Think Globally, Act Locally: How International Science, Journalists, and Local Initiatives Helped Eastern Europe to Think Environmentally Before 1989

In this blog, Doubravka Olšáková gives the context of her new article in Environment and History (Fast Track May 2020), ‘Environmental Journalism? Radio Free Europe, Charter 77 and the Making of an Environmental Agenda’. 

We are all, more or less, familiar with the famous motto Think Globally, Act Locally. It was born in the 1970s and its origins are still disputed. It does, however, very well reflect the situation in Eastern Europe, where global environmental movements started to develop after 1968 but due to Communist control and restrictions met with limited response … and even that almost exclusively on the local level.

Nevertheless, what makes Eastern Europe a special case of Think Globally, Act Locallyis that countries of the Eastern Bloc actively participated in large international programmes such as the International Biological Programme, International Hydrological Decade, Man and Biosphere and others.[1] Researchers involved in these programmes then supported and promoted on a local level various environmental initiatives, often inspired by global environmental movement. The role of international science in increased focus on environment in 1970–1980 was crucial and the involvement of East European scientists in this kind of programme helped East European countries face the challenge and to slow down the ideological and economic pressures on environment.

Despite alarming environmental problems, Czechoslovakia was among the countries with a very high number of local environmental initiatives. While Douglas Wiener calls these groups ‘little corners’ when speaking of the Soviet Union, Czech and Slovak historiography calls them ‘niches’. The difference between the two terms may well reflect the insiders’ view of East European authors: while a corner is a remote, secluded, and quiet place, a niche is – according to the Cambridge Dictionary – a hollow in a wall, especially one made to accommodate a statue so that it could be seen. An ‘ecological niche’ is an area or location that extremely well suits a small group of organisms of the same type. Wikipedia adds that ecological niche is ‘the match of a species to a specific environmental condition. It describes how an organism or population responds to the distribution of resources and competitors and how it in turn alters those same factors.’ And that is why I prefer the term ‘niche’ to ‘corner’, because the level of adaptation of small environmental groups was higher in the East than in the West. Naturally. Nevertheless, small local initiatives were supported not only by researchers involved in international research programmes, but also – and this is surprising – by journalists who also played an important role in shaping public opinion. In Communist regimes, the symbiosis between global and local, scientific and popular, official and tolerated was striking. And as historians, we should bear in mind that in the Cold War world that was supposed to be black and white, nothing was really black and nothing was really white.

There were a few individuals who held official positions within the Communist system, were able to navigate it, and could use their status to voice the growing concerns of ordinary people and reflect on the approaching ecological crisis. One of them was Josef Velek, an environmental journalist who received over 800 letters about local problems and issues. He published most of them as short columns in Mladý Svět (literally ‘The World of Youth’, the official journal of the Socialist Union of Youth). Issues he described for the most part pertained to various examples of arrogant behaviour of local Communist elites. Velek investigated the most important and blatant cases personally and covered them in his articles.

Josef Velek and his collection of essays and articles published in Mlady svet. Public domain image.

Velek was not only a journalist, TV producer and author, but also the founder of the Brontosaurus movement, which mobilised on a local level over 15,000 young people. Brontosaurus was established in 1974 and its founding members were recruited from the Institute of Landscape Ecology of the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences and the editorial board of the magazine Velek worked for, that is, the Mladý Svět. The motto ‘Brontosaurus did not survive because it overgrew its own limits’ reflected the movement’s main source of inspiration, which came from the Limits to Growth.

Brontosaurus (public domain images)

The success of local initiatives was simply vast in comparison with that of national initiatives. The explanation is very straightforward: there were no national or state environmental initiatives in Czechoslovakia at that time. A strict distinction between local and national/state ecology was the key to maintaining the Communist idea of eco-social stability. Within a wider context, it reflected a new ‘social contract’ between the Communist authorities and the society, which implied something like: ‘We will tolerate your local initiatives and you will let us work and decide on the national level.’ Hana Librová, one of my favourite authors, described this situation as follows: ‘Our conservationists saved individual plants, surveyed anthills, protected migrating amphibians on roads, and so forth. But government policy managed to turn entire regions into desserts at a stroke of a pen.’ This unwritten ‘social contract’ explains how it was possible that Czechoslovakia, a country suffering from some of the greatest environmental devastation in Europe, had such a well-developed environmentalist base and so many local activists and conservationists, who nonetheless had practically no influence on Czechoslovakia’s overall environmental policy.

In the story outlined above, what is missing is the one actor who was able to challenge and publicly criticise the state. This was the dissent and dissident communication channels. Their story is yet to be written, but it seems that there were some points of intersection between official activities and the ‘grey zone’. The first sketch of how Radio Free Europe reflected the environmental agenda of Charter 77, can be found in my new article in Environment and History.

Radio Free Europe Newsroom. Photo by Andreas Bohnenstengel, under Creative Commons.

[1]For more on the birth of ecology in Czechoslovakia, see my paper in Environment and History

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