248. Encounters with Wild Capitalism: Post-Socialist Environmentalism in Hungary
At the meetings of ELTE Klub, a university-based environmental organization, heated discussions took place on the nature and challenges of the Hungarian environmental movement. In 1996, at one of the meetings, one of the members was asked to comment on the changes observed in the Hungarian environmental movement. Comparing the challenges faced by environmentalists under state socialism and in the post-socialist era, she pointed out that: "In the 1950s there was the belief that there simply weren't nature conservation problems in socialist countries because natural resources were being harnessed for the benefit of the workers. Today, nature conservation is seen as an obstacle holding back development and marketization. It's this vadkapitalista (or "wild capitalist") perspective that we are up against."
Throughout my fieldwork with Hungarian environmentalists, I was intrigued by their ability to compare eco-politics of the socialist and post-socialist periods. Many activists came of age during the Kadar era, a time when environmentalists saw central planning and official secrecy as obstacles to protecting the environment. After 1989, activists turned their attention to the emerging ecological problems wrought by privatization, development schemes, and an expanding consumer society. By the mid-1990s, some activists began to use the term okogyarmatositas, or "eco-colonialism," to describe the East's particular vulnerabilities to environmentally harmful projects and products from the West.
Hungary's environmental movement is the largest and most established in Eastern Europe. Environmentalism took off during the mid-1980s when a small group of Budapest citizens formed the Danube Circle. They organized debates and petitions against the construction of a huge dam system on the Danube River at Nagymaros. State planners intended the dam to serve as a monument to industrial progress and international friendship between nations of the Soviet bloc. Instead, the seemingly single-issue Danube movement opened a broad critique of the state socialist system and attracted thousands of citizens to its public demonstrations in the late 1980s. Many people describe the Danube demonstration as the turning point of Hungary's transition, when changing the political system seemed an attainable goal.
Although the Danube movement has since faded from the limelight, Hungary's environmental movement has grown since the political changes of 1989. Groups on local and national levels are working on such varied issues as air quality, consumer education, waste management, and wetlands protection. In addition, many groups have formed ties with international environmental organizations, ranging from the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) to World Bank Watch.
The emergence of "eco-colonialism" as a framework for understanding environmental problems marks a new way of thinking about the political ecology of post- socialism. Drawing from my fieldwork with Hungarian environmental groups, I explore how the term was used to problematize three environmental issues, specifically: 1) the expansion of the nuclear industry; 2) international traffic in toxic waste; and 3) the growth of consumer packaging waste. I then place the term, "eco-colonialism," in the broader context of discourses on post- socialism, development, and the environment.
The Nuclear Market Explosion
The aggressive strategies of the nuclear industry in post-socialist countries provide one example of "eco-colonialism" cited by activists. Although environmentalists acknowledge that existing nuclear reactors should be made safe, they fear that the nuclear industry actually seeks to expand by pursuing massive renovation projects in Eastern Europe. In recent years, the widely publicized retrofitting of nuclear plants at Chernobyl in Ukraine, Mohovce in Slovakia, and Temelin in the Czech Republic sparked international controversies.
Environmentalists expressed their misgivings about the nuclear industry on the tenth anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant explosion. On Chernobyl Day 1996, a street theatre performance in Budapest featuring a group of Hungarian activists satirically portrayed the relationship between the nuclear industry and the governments of Eastern Europe. In this piece, a circle of performers wearing the flags of post-socialist countries gather around a "businessman" in a suit with German, American, British, and French flags on the lapels. The businessman gestures enthusiastically toward a box painted with yellow-and-black radioactive symbols and fields questions from the actors representing the post-socialist countries. They ask, "But what will we do with the radioactive waste?" After hearing a long list of storage proposals, the post- socialist countries appear to be losing interest in the nuclear industry's sales pitch. In a last-ditch effort, the businessman throws open his briefcase, revealing a huge stash of money. An actor representing Latvia, or Hungary, or Ukraine, hungrily pounces on the money, then picks up the black and yellow box exultantly. The actor's triumphant expression fades into a frown as performers representing other countries edge away, fearing nuclear disaster. The performance ends with a game of "hot potato," as performers toss the box to anyone who will take it.
