delay in putting this solidarity mechanism in place is serious in light of the growing scale of loss and damage[1].

COP26 thus cruelly laid bare the reluctance of Western powers to honour their obligations towards the Global South. While Joe Biden’s United States has re-engaged with these obligations, this has primarily been motivated by the opportunities that climate ambition offers for the American economy and jobs. The relatively low profile kept by the European Union highlighted the challenges of turning the Green Deal into a tool for external influence; it disappointed developing countries who expected more support with financing. And by offering a high-quality nationally determined contribution, China almost made up for the absence of Xi Jinping.

Geopolitical complications

Since then, a series of events have illustrated both the need for a new model and the impossibility of achieving it through state policies. The war in Ukraine has exposed EU countries’ dependence on Russian gas in particular, and fossil fuels in general, as well as developing countries’ vulnerability to famine when global food markets are disrupted. Many of these nations have sought to avoid taking sides in this conflict. More than ideological non-alignment, this caution betrays their distrust of the West. At the same time, the United States and China, the two main greenhouse gas emitters, have been openly hostile to one another since the visit of House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan this summer (In response, China announced the suspension of cooperation between the two countries on climate.)

But while a hot war and a new cold war are being fought, climate catastrophes continue. In Pakistan, record-breaking monsoon rains have turned the lives of 33 million people upside down and left one third of the country under water. This disaster is a tipping point. For a regional power with 225 million inhabitants and almost 800,000 km2 of territory to be plunged into catastrophe starkly resonates with the appeals made at COP after COP by small island states (Tuvalu, Kiribati, the Maldives and others). As for biodiversity, it has continued to collapse. WWF’s latest Living Planet report, published in October 2022, highlights the increasingly strong links between climate change and species extinction.

How can we imagine COP27 being even a partial success like Glasgow?

In this new global landscape, the EU’s commitments to phase out fossil fuels and to end international public finance of this industry, which were confirmed at COP26, have been eclipsed by the urgent search for new or strengthened fossil-fuel partnerships (with the likes of the United States, Israel, Algeria, and Egypt) to wean itself off Russian gas. Since the end of 2021, the majority of American LNG exports have been destined for Europe rather than the Asia-Pacific region. And in France, fallout from the controversy surrounding Total’s partnerships with Russia has continued. When will there be a genuine change of model?

“Getting through the winter” seems to have become the goal that trumps all else in Europe, as Vladimir Putin resorts to nuclear blackmail and governments fear the continent-wide spread of movements inspired by France’s gilets jaunes. How then can we imagine COP27, which will take place at Sharm-el-Sheikh in Egypt in November 2022, being even a partial success like Glasgow?

A foregone conclusion?

The first African country to host a COP meeting for six years, Egypt — which has also been heavily criticised for its repressive policies on human rights — wants to focus on climate finance, particularly loss and damage. Countries from the Global South are pushing for a new financing facility to be launched at COP27. The summit’s other main objective is to raise climate ambition to stay on course in limiting global temperature rises to 1.5 degrees. “No backtracking on commitments and promises will be permitted,” declared the Egyptian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sameh Shoukry. But the script appears to have already been written: a dialogue of the deaf between a North committed to increasing defence spending and fearful of shortages and social unrest, and a South just trying to survive. And, in the middle, giants China and India, opportunist referees acting in their own self-interest. Will climate diplomacy be stillborn as war and geopolitical tensions encourage a return to the traditional view of power?

When they are democratic, governments cannot remain unmoved by society’s determination.

Let us not write it off just yet. That would be to ignore what it is built on. This is by no means to absolve countries of all blame. But governments are not the only players. And when they are democratic, governments cannot remain unmoved by society’s determination. Since the COPs began, they have evolved, gradually moving beyond the realm of “ordinary” international negotiations. The expression “climate diplomacy” emerged from this evolution. While conferences continue to separate spaces for official discussion from those for side events led by civil society organisations, meetings and conversations between these two sides of COP are frequent during the two weeks it is in session. Indeed, the success of a COP is judged in part on the expertise brought by NGOs, scientists, and activists, not just on the official communication. These conferences are an opportunity to consolidate, regain momentum, dive deeper, and exert pressure for a community that keeps growing. The climate agenda cannot be reduced to COPs and preparations for them.

The power of social movements

Ever since the foundations were laid at COP21 in Paris-Le Bourget, a hitherto unseen landscape has slowly taken shape before our eyes. With the creation of fora for discussions on specific industries or geographic areas (regional COPs), the success of climate lawsuits and alternative economic models (the circular economy, degrowth), activism that is as strong as ever, and environmental disasters forcing developed countries to adapt too, a green wave has been sweeping across the world. In the midst of environmental crises, an international society and a new culture are emerging in which the players are forging new ways of collaborating, negotiating, and decision-making.

This does not mean that societies are already united and that this green society has no enemies:[2] the NGO Global Witness revealed that hundreds of fossil fuel lobbyists were present in Glasgow for COP26, well aware of the threat hanging over their livelihoods. Neither does it mean that tensions over social and territorial justice are palpable everywhere. Or that the citizens of the Global North and South are experiencing the climate emergency to the same extent. Nevertheless, climate diplomacy no longer consists solely of nationally determined contributions and official climate negotiations. Today, it is non-state actors who are pushing for greater ambition. Whether it is through the pressure they exert, the commitments they make, or the role they play in democratising complex issues, as the scientific community and increasing numbers of media outlets are doing (notably with the Charter for green journalism published in France on 14 September 2022). Talking about climate diplomacy means envisaging the prospect of a green society.

But there are also non-state actors working against the climate, chief among them the fossil fuel industry, while the global energy crisis has allowed some companies to make record profits. In the energy sector, there is a real risk of a rolling-back of environmental obligations and decarbonisation objectives. The rise of renewable energies is weakened. With restrictions on access to Russian gas, for example, we are witnessing a European campaign in favour of the exploitation of shale gas in the name of innovation and national independence.

Joining the dots between the climate and the economy

The growing success of calls for energy saving and degrowth, and the concern this is causing among people living in poverty and economic insecurity, as well as those who profit from this, underline the urgent need for a new climate agenda on transforming the economic model. This is undoubtedly what climate diplomacy lacks most today: a forum for openly discussing this new green economy, of which there are growing signs locally but which remains far too unambitious when it comes to global implementation. The three existing COPs cover the climate, biodiversity, and desertification. When will an economic COP be created that is not just a pale imitation of the World Economic Forum, but an alternative G20 that brings together countries from the Global North and South? The success of world social forums has shown the way. But the urgency of today’s situation requires first and foremost that economic actors, primarily businesses, to switch from one model to another. An economic COP should not hesitate to bring together yesterday’s adversaries, so long as their commitments to building a shared future converge. 

The urgency of today’s situation requires economic actors, primarily businesses, to switch from one model to another.

Today, the proliferation of proposals in the energy field is primarily in the name of the short term and relegates ecological concerns as secondary. Such a forum would provide a framework for articulating coherence between ecology and economy and pointing out the inconsistencies of the flood of proposals being churned out every day.

Clearly, climate diplomacy frames the link with democracy differently from diplomacy in its traditional sense, where diplomats, plying their trade in secrecy, report to their governments and express official positions. Are we not all climate diplomats in our own way?

What will happen in Sharm-el-Sheikh in a world where wars, geopolitical tensions, and climate catastrophes are intertwined? At these conferences that drag on for two weeks, sudden bursts of activity, surprises, and plot twists are inevitable. Where will they lead? Can we expect raised ambitions for nationally determined contributions when the energy crisis has put fossil fuel producers centre stage again, including Saudi Arabia, which sought to derail the Paris Agreement? We should prepare for further disappointment on this front. But above all, we must focus on assessing the Global North’s ability to finally respond to the humanitarian emergency caused by the environmental crises in the South. The EU will have a major role to play here. As in Glasgow, it is by opening up this conference as widely as possible to the outside world and by giving voice to the concerns, activism, and initiatives of non-state actors, that genuine international solidarity can emerge.

[1] According to a report from the Climate Vulnerable Forum published in Bonn in June 2022, climate change has caused a 20 per cent loss in growth for the most exposed countries in Africa, the Asia-Pacific region, Latin America, and the Caribbean since 2000, a loss valued at 525 billion dollars. And the most exposed 10 per cent among them have seen their growth cut by 50 per cent.

[2] A reference to Serge Audier’s book La société écologique et ses ennemis, La Découverte (2017)

Ukraine’s Environment Faces a Long Road to Recovery

The invasion of Ukraine is causing serious environmental degradation which will have profound long-term effects on the country’s natural resources, ecosystems, and biodiversity. These effects will not be restricted to Ukraine, as the pollution and other damaging impacts are likely to spread well beyond national borders. Yevheniia Zasiadko is among those working to document and monitor the effects of the war on the environment, even as the fighting continues. She explains why this process is so vital, how reconstruction efforts could provide opportunities for greater sustainability, and why the only solution is decisive action in solidarity with Ukraine to bring the war to an end.

Green European Journal: What was the role of your organisation prior to the Russian invasion, and how did it change following the outbreak of war?

Yevheniia Zasiadko: Before the Russian invasion, Ecoaction mainly worked on climate policy advocacy in the fields of energy policy, the transition away from nuclear power, renewable energies, industrial pollution, and agriculture. The team I lead was working on mitigation and adaptation policies, for instance in the transport sector.

When the conflict began, the Ukrainian government asked for our assistance in monitoring the environmental impacts of the war. We now work in cooperation with the Ukrainian regional authorities. Their presence on the ground gives them direct access to information from the field, while we monitor external data in collaboration with Dutch NGO PAX, which has access to satellite images. By combining these different resources, we can maintain an overview of the situation across the country.

The environmental damage caused by the war will affect us all in the long term.

Information gathering remains very difficult, however. Those documenting environmental damage – and anyone working as a journalist or an environmental activist in general – can be easily arrested by the Russian forces and imprisoned, tortured, or deported. During the occupation of Kherson, for example, a number of activists were arrested and sent to Russia. And this isn’t just limited to Kherson – there have been reports of similar occurrences in many of the regions of Ukraine occupied by Russian forces.

How do you measure and quantify the environmental impact of the war through your work and what have been some of your key findings?

We identified 377 cases of conflict-related environmental damage between February and July this year. We continue to receive reports of new cases almost every day – mainly from the east of Ukraine. The Luhansk and Donetsk regions are most heavily affected. As one of the first Russian targets at the start of the war, Kyiv was also hard hit environmentally.

The fact that certain Ukrainian regions – mainly in the east of the country and around Kyiv – are heavily industrialised has shaped the pollution “profile” of the conflict. During the Soviet era, Ukraine had the highest number of industrial facilities in the USSR. After independence in the 1990s, many of these industries closed, but a significant number remained in business. We have documented dozens of Russian strikes on industrial installations that led to major pollution incidents. In April, for example, a Russian attack on a chemical depot in Rubizhne, near Luhansk, led to a large-scale leak of toxic nitric acid. Local inhabitants were urged not to leave bomb shelters and to close windows and doors.

It will take at least 50 years for our environment to recover from the conflict.

Ukraine’s coal mines – both operational and disused – have also suffered under the conflict, presenting a particular threat to rivers and groundwater. According to our records, almost 40 mines in the Donbas region have been flooded as a result of Russian military operations. Russian strikes have also hit electricity lines, as well as the pipelines that extract groundwater from these mining facilities. The flooding caused by these attacks has spread high levels of toxic substances throughout the region – and further afield. A major challenge of water pollution is that its consequences can be felt far away from the initial impact site. Water knows no borders, so pollution in eastern Ukraine can easily spread to Russia. Ordinary Russians will, unwittingly, be using water polluted with heavy metals or chemicals, and the Russian authorities seem not to care. So it’s important to talk about and raise awareness of this issue.

We have a good understanding of the immediate environmental impact of the conflict in Ukraine. But what about the medium- to long-term consequences? And how might that affect Ukraine’s future?

The environmental damage caused by the war will affect us all in the long term. Soil and water pollution won’t disappear overnight; a sizeable portion of Ukraine’s territory will remain seriously affected for many years to come. People can’t live decently without access to clean drinking water. This is why Ukrainian civil society is working to ensure that our government understands the importance of monitoring. When we begin rebuilding Ukraine, we will need to do so in a more sustainable manner to avoid causing further environmental damage. But in the long term, the effects of the conflict on our country’s environment will nevertheless continue to be felt.

Clearly, diverse types of pollution should not be lumped together; they have different characteristics and require different approaches. While measures to tackle air pollution – if well implemented – can take effect quickly, tackling water and soil pollution is more complicated. History demonstrates that the effects of particularly intense conflicts continue to be felt for decades – if not centuries – after the hostilities have ended. In France, for example, the consequences of the First World War, with its intensive use of artillery in trench warfare, endure to this day in terms of soil quality. Some areas are still inaccessible a century after the conflict. In Ukraine, around 20 per cent of the country’s territory has now been affected by the current war, and around a fifth of our important natural areas – including forests and nature reserves – have suffered conflict-related environmental degradation. This will have a lasting effect on our country’s ecosystems and biodiversity.

Before the war, Ukraine’s goal was to strengthen the protection of its natural areas. But now a significant proportion of them – and their flora and fauna – have been lost as a result of the conflict. Environmental regeneration won’t happen overnight. While infrastructure can be rebuilt relatively quickly, in my opinion it will take at least 50 years for our environment to recover from the conflict. Some experts state that forested areas can be restored over a 12-year period, but I find that hard to believe. This figure represents the replanting of trees, but not the restoration of biodiversity. For wildlife to return to natural areas, we need to think in terms of decades. We’re therefore clearly talking about policies that will stretch into the long term.

What do you expect from the European Union? What should be done?

First of all, the conflict must be brought to an end. As long as the war continues and the fighting intensifies, its consequences will only increase in severity. We receive new reports of environmental devastation every day. Attacks on industrial facilities are of particular concern. Official figures released by the Ukrainian authorities showed that, by July, Russia had already struck more than 200 industrial sites. This number is growing by the day.

We need the EU’s financial and economic help to end the conflict. This must be a matter of priority. In order to finance its attack on Ukraine, Russia is using its enormous (and growing) fossil fuel export incomes – and Europe is its prime customer. Put succinctly, Europe is bankrolling the war. The EU has, of course, introduced and implemented a range of sanctions against Russia. But from a Ukrainian point of view, Europe only seems to react when Russia commits major violations on Ukrainian territory. We have also noticed that while the EU is quick to make announcements, it is slow to take concrete action. Look at the embargo on Russian oil: we’ve now been waiting four months. And for the sixth package of sanctions to be brought in, we had to wait almost two months.

Russia can simply decide to turn off the tap to Europe whenever the mood takes it.

During a recent trip to Brussels, I had the impression that, in some ways, Europe still believes that Russia will continue to supply EU countries with gas in spite of the war. But in reality, you are all at the mercy of Moscow. Russia can simply decide to turn off the tap to Europe whenever the mood takes it.