Toxic waste trade provides a second example of the emerging political ecology of Europe's post-socialist periphery. The western Hungarian border town of Mosonmagyarovar was the scene of an early case of East-West toxic dumping. During the early 1990s, some residents observed unmarked train cars from Austria crossing into Hungary in the middle of the night. On further inspection, they found that these train cars carried illegal shipments of toxic waste. Several townspeople mobilized their neighbors, notified local newspapers, and the Mosonmagyarovar Environmentalist Association was born. These activists investigated the shipments, identified the guilty parties, and succeeded in getting the government to return the waste to the responsible firm in Austria.
The Mosonmagyarovar case was the first widely publicized instance of illegal trans- boundary dumping in Hungary, but it was certainly not the last. While in the field, I observed many environmentalists working on campaigns against foreign companies' bids to construct toxic waste incinerators in impoverished areas of the country. Although international trade in toxic waste disposal is technically illegal, it is legal to market toxic waste intentionally as a useful product. Thus, contaminated soils have been marketed as "fill dirt" for roads and construction, and toxic sludge slated for incineration has been designated "fuel." This legal loophole has been used to bring toxic waste from rich, industrialized nations into Eastern Europe.
Growing public awareness of the dangers of toxic waste has resulted in greater opposition to dumping and incineration in Western European countries. In response to public opposition and higher disposal costs, firms from rich countries to the West have established an international trade in toxic waste with Eastern European firms.
New Improved! Consumer Packaging Waste
Consideration of environmental effects adds complexity to the problem of consumer waste. Product packaging in state socialist countries was minimal, and many low-impact consumer habits have survived the transformation to a market economy. Hungarian shoppers reuse shopping bags, and many items are packaged in glass containers. Although the glass recycling system is well established, Hungary lacks the facilities to recycle newly-introduced materials. Hungarians resourcefully refill two-liter plastic soda bottles with wine from local producers, but aluminum cans and Tetra-Pak cartons are causing a growing waste management problem.
En route to a weekend retreat, I went grocery shopping with an environmentalist friend. We went to the juice aisle to select drinks and found that every single product was packaged in Tetra-Pak sterile boxes. Tetra-Pak is a packaging technology that fuses together paper, plastic, and foil. It cannot be recycled in Hungary. My friend was horrified that Tetra-Pak had replaced recyclable, glass bottles from supermarket shelves.
Later on, my friend shared this story with other activists from HUMUSz, the Waste Management Action Group. HUMUSz published articles and cartoons that pointed out the environmental shortcomings of Tetra-Pak in its magazine, Kuka Buvar ("Dumpster Diver"). HUMUSz also published exposÇs on the environmental impact of the recent introduction of aluminum cans and plastic packaging in Hungary. HUMUSz activists objected to new forms of consumer packaging not only because of their wastefulness, but also because these forms represent the globalization and standardization of consumption, one form of cultural imperialism. By contrast, HUMUSz valorized indigenous forms of packaging, giving an "Environmentally Friendly Packaging" award to a Hungarian factory that still packaged fruit juice in old-fashioned glass jars. Environmentalists poke fun at the new, over-packaged goods of the global marketplace. Although these products represent the good life in advertisements, in these images, they represent ecologically harmful forms of consumption replacing older, ecologically sustainable habits.
Eco-Colonialism: A Post-Socialist Political Ecology
Activists' discourse on "eco-colonialism" draws from the insights of world-systems theory, which describes how rich "core" countries extract the natural resources of the poor, "periphery" countries. Hungarian environmentalists go beyond this model, however, suggesting that instead of merely extracting Eastern Europe's natural resources to facilitate industrial production, wealthy countries also appropriate the post-socialist periphery's landscape for the removal of environmental risks. Activists relate "eco-colonialist" exploitation to three factors: 1) Eastern Europe's poverty relative to the West, 2) their fellow citizens' lack of information, environmental awareness, and experience in community organizing, and 3) the replacement of eco-friendly consumer culture with the intensive consumption habits promoted by the global economy.