The EU and Ukraine must stand united in the face of this conflict that affects us all. Russia must be prevented from accessing the resources it needs for its military, economic, and propaganda operations – all of which are helping prolong the war.

This interview is published in cooperation with Etopia.

A Shapeshifting Movement

What began as a civic initiative against a massive redevelopment project in Belgrade evolved into a social movement and is now in the process of becoming a fully-fledged political entity. This trajectory mirrors that of the environmental struggles in neighbouring Croatia that developed into a significant political contender at both the local and national level. Jelena Vasiljević explains how this transformation has taken place, and how “movement parties” are working to foster closer connections both between countries in the western Balkans, as well as among the communities within them.

Jelena Vasiljević will be on our first panel discussion commemorating 10 years of publishing and political change in Europe. Register here to join.

Green European Journal: To what extent were there environmental movements in the late years of Yugoslavia? In countries such as Poland and elsewhere in eastern Europe, the 1980s saw widespread environmental protests.

Jelena Vasiljević: We can’t really. The last years of Yugoslavia were marked by political and economic crises and rising national tensions. One of the major crises of the 1980s was the miners’ strikes. The strike wave was about pay, job losses, and socioeconomic issues and also a major mining disaster in the Serbian city of Aleksinac, so these protests were not about how mines were destroying nature.

However, just as today, citizens were concerned about air pollution in the 1980s. For instance, Sarajevo, due to its geographic position, has always been a polluted city. Air pollution was a subject of public debate, but it was never politicised in such a way as to mobilise citizens around a larger political cause.

In the past decade, since around 2014, a series of environmental struggles have emerged in Serbia. Is this new for the region?

It is a recent thing, also for the other western Balkan countries that are not yet in the EU. Probably the first and most important protest in the region was in Bosnia. All the western Balkan countries have been targeted for the development of small hydroelectric plants, so we have seen different movements organising to protect the rivers in the last few years. If we look back to the early 2000s, however, there were no environmental movements to speak of.

In 2014-15, a citizen’s movement emerged to oppose a major redevelopment project in Belgrade: Ne davimo Beograd (Don’t Let Belgrade Drown). Can you tell me about the movement? What are its objectives?

The movement emerged as a single-issue citizens’ initiative against this urban regeneration project for the Belgrade Waterfront. The plans involved over a million square metres of new buildings, over a large area of the city. The proposals violated all the regulations, the general city development plans, and the law. As a result, the government resorted to a “special law” to make it happen. There was also a notorious incident in the Savamala district in 2016: masked men entered the site with bulldozers and illegally demolished structures to make room for the redevelopment, but nobody was ever prosecuted. Ne davimo Beograd was a group of enthusiasts, people who were already active in raising public awareness about the importance of unused and ignored public space in Belgrade. Some of them were architects; others were part of other citizens’ initiatives dealing with urban culture and infrastructure. They were mostly young people active in the field of culture.

Over time, the movement grew and its agenda expanded to address other damaging projects. In 2018, the movement decided to participate in the city elections. It was our entrance into the political arena. We didn’t pass the threshold but, from that point, we transformed into a proper political movement, organised and with internal decision-making bodies. This year, Ne davimo Beograd’s members decided to begin the process of becoming a formal political party. So, since 2014, there has been a process of transformation of this civic initiative organised by a group of enthusiasts to become a social movement, now becoming a political party also targeting national issues beyond Belgrade. In political science literature, we’d be called a “movement party”. 

This year in April, Ne davimo Beograd participated in national and local elections. They passed the threshold and are now in the national and city parliament. So we are a true political force and we’re profiling ourselves as a green-left organisation, addressing environmental issues of course but also, just as importantly, socioeconomic issues, solidarity, women’s rights, and LGBTQ rights.

This year, Ne davimo Beograd’s members decided to begin the process of becoming a formal political party.

It seems to be a parallel path to Zagreb’s urban movement in Croatia that went on to form Možemo! 

What happened globally with the city movements inspired us both. Zagreb was the first city in this region to articulate its Right to the City movement and Belgrade was next. Now both cities have produced social movements that have transformed into political actors.

It’s not an accident because ties exist and relations exist. Over the past 10 years, a generation of activists has been organising together. People from Zagreb would come to Belgrade and people from Belgrade would go to Zagreb. They would inspire each other and are very well informed about what is going on in both movements. What happened in Zagreb was an inspiration for Ne davimo Beograd but the contexts are different. Similar but different.

How has this movement’s presence influenced the Serbian political scene? Has the ground of political debate shifted?

Definitely. First of all, there is this idea that it’s a bottom-up movement. When Ne davimo Beograd first participated in the city election, it was a citizens’ initiative without a strong formal structure. A non-hierarchical movement without a clear leader was a novelty for the Serbian political scene.

The topics that were raised – public space, the importance of managing and cultivating public spaces, citizen participation – were also important. The emphasis was on how citizens should be asked about things and introducing more participatory mechanisms in political decision-making processes. New green issues such air pollution and then water were politicised. Air pollution remains an important environmental problem in Belgrade, especially during winter. Ne davimo Beograd was the first to bring these topics to the fore. It anticipated a green-left coalition that didn’t exist before and that is now part of the national political scene. We were pioneers.

In 2020 and 2021, there were widespread environmental protests right across Serbia. Some against a massive lithium mining project planned by Australian mining conglomerate Rio Tinto in western Serbia and others against small-scale hydropower plants. Could you say more about their origins and spread?

The first important environmental protests outside of Belgrade were related to small hydropower plants such as those in the Stara Planina mountains in southeastern Serbia. Like all over the region, many small hydropower plants were planned in these mountains, and activists had heard about protests in Bosnia, Macedonia, and Montenegro. These protests in Stara Planina were largely grassroots and mobilised local villagers, often older people. Cooperation soon emerged between mostly Belgrade-based activists coming in to support the locals.

In August 2020, there was a big moment when activists and villagers came together in the village of Rakita to destroy a pipe that was already laid for a small hydropower plant. The peculiarity of the dispute was that the investor had already been ordered to stop the works by the Ministry of Environmental Protection and the Institute for Nature Conservation of Serbia, due to the irregular and damaging way the pipes had been placed in the very bottom of the riverbed. However, not only did the investor ignore the decision, but it was later granted a final use permit for electric energy production. It was a sign that the justice system in Serbia is malfunctioning and that some actors are above the law. Destroying the pipe was their small victory and the works stopped. The Stara Planina mountains became a symbol of resistance against small hydropower plants. Many activists went, and continue to go, there to learn about the movement and similar mobilisations were also seen in other cities.

Then, there was the wave of protests against Rio Tinto. This issue echoed on the national scale and became everyone’s central concern. The demonstrations in December 2021 were truly massive and mobilised thousands of people. The main highway in Belgrade was blocked and there were also protests in other towns, such as Loznica near where Rio Tinto wanted to mine.  

The protests around the small hydropower plants and then Rio Tinto mobilised many people, both in the streets but also in their voting intentions.

What were the effects of this environmental protest wave on the April 2022 elections?

The effects of these protests would have been much greater had the invasion on Ukraine not happened. The war changed everything. The protests against Rio Tinto were taking place during the pre-election period and you could see that the regime was losing ground. They were making concessions, which they normally never do, and put a moratorium on the mining project.

But then the Russian invasion happened. The regime cunningly understood that the war was now the only issue that mattered and overnight transformed its political message. Their slogan was “Peace, stability, Vučić”. The conversation turned to stability and whether we would have enough electricity and gas. The environmental movement suffered. The same happened elsewhere, as we see with Germany returning to coal. In Serbia, the question became whether we would have heating in the winter.