One of the first times I heard the term okogyarmatositas was when I interviewed Viktoria Szasz, a leader of the Hungarian Nature Protectors' Association. She offered her interpretation of how businesses and public officials promote the development of environmentally risky industries: "Opposition is weak because in many cases the companies claim that they are creating jobs... They exploit this poverty, and that is what okogyarmatositas is all about." In her explanation of eco-colonialism, Viktoria cited the export of toxic waste from Western Europe to Hungary as a key example. Richer countries pass down environmentally harmful projects to the poorer countries of Eastern Europe, which desperately need foreign investment and loans.
Other environmentalists elaborated on the eco-colonialist process. Balazs Barany, a zoologist in ELTE Klub, hailed the political changes of 1989 as a time when spaces for greater public participation were made possible. He expressed strong reservations, however, about the social and ecological effects of the economic changes that went hand-in-hand with the change of political systems. According to Balazs, multinationals were able to take advantage of Eastern European countries' relative lack of environmental regulations, legislation, and public awareness of environmental concerns. He told me, "To this day, one gets the impression from the West that they don't take us seriously as partners but are just palming stuff off on us, saying, 'This is good enough for the keletiek [Easterners], this is good enough for the Hungarians.'" The Chernobyl Day performance portrayed a cynical nuclear industry selling outmoded nuclear technologies to "dumb Easterners" - Eastern European countries seeking foreign investment and development. In this case, environmentalists seek to protect citizens from their own innocence - their lack of knowledge about technology, the practice of citizenship, and the ways of the market (see also Harper 2001).
Finally, Hungarian environmentalists tie together concern over the ecological costs of the transformation from state socialism with a critique of the cultural effects of economic globalization (see also Harper 1999a). In the case of consumer packaging waste, many activists see the market as fostering new consumption habits whereas the existing consumer culture was more environmentally sustainable. From their contact with the international environmental movement, Hungarian activists know how hard Western European and North American environmentalists have worked to reverse wasteful consumer habits. Anna Kovacs, a member of the group Green Women, commented on the current state of affairs in her nation: "My country is marching towards a vision of the West that Westerners are beginning to reconsider."
Hungarian environmentalists have experienced the ecological shortcomings of both state socialist and capitalist systems. Environmental sociologist Zsuzsa Gille contrasts how environmental problems have been framed in Hungary. While socialist "party-liners" once saw environmental degradation as a problem of private greed to be corrected by state ownership and central planning, contemporary policy-makers' "pro-market" view, traces environmental degradation in socialist societies to the inefficiencies of socialist production regimes (Gille 1997). Contemporary Hungarian environmentalists find fault in these two perspectives, both for their uncritical faith in technology and their insistence upon constant industrial growth. As an alternative, they demand development strategies that privilege environmental quality and public participation over industrial expansion.
Hungarian environmental activists played a key role in the domestic political opposition to state socialism in the 1980s. Today's environmentalists face the task of transforming the political culture of dissidence and their earlier critique of state socialist productivism into a post-socialist environmental critique of Hungary's encounter with the global "wild capitalist" economy.
Gille, Zsuzsa, "Two Pairs of Boots for a Hectare of Land: Nature and the Construction of the Environmental Problem in State Socialism," Capitalism Nature Socialism 8 (4), (1997): 1-22.
Harper, Krista, "Consumers or Citizens? Environmentalism and the Public Sphere in Post- Socialist Hungary," Radical History Review 74 (1999a): 96-111.
Harper, Krista, From Green Dissidents to Green Skeptics: Environmental Activists and Post- Socialist Political Ecology in Hungary, Ph.D. Dissertation (University of California, Santa Cruz, 1999b).
Harper, Krista, "Chernobyl Stories and Anthropological Shock in Hungary," Anthropological Quarterly 74(3), (2001a): 114-123.
Harper, Krista, (in press) "The Tisza Chemical Spill," in Char Miller, ed., History in Dispute: Global Water Issues, (Columbia, SC: Bruccoli Clark Layman, 2001b, in press).
Dr. Harper spoke at an EES noon discussion on December 3, 2001. The above is a summary of her presentation. Please direct all comments and question to the author at firstname.lastname@example.org. Meeting Report #248.