The protests around the small hydropower plants and then Rio Tinto mobilised many people, both in the streets but also in their voting intentions. These issues became political. But despite that success, the international context meant that the mobilisations didn’t produce the effects their organisers hoped for.

Could the different strands of environmental movements in Serbia still form the basis for an opposition that could threaten the regime?

It’s a complex issue. The war in Ukraine was one thing, but the deeper issue is that I don’t think that environmental struggles can win the game. They are not issues that will disturb the balance of hegemonic discourses and powers. For that, we need wider political organisations and ideas. We lack a coherent, articulated, and mutually cooperative opposition aligned with green ideas.

Serbia is a very polarised country so for some of the protestors, the movement needed to be perceived to be apolitical. “It’s not about politics, it’s about preserving the land, the water.” They argued that, since politics has become a dirty word, as politicians are corrupt, it’s better to say that this is not about politics but “only” about water, land and, future generations, as if these issues are not political as well. Other political actors mobilising around environmental concerns wrapped them in a right-wing logic: “It’s our land, our water.” These issues can easily be contaminated by conservative ideology and at some point, it happened. For some people who took part in the protests, it was very connected to an idea of national identity.

So, we have not come to a place where we can say that environmental issues are political issues and a green agenda also means that ideologically we stand for certain values. This is what Ne davimo Beograd is trying to do. It’s trying to make environmental politics a real politics and trying to connect it with other values. Because we cannot disassociate environmental issues from human rights, minority rights, protection of nature, and environmental rights. They are part of the same package. 

To what extent was the scale of the protests linked to the nature of the issues themselves, be it hydropower or the planned lithium mine? Climate change isn’t abstract when it’s 43 degrees Celsius outside but, still, it is more abstract than pollution in the water that you use to grow crops.

What happened in Stara Planina, and in other protests against small hydropower plants, was very concrete for the local villagers. They understood perfectly that they would lose their river and what that would mean for them. And they were so powerful because it was mostly the local population protesting. 

There was an interesting case in Kosovo, in the southern Štrpce region, where small hydropower plants were also planned. It’s an enclave of mostly Serbian-dominated villages in a region where there are also many Albanian villages. The local population depends on these rivers for drinking water and irrigation. For the past three or four years, Albanians and Serbs have been protesting together. Many have been arrested and spent time in prison together too. They knew that it was a very tangible issue and it connected them, so much so that they stay up on night watches against the bulldozers together. 

Same with Rio Tinto, people understood that it was going to be devastating. The problem is also that many villagers in these places started selling their houses to Rio Tinto because these are poor villages. It’s very difficult to have this kind of struggle in a poor society where problems are complex. In poor societies, if you think of environmental problems in abstract terms, they cannot mobilise people because people are just trying to live and make some money. But when they see how problems will affect them concretely, then they will organise and mobilise.

Moving from communication across countries to using that cooperation to impact local and national governments is a big step.

Did the attention around these plans also force conversations about Serbian democracy and the rule of law? Or did it remain a purely environmental issue?

Some layers of the citizenry clearly understand that the issues of corruption, a malfunctioning judiciary, state capture, and environmental issues are all connected. The issue with small hydropower plants was that Serbia was encouraging investments in clean energy with lower taxes. Hydropower produces clean energy but is devastating to ecosystems. It turned out that the main investors were connected to people in positions of power. It is a case of the green transition being used to make money and institute corruption. 

It was the same with the Belgrade Waterfront project. The incident that I mentioned at Savamala proved the link between mafia and power. It proved that there is no legal system because it turned out that the local police were ordered to transfer all calls from citizens to communal police that night. It was orchestrated. Activists were trying to say it’s not just that we are against some urban regeneration project but that this project stands for all the malign diseases and networks of corruption that this country suffers from.

But I don’t know if it’s like that for everyone. Some people just don’t want to see their river being damaged and they want a say. We can call this idea “citizens’ participation” but they are protesting against exclusion and articulating the struggle in their own words.

You mentioned environmental movements in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Croatia. Some are grassroots, others are more political. Do you think that there can be a more sustained connection between ecology and the movement for stronger and healthier democracy in Balkan countries?

I certainly hope so. These protests are against similar problems. Some activists communicate with each other and make connections and some established civil society organisations are devising projects to connect them. For instance, the European Fund for the Balkans was working on a joint platform for environmental activists in all western Balkan countries. So there are connections and visits between Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, and Macedonia too.

Everybody’s talking about a sustainable connection, something lasting and capable of producing effects, but I don’t see it happening. Moving from communication across countries to using that cooperation to impact local and national governments is a big step, because all these countries are similar but still different.

But hopefully they will produce some societal effects. Learning from each other, finding out how to mobilise people, and so on. Maybe this is how the effect will happen, not on a political level but on a societal level. It is important to understand the perspectives of others. It can help you and show you some shortcuts. That’s why these connections are so valuable.

La guerra inquina: il costo ambientale dell’invasione dell’Ucraina 

La guerra in Ucraina non rappresenta una tragedia solo per il suo costo in vite umane, ma anche per il suo impatto sull’ambiente. Nella regione, pesantemente industrializzata e già inquinata, scontri e bombardamenti potrebbero avere conseguenze drammatiche per la preservazione del suolo, dell’acqua e della salute pubblica.

La guerra in Ucraina infuria su uno dei territori più pesantemente industrializzati e inquinati al mondo. Il lascito dell’industria pesante sovietica era già un disastro per la salute pubblica, ma l’invasione russa rischia di danneggiare ulteriormente i sistemi naturali dai quali le persone che vivono in queste regioni dipendono. L’impatto ecologico del conflitto è un promemoria del fatto che, anche quando il conflitto cesserà, questa violenza avrà delle conseguenza per le generazioni future. ;

La guerra inquina, specialmente quando danneggia industrie a rischio. Tra il 2014 e il 2022, il conflitto nel Donbass, nell’Ucraina orientale, una regione pesantemente industrializzata, ha rappresentato dei rischi significativi per l’ambiente e la salute delle persone che vivono nella regione. L’invasione dell’Ucraina da parte della Russia, con il conseguente controllo delle centrali nucleari, gli attacchi alle città, alle centrali di energia termica e alle imprese ad a rischio, accresce drammaticamente la possibilità di una catastrofe per l’ambiente e la salute pubblica. La verità soffre durante la guerra, con l’impossibilità di accedere al monitoraggio ambientale sul campo, con la conseguente disinformazione: tutti questi fattori affievoliscono la capacità di comprendere e limitare il danno ambientale.

Il disastro ambientale in Ucraina

Oltre alle numerose vittime civili e un dislocamento della popolazione senza precedenti in Europa dopo la Seconda Guerra mondiale, la guerra della Russia contro l’Ucraina avrà dure conseguenze per l’ambiente e la salute pubblica, non solo in Ucraina, ma anche in Russia, Bielorussia, Moldavia e in diverse parti dell’Europa orientale. Gli effetti a lungo termine del danno ambientale della guerra possono andare dall’inquinamento persistente, alla perdita di ecosistemi, di terreno coltivabile e mezzi di sostentamento, fino alle conseguenze regionali dei disastri industriali altamente probabili in un Paese così industrializzato come l’Ucraina. ;

Nel 2013 e 2014, a seguito di un’ondata di proteste attraverso l’Ucraina in risposta alla decisione del governo di rinunciare alla stipulazione di un accordo di associazione con l’Ue, delle proteste pro-russe sono scoppiate nel Donbass, una regione a maggioranza russofona. Nel corso del 2014, con l’ispirazione e il supporto sotto copertura della Russia, le proteste e le occupazioni di edifici governativi nel Donbass si sono intensificati fino a trasformarsi in una guerra tra le forze armate ucraine e le milizie separatiste sostenute dalle truppe e i paramilitari russi. Anche se la Russia ha costantemente negato il suo coinvolgimento, ha de-facto stabilito un controllo su parti della regione del Donbass, installando dei delegati, provvedendo armamenti e stabilendo una presenza militare. Da allora, l’auto proclamata Repubblica Popolare di Doneck (DNR) e la Repubblica Popolare di Lugansk (LNR) nel Donbass hanno commesso numerose gravi violazioni dei diritti umani, come la tortura e il dislocamento forzato. Oltre ai bombardamenti, che non si sono mai completamente fermati negli ultimi otto anni, le persone che vivono nella zona hanno anche dovuto fare fronte a interruzioni nella fornitura di corrente elettrica, riscaldamento e acqua potabile. ;

Numerose organizzazioni ucraine e internazionali – fra cui Zoï Environmental Network, Ecoplatform, CEOBS, PAX, Environment-People-Law, Truth Hounds e OSCE, solo per nominarne alcune – per anni hanno denunciato le possibili ; conseguenze ambientali e per la salute pubblica nella regione causate dalla guerra nel Donbass, regione a cui appartengono le province di Donetsk e Luhansk nell’Ucraina orientale. Sede di circa 4500 imprese minerarie, metallurgiche e chimiche, la regione del Donbass era inquinata già in precedenza, ritenuta un disastro ambientale causato dall’uomo tra i più importanti d’Europa; qui l’8 per cento delle industrie hanno installazioni a rischio oche costituiscono una minaccia per l’ambiente. La regione accoglie 200 delle 465 installazioni ucraine di stoccaggio dei residui (TSFs); si tratta di ampi stagni in cui si trovano gli scarti industriali e le sostanze tossiche dell’industria mineraria pesante, chimica ed energetica della regione. Alcune di queste imprese e installazioni sono state abbandonate dai loro proprietari o sono in rovina. Molte erano nelle immediate vicinanze della linea di contatto. ;

La guerra della Russia contro l’Ucraina avrà dure conseguenze per l’ambiente e la salute pubblica, non solo in Ucraina, ma anche in diverse parti dell’Europa orientale.

Da quando il conflitto è iniziato, le miniere di carbone abbandonate stanno inondando il Donbass di sostanze tossiche e talvolta radioattive. Molti rischi ambientali derivano dalla improvvisa interruzione nella produzione delle miniere: l’acqua utilizzata nel processo deve essere pompata in continuazione; se il pompaggio si arresta, acqua tossica riempie i condotti minerari e sale, eventualmente raggiungendo e inquinando il terreno e le acque potabili. L’acqua inquinata di un condotto si riversa negli altri perché molti dei condotti minerari sono collegati. La miniera di Yunyi Komunar (Yunkom), ad esempio, è stata la sede di un’esplosione nucleare nel 1979 per il rilascio di gas accumulato, e anche le miniere di Luhanska, Proletarska e H.H. Kapustin potrebbero contenere rifiuti radioattivi. Segnalazioni sull’allagamento nella miniera di Yunyi Komunar hanno creato il timore che le acque contaminate potessero mischiarsi con le acque nel terreno e inquinare l’acqua potabile. Future emergenze ambientali, come le rotture nelle dighe delle installazioni di stoccaggio dei residui, potrebbero inquinare il fiume Siverskyi Donets – una risorsa primaria di acqua potabile anche per un’ampia parte della regione del Donbas – con l’inquinamento transfrontaliero teoreticamente in grado di raggiungere il Mar d’Azov ed eventualmente il Mar Nero. ;

Questi rischi ambientali e per la salute pubblica, che diversi studi hanno già individuato, aumenteranno significativamente in seguito all’invasione dell’Ucraina da parte della Russia il 24 febbraio 2022. Qualche giorno prima dell’invasione russa, un missile MLRS Grad ha colpito la centrale di energia termica di Luhansk a Schastia, causando interruzioni di energia e perdite di fumo nero. ; ;

Il 13 marzo i bombardamenti hanno danneggiato i centri di produzione e le tubature della centrale di carbone Adviivka – la più grande produttrice in Ucraina di carbone –carburante principalmente utilizzato nel settore industriale. Danni alle installazioni cruciali della centrale potrebbero provocare un rilascio di sostanze nocive. Anche la sua centrale di energia termica, che fornisce calore alla città di Adviivka, è stata danneggiata durante gli attacchi. Molte altre industrie sono state danneggiate nel Donbass e nel resto dell’Ucraina. A Sumy, i bombardamenti russi hanno provocato la fuoriuscita di ammoniaca tossica. La fornitura d’acqua di numerose città ucraine tra cui la regione di Donetsk e Mariupol è stata interrotta dai bombardamenti appena prima che la guerra iniziasse, e poi in particolare durante il primo mese di ostilità. ;

Oggi, molte Ong e osservatori, come PAX, il Conflict and Environment Observatory e lo Zoï Environment Network, riferiscono che la Russia ha attaccato centrali nucleari e idroelettriche, condutture e depositi di carburante e altre infrastrutture industriali in tutta l’Ucraina. Il bombardamento indiscriminato di città non provoca solo acute sofferenze umane, ma distrugge e inquina anche drammaticamente l’ambiente urbano, aspetto che prolungherà e aggraverà le sofferenze umane causate da questa guerra. ;

Timori nucleari e inondazioni tossiche

I gravi rischi ambientali di questa guerra erano chiari sin dall’inizio. Il movimento delle truppe russe nella zona di esclusione della centrale di energia nucleare di Chernobyl – la sede del disastro nucleare del 1986 – hanno causato un picco nelle radiazioni gamma. Il 9 marzo, rapporti a proposito di un’interruzione di energia, l’esaurimento dello staff e la perdita di comunicazione con la centrale di energia nucleare di Chernobyl, hanno sollevato ulteriori preoccupazioni riguardo eventuali incidenti radioattivi. Il 10 marzo, un attacco aereo ha interrotto i rifornimenti di energia per il centro di ricerca nucleare “Source of Neutrons” in Kharkov. La forza di fuoco dei carri armati russi ha danneggiato i reattori presso la centrale di energia nucleare di Zaporiz’ka, compromettendo il loro utilizzo e tagliandoli fuori dalla rete elettrica. Nonostante nel suo ultimo aggiornamento l’Agenzia Internazionale dell’Energia Atomica (AIEA) ha riportato che i livelli di radiazione in tutti i reattori operativi in Ucraina fossero normali, non esiste un modo diretto per confermarlo e la sicurezza delle installazioni nucleari in prossimità della linea del fronte rimane altamente compromessa. ;

Sentiamo timori riguardo una eventuale catastrofe nucleare, ma i disastri che potrebbero essere conseguenza di danneggiamenti e perdite nelle installazioni di stoccaggio dei residui delle industrie chimiche e minerarie sono allo stesso modo preoccupanti. Da lontano, le installazioni di stoccaggio assomigliano a laghi piatti, ma queste grandi strutture arginate conservano i fanghi, le acque e i residui minerari tossici del processo di scavo. Lasciate incustodite, queste installazioni sono inclini a danneggiarsi e possono rilasciare acque di scarto contaminate nell’ambiente, che possono eventualmente raggiungere le acque sotterranee e superficiali. ;

Le installazioni di stoccaggio dei residui possono rompersi a causa dell’erosione interna, della mancanza di manutenzione o di eventi aleatori esterni, come le minacce militari. Le catastrofi causate dal malfunzionamento delle dighe sono sempre più frequenti nel mondo. Solo dieci anni fa, la fuoriuscita alla mina di Talvivaara a Sotkamo, Finlandia – una compagnia mineraria principalmente di nichel e zinco, con l’uranio come prodotto secondario – ha contaminato almeno 100 ettari di laghi e paludi con metalli pesanti e uranio. Una fuoriuscita di cianuro vicino alla Baia Mare, Romania, nel 2000, presso le compagnia mineraria d’oro Aurul ha inquinato il fiume Tisza e ampie sezioni del Danubio ed è stata al tempo indicata come la peggiore catastrofe ambientale in Europa dopo Chernobyl. ;

Oggi la guerra in Ucraina mette le sue 465 installazioni di stoccaggio, con più di 6 miliardi di tonnellate di rifiuti tossici, a grande rischio di essere compromesse da attacchi, accidentali o intenzionali. Circa il 60 per cento delle installazioni di stoccaggio dei residui in Ucraina sono datate e alcune sono state abbandonate dai loro proprietari, e quasi tre quarti sono considerate potenzialmente pericolose. Molte installazioni di stoccaggio sono situate vicino a zone con riserve acquifere e sono vicine a città. Eventuali malfunzionamenti di queste installazioni potrebbero risultare nell’inquinamento dei maggiori fiumi dell’Ucraina come il Dniester, Dnipro e Siverskyi Donets che scorrono attraverso Russia, Moldavia e Bielorussia. ;

Guerra ambientale e disinformazione

La guerra in Ucraina sta avendo luogo in un contesto di ottimismo crescente riguardo la nostra abilità di proteggere l’ambiente durante la guerra, con l’idea di essere in grado di ; attribuire la responsabilità a stati e individui per i danni ambientali in tempo di guerra. Fino a poco tempo fa, le conseguenze ambientali della guerra e dei conflitti sono state largamente ignorate in politica internazionale. Ancora nel 2014, il precedente Segretario Generale dell’Onu, Ban Ki-moon, dichiarava che l’ambiente rimane una vittima silenziosa della guerra. Gli ultimi sviluppi, come la codificazione dei principi per la protezione dell’ambiente in relazione ai conflitti armati della Commissione del diritto Internazionale (PERAC), la cui finalizzazione è prevista per il 2022, e la nuova proposta di definizione legale di ecocidio, hanno rinnovato l’ottimismo per la responsabilizzazione e il intervento legale per i danni ambientali durante i conflitti armati. Allargare il mandato della Corte penale Internazionale per includere i crimini contro l’ambiente rafforza ancora di più la causa, anche se la soglia per una prova convincente potrebbe essere irraggiungibile e raccogliere dati affidabili in tempo di guerra potrebbe rivelarsi estremamente complicato. ;

L’interruzione del monitoraggio regolare dell’ambiente, la mancanza di accesso ai siti nella zona di guerra, l’inaffidabilità dell’informazione nei media mainstream e nei social-media, così come la disinformazione diretta, sono tutti fattori che contribuiscono a questa sfida. Quest’ultima in particolare indica operazioni possibilmente pianificate “sotto falsa bandiera” con sostanze chimiche, biologiche e anche radioattive, in un un contesto in cui l’informazione ambientale è sempre più utilizzata come arma. ; ;

Il precedente Segretario Generale dell’Onu, Ban Ki-moon, dichiarava che l’ambiente rimane una vittima silenziosa della guerra.

Nel 2018, documenti falsi distribuiti da gruppi di hacker sostenevano che gli Usa e le autorità ucraine avessero avvelenato le forniture d’acqua con materiale radioattivo proveniente dai rifiuti nucleari dell’installazione di stoccaggio di Vakelenchuk. Un’organizzazione ambientale ucraina ha dichiarato che il suo rapporto sui bombardamenti e i danni ambientali a Savur-Mohyla sono stati utilizzati da esperti russi per incolpare l’Ucraina dei bombardameti. Oggi replicare a tale disinformazione in tempo di guerra diviene sempre più difficile poiché la competenza svanisce, essendo gli esperti ambientali dislocati o costretti a fuggire ; a 4.2 milioni di rifugiati ucraini. Tuttavia molti di loro continuano il loro lavoro e gli sforzi stanno aumentando in Ucraina a nella comunità internazionale per assicurare che il danno ambientale di questa guerra non venga trascurato. ;

A questo proposito, organizzazioni internazionali come la Croce Rossa potrebbero giocare un ruolo importante nel prevenire i disastri, negoziando sulla base del diritto umanitario internazionale per fermare gli attacchi alle installazioni a rischio in Ucraina. Esistono infatti regole sulle proibizioni riguardanti dighe, argini e stazioni di generazione di energia nucleare, che sono stabilite nella Convenzione di Ginevra e nelle linee guida sulla protezione dell’ambiente naturale durante i conflitti armati. ;

Oltre a supportare la raccolta e la valutazione di dati essenziali e a dare una mano alla autorità ambientali indebolite ad ogni livello, la comunità internazionale dovrebbe anche prepararsi a fare sforzi importanti nel supportare la fase di recupero dell’Ucraina nel dopoguerra, includendo l’ambiente. Sarà inoltre necessario aiutare l’Ucraina ad assicurarsi che l’enorme compito di ricostruzione della nazione e della sua economia non sia conseguito con nuovi costi ambientali. ;

Traduzione di TS | Voxeurop

Tineretul (ne)educat al României

Printre diaspora românească din ce în ce mai numeroasă care locuiește în UE se numără mii de absolvenți cu un nivel de educație ridicat, determinați să caute oportunități și standarde de viață mai bune în străinătate. După cum explică Ioana Banach, acest exod de creiere este și o consecință a problemelor profunde ale sistemului de educație din România, care necesită transformare. Ea examinează evoluția școlilor din România de la tranziție și subliniază oportunitățile de a le aduce în secolul XXI.

Recunoscând prosperitatea pe care un nivel ridicat de educație o promite publicului european, Uniunea Europeană s-a angajat să îmbunătățească sistemele educaționale din întregul bloc. Dar, neavând competențe majore în domeniul educației, se concentrează pe monitorizarea calității educației în statele membre, de la rata de părăsire timpurie a școlii până la frecventarea universităților. Constatările sale privind România oferă dovezi convingătoare pentru apelurile la reforme structurale ale sistemului educațional din această țară.

În ciuda diverselor reforme din ultimul deceniu, sistemul de învățământ din România este încă neperformant; în 2021, ponderea celor care au părăsit timpuriu școala a rămas la 15%, cu mult peste media europeană în scădere de sub 10%.[1] Mai mult de 1 din 5 tineri români în vârstă de 15 ani prezintă un risc ridicat de sărăcie educațională, neavând competențele de bază în citire, scriere și științe, în timp ce rata de absolvire a învățământului terțiar rămâne sub 25%, mult sub media europeană de 40%.

Confruntați cu o societate săracă, neimplicată și plină de corupție, precum și cu o cultură a muncii ierarhică și rigidă, mulți români cu un nivel de educație ridicat caută drepturi sociale și standarde de viață mai bune în străinătate, lăsându-și familia și prietenii în urmă. În prezent, aproape o cincime din populația României locuiește în străinătate, în special în alte țări din UE. Acest nivel de exod de creiere este excepțional de ridicat pentru un stat membru al UE și devastator pentru România. Pentru fiecare emigrant care a absolvit o facultate, România pierde aproximativ 45.000 de euro. Numai în sectorul medical, aproximativ 2 000 de absolvenți emigrează anual – echivalentul unei pierderi anuale de investiții de 90 de milioane de euro. Majoritatea nu se mai întorc niciodată să trăiască în România.[2]

Efectele pe termen lung ale recentei crize economice și de sănătate provocate de pandemie nu au fost încă pe deplin conștientizate. În ceea ce privește calitatea educației, profesorii, elevii și părinții au primit puțin sprijin pentru a se orienta în labirintul învățării digitale. În ultimii doi ani, aproape o treime dintre elevii români nu au avut infrastructura digitală necesară pentru a urma cursuri online, iar aproape jumătate dintre profesorii din țară au solicitat instrumente mai multe și mai bune pentru a preda online.[3] Aceste provocări pun un număr mai mare de tineri români în pericol de sărăcie educațională și excluziune socială pe termen lung. Cu toate acestea, în 2021, finanțarea sistemului de învățământ a atins niveluri scăzute record – doar 2,5% din PIB-ul țării și jumătate din media europeană – ceea ce arată că nu se vor lua prea multe măsuri pentru a preveni un nou declin. 

A devenit evident că educația joacă un rol crucial în consolidarea sau slăbirea democrației în România.

În contextul actual, este greu de crezut că românii se mândreau cândva cu școlile lor. Ambiția pentru un sistem de învățământ modern, echilibrat și democratic, după modelul celui francez și italian, a luat amploare în anii dintre cele două războaie mondiale. De la o generație la alta, profesorii și elevii au luat parte la transferul de cunoștințe și valori, în timp ce educația a fost văzută ca o trambulină pentru mulți tineri, adesea provenind din medii socio-economice dificile, pentru a-și găsi drumul în cercurile intelectuale.

Din 1948, ocupația sovietică a perturbat brutal acest sistem. Combaterea gândirii critice, a autodeterminării și a individualismului, reforma a avut ca scop reeducarea rapidă a arhetipului profesorului și elevului comunist. Educația bazată pe propagandă folosea două instrumente principale: frica prin violență verbală și fizică ca pedepse pentru comportament neadecvat și repetiția (memorarea cu sârguință a conținutului manualelor școlare traduse direct din limba rusă). 

Deși doctrina socialistă nu este singura vinovată pentru declinul pedagogic al României, această perioadă din istoria sa a cimentat malformațiile sistemice care se observă astăzi. În prezent, școlile sunt instituții controlate politic, încorporate în rețele ierarhice nepotice, în care se așteaptă ca elevii „model” să gândească, să crească și să acționeze la fel. Produse ale unui proiect pedagogic construit pe bazele teoriei behavioriste, profesorii sunt încă pregătiți să controleze sălile de clasă și să îi împingă pe elevisă absoarbăprograma dată. Programa rigidă, împreună cu rețeta anacronică de învățare „citește-memorează-reprodu”, garantează o experiență de învățare sub așteptări și neinteresantă în clasă și, chiar mai important, suprimă curiozitatea, creativitatea și gândirea critică.

Școala românească a viitorului 

Parcursul deconcertant al sistemului educațional românesc din ultimele decenii arată că este nevoie de o soluție mai radicală decât cea pe care niciun guvern nu a vrut sau nu a putut să o aducă până acum. Crearea unor școli primitoare pentru generațiile viitoare necesită explorarea intenționată a două dimensiuni complexe și interconectate. Pe de o parte, România are nevoie de un proiect pedagogic pe măsură, alimentat de viziune și potențialitate, și nu de o reparație a ceea ce există deja. În al doilea rând, având în vedere modul în care reformele au eșuat sau au fost inversate înainte de a avea vreo șansă de a se realiza, singura modalitate de a depăși impasul actual este de a revizui complet echilibrul puterii, precum și politizarea puternică a pozițiilor-cheie din sistemul de educație.

Înainte de a gândi o şcoală românească a viitorului, o întrebare care merită să fie pusă este: de ce merg copiii la școală? În prezent, școlile sunt organizate ca niște benzi transportoare, care transportă elevii spre o destinație prestabilită: piața muncii. Sistemul actual îi tratează pe tineri ca pe niște active a căror valoare este legată de viitoarea capacitate de angajare. Mulți dintre cei înstrăinați de sistemul de învățământ constituie ceea ce a devenit cea mai mare parte a populației expuse riscului de sărăcie sau excluziune socială din UE, în timp ce cei care au reușit să treacă prin banda rulantă ajung adesea să lucreze în străinătate, alimentând situația paradoxală în care țara suferă atât de rate ridicate ale șomajului, cât și de o lipsă de forță de muncă.

Dar dacă educația ar fi mult mai mult decât atât: o călătorie de autodescoperire, o cale spre împlinirea personală și un laborator pentru a experimenta societatea în care trăim, precum și pentru a o imagina pe cea spre care ne îndreptăm?

Din această perspectivă, școala românească a viitorului capătă o formă proaspătă, nouă. În primul rând, școlile devin paradisuri de siguranță și non-violență. Violența verbală și fizică, poate cele mai dăunătoare cicatrici ale regimului totalitar, devin un lucru de domeniul trecutului. Un nou program extins de formare a profesorilor și o educație psiho-socială reduc și, în cele din urmă, elimină orice formă de abuz școlar. Viitorii educatori învață să gestioneze stresul și să identifice modul în care au fost socializați să recurgă la violență în fața adversității. Acestea sunt abilități indispensabile pe care le pot transfera apoi studenților lor. În școala românească a viitorului, un sistem de sprijin între egali și mentorat continuu îi ghidează pe profesorii care trebuie să facă față unei profesii pe atât de solicitante pe cât este plină de satisfacții. Beneficiind de recunoaștere socială și de o remunerație decentă, profesorii nu mai sunt tentați să se concentreze asupra lecțiilor de după școală pe piața neagră a cursurilor private pentru câțiva privilegiați, ci urmăresc succesul tuturor elevilor lor în mod egal.

Pentru fiecare emigrant care a absolvit o facultate, România pierde aproximativ 45.000 de euro.

Înrădăcinate în autonomie și autodeterminare, școlile renunță la programele lor rigide, în timp ce educatorii și elevii devin liberi să experimenteze și să creeze. Prin intermediul unor trasee de învățare individualizate, elevii sunt îndrumați să își descopere și să își consolideze talentele, precum și să își abordeze deficiențele. Învățând și punând în practică cetățenia activă, un element-cheie al programei de învățare, elevii își adâncesc conștientizarea impactului pe care îl pot avea asupra societății. Aceștia își dezvoltă o viziune asupra viitorului și sunt echipați cu cunoștințele, abilitățile și curajul de a lupta pentru aceasta. Identificarea celei mai eficiente căi pentru ca fiecare elev să ajungă la destinația finală de învățare și să-și realizeze potențialul devine adevărata artă a profesiei de profesor.

În școala românească a viitorului, puterea este descentralizată, iar directorii și profesorii joacă un rol mult mai central în managementul școlii. Managementul școlar bazat pe învățare transformă nu numai procesul de evaluare a profesorilor, ci și evaluarea elevilor. Elevii, în special, beneficiază de o reacţie periodică și calitativă cu privire la dezvoltarea lor cognitivă și emoțională, mai degrabă decât de o evaluare bazată pe cifre. Școlile sunt depolitizate, iar procesul de „inspecție”, odinioară un instrument de control și pedeapsă al serviciilor guvernamentale (inspectorate) influențate politic este înlocuit de un dialog constructiv și de o reacţie multidirecțională care implică directorii de școli, profesorii, părinții și autoritățile locale.

În timp ce elemente ale acestei viziuni ar putea fi împărtășite pe scară largă în România, practica oferă o imagine complet diferită. În orice caz, numeroasele încercări (eșuate) de reformare a sistemului stau drept mărturie că sarcina nu este ușoară. Așadar, de ce va fi nevoie pentru ca școlile din România să devină spații democratice și cu impact, în care elevii să se simtă bineveniți și împuterniciți să se îndrepte spre viitorul lor? Și de ce nu a fost încă reformat drastic sistemul, în ciuda nevoii profunde de schimbare?

O prioritate pentru mulți, o misiune pentru câțiva

Starea jalnică a sistemului educațional din România este o prioritate omniprezentă pe agenda politică. Într-un context politic agitat, în care se formează un nou guvern în medie la fiecare unul sau doi ani, reformele sunt introduse și abandonate mai repede decât pot fi puse în aplicare. Programa școlară a fost actualizată în numeroase rânduri, la fel ca și manualele de predare și metodologia de notare. În 2018, președintele României a promis la rândul său reforme pentru sistemul educațional descurajant și să transforme în realitate școala viitorului, atât de necesară. Programul național România Educată a fost conceput pentru a implementa o serie de propuneri de politici publice. Unele dintre măsurile preconizate pentru combaterea abandonului școlar au fost incluse între timp în Planul național de Redresare și Reziliență și vor fi sprijinite prin fonduri UE. Ceea ce nu reușește să ofere proiectul președintelui este o viziune cuprinzătoare, pe termen lung, care să susțină propunerile, precum și o cale spre o atât de necesară reformare sistemică a sistemului educațional românesc.

Oferirea unei alternative pe termen lung se pare că a fost obiectivul fostului ministru social-democrat (PSD) al Educației, Ecaderina Andronescu. În 2009, Ecaderina Andronescu a colaborat cu un expert din sistemul educațional finlandez pentru a prezenta o declarație de viziune intitulată Educația ne uneșteDocumentul a propus un sistem educațional care plasează elevii în centrul proiectului pedagogic, aderă la principiul subsidiarității în luarea deciziilor privind educația copiilor și introduce un accent puternic pe cetățenia activă.[4] Această propunere ambițioasă s-a bucurat de o atenție mediatică amplă, deși de scurtă durată. Formațiunea politică a fostului ministru, a cărei bază electorală este formată predominant din persoane mai puțin educate (doar aproximativ 9% dintre votanții PSD au absolvit studii superioare), a respins propunerea.[5] Andronescu nu s-a bucurat de prea mult sprijin nici din partea partidelor de opoziție sau a societății civile. Era al patrulea său mandat de ministru al educației, iar cariera sa politică a fost marcată de controverse: de la scandaluri legate de dotarea școlilor cu calculatoare din contracte fără licitație în valoare de milioane de euro până la acuzații de plagiat în lucrările sale academice. În mod esențial, mulți profesori au respins, de asemenea, această viziune, deoarece o considerau nerealistă. De atunci, punerea în aplicare a inițiativei „Educația ne unește” a stagnat, iar România așteaptă încă o forță politică credibilă care să transpună o viziune a viitorului său sistem educațional în politici concrete.

Între timp, unii profesori din întreaga țară se angajează într-o luptă în stil David și Goliat împotriva sistemului pentru a crea clase mai satisfăcătoare. Aceștia lucrează cu planuri de lecție paralele – cel oficial, care urmează modelele din programa școlară și pe care îl prezintă superiorilor lor în timpul evaluărilor – și unul alternativ, adaptat la nevoile și talentele elevilor lor. Scăpând de modelul clasic în care profesorul stă în spatele unui birou și predică în fața clasei, ei se apropie de elevi, atât la propriu, cât și la figurat. Fundația Noi Orizonturi este un ONG care instruiește și îndrumă profesori, adesea din zone cu probleme economice, în învățarea bazată pe servicii, o abordare educațională care permite tinerilor să aplice teoria învățată la clasă în activități din viața reală, cum ar fi voluntariatul, susținerea sau alte modalități de implicare civică. Unele dintre programele lor se concentrează în mod special pe învățarea prin servicii ecologice, echipând tinerii cu competențe care să le permită să se implice în construirea unui viitor mai durabil și în combaterea schimbărilor climatice. Iar rezultatele sunt promițătoare: ONG-ul raportează rate mai mari de absolvire a învățământului terțiar în rândul celor peste 17.000 de absolvenți ai programului, precum și un sentiment sporit de încredere, independență și empatie.[6]

De-a lungul trecutului său turbulent, a devenit evident că educația joacă un rol crucial în consolidarea sau slăbirea democrației în România. Având în vedere că puțini români termină studiile universitare și că o mare parte a forței de muncă emigrează, copiii sunt adesea lăsați în urmă pentru a fi crescuți de bunici. Sistemul de învățământ nu își respectă promisiunile și, cu siguranță, nu îndeplinește obiectivele ambițioase ale UE în materie de competitivitate și inovare. Redobândirea rolului educației, în timp ce se abordează inegalitatea profundă pe care o perpetuează, reprezintă un factor-cheie în tranziția către o societate mai echitabilă din punct de vedere social în România. Formarea unei noi generații de tineri pregătiți să aducă o schimbare este esențială pentru a construi un nou model politic și social bazat pe valorile democrației, justiției sociale, păcii și ecologiei.

Actorii din societatea civilă și profesorii demonstrează un know-how extins și metode alternative de educație încercate și testate care au un impact în ciuda contextului complex din România. Pentru a deveni o normă, și nu o excepție, au nevoie de sprijinul unei mișcări mai largi, care să exercite o presiune constantă asupra clasei politice dezinteresate în prezent și să mențină problema educației pe agenda publică. În ultimii ani, guvernele românești conduse de partide tradiționale s-au confruntat cu cele mai mari proteste de stradă de la căderea comunismului, adunate în principal în jurul unor teme tradiționale verzi, precum ecologia și democrația. Mobilizarea de amploare este un semn al apetitului tot mai mare pentru o forță reprezentativă care să reînnoiască modelul politic din România. Un program politic care acordă importanță educației ca una dintre prioritățile sale are potențialul de a mobiliza un grup divers de părți interesate în acțiune: de la actorii societății civile la sindicatele cadrelor didactice, de la părinți și bunici la mișcările de tineret și studenții universitari. România pare să fie pregătită pentru o mișcare politică progresistăcare poate imagina și, mai ales, poate oferi un sistem educațional diferit și poate ocupa spațiul gol din partea stângă a spectrului politic.


[1] Eurostat (2021). Early leavers from education and training. Disponibil (în limba engleză) la <https://bit.ly/3LmR4Q7>

[2] OCDE (2019). Talent abroad: a review of Romanian Emigrants. Paris: OCDE. Disponibil (în limba engleză) la <https://bit.ly/3Lpzfj8> . 

[3] Salvați Copiii România (2020). Copiii vulnerabili au avut acces limitat la hrană, educație și medicamente în timpul stării de urgență (Studiul Salvați Copiii). București: Salvați Copiii România. Disponibil la <https://bit.ly/3Pt22Xy>

[4] Ministerul Educației Naționale (2019). Educația ne unește: viziune asupra viitorului educației în România. București:  Ministerul Educației Naționale. Disponibil la <https://bit.ly/3NjECBU>

[5] Camelia Badea (2020). „Care este profilul votanților partidelor câștigătoare și cum a reușit AUR marea surpriză.” Spot Media. 12 septembrie 2020. Disponibil la < https://bit.ly/3sDTBPa>

[6] Fundația Noi Orizonturi (2022). Cluburile IMPACT. Disponibil la <https://bit.ly/3wnWExd>

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