How can we use less plastic and minimize our footprint, what are the long-term consequences of air pollution and why should certain industries be more regulated, and will we see more extreme temperatures, fires, drought? These questions are a constant part of the lives of people who follow the news, scientific developments and civil movements, and are concerned about what exactly our legacy will be and what our generation will leave behind for future ones.
Others have been thinking about these problems and concerns for even longer. How has the conversation about environmental protection evolved from the perspective of the individuals and organizations in Bulgaria who deal with the topic on a daily basis?
"From my point of view, there have been several stages in the ‘maturation of our society’ in terms of environmental protections," says Rumyana Ivanova from the Bulgarian Biodiversity Foundation (BBF), which dates back to 1997 and is the successor of the intergovernmental Bulgarian-Swiss biodiversity conservation program established three years earlier. When Biodiversity was first starting out, the consensus on why and how to protect our environment was not very resolute, and the public’s attention was focused on fears and hopes surrounding the beginning of the Transition to democracy.
"In the 1990s, people were not concerned with threats to the environment, because back then we were thinking about freedom, democracy and survival," Rumyana recalls. "Everyone knew that our nature was priceless and we were proud of it. It's good thing that there were far-sighted people in key government positions who realized that our environment needs to be protected, and thus started building a network of protected areas and preparing the legal framework for how they should be managed. Without that solid foundation, the hard times that followed would have been very dark.”
She remembers a "long and bright period" during which people had a positive attitude towards environmental protection, and scientists and civil organizations gathered data about the territories they were studying, and contemporary conservation measures were developed. "Then came the period when certain businesses started seeing environmental protections as a serious obstacle. We lived through many years of targeted PR campaigns denigrating civil society organizations, trivializing these issues and sowing division by saying things like, ‘we are dying of hunger and you are worried about the sparrows.’ I personally believe that this is the moment our society matured – some people realized that there are significant problems and threats, and there is a need to take a strong clear position in order to solve them."
The protests against construction and development in Strandzha in 2014 and Pirin in 2018 are key moments in our society’s awareness of the importance of this topic. "Environmental protection brought hundreds of thousands of people to the streets, the Eagle Bridge phenomenon started with us. And all this is possible because for a large part of society encroachments on our natural environment (the destruction of dunes on the seaside, excessive logging in the forests, overdevelopment on the coasts and in the mountains) is absolutely unacceptable.”
Rumyana has two criteria for judging how democratic, mature and responsible a society is. "How we treat the elderly and how we treat the environment. We are somewhere in the middle of the road – there is a lot of strong energy going in the right direction, but also a lot of disinterest or sheer malevolence in our society.”
Earlier this summer, the foundation presented its eleventh annual awards for the best campaign, journalist, politician, business and activist with a focus on the environment. Has there been more coverage of environmental topics in Bulgarian media and a deeper analysis of these issues in recent years? Rumyana says that media rhetoric reflects how far society has come: just as there are people in society who are devoted to environmental causes, there are also those who see nothing but obstacles and hassles in these initiatives. "Some media outlets (both national and local) have a clear and firm stance, and report, investigate and share quality information. There are also outlets that run ‘sponsored’ publications and mix real facts with outright lies, their goal is to sway and deform public opinion on these issues. There are also media in which you will never, under any circumstance, see an article about the environment.”
But over the past years, she has seen a huge shift, especially in the commitment of businesses investing money and efforts. "More and more businesses use the available information resources and are aware of the benefits of protecting the environment. There are more and more companies that involve their employees in activities related to environmental conservation." She sees this as a kind of trend that even leads to businesses competing to implement more effective measures. “Over the last year, several large companies approached us with requests to involve their employees in meaningful and useful activities, focused both on specific protected areas and species, and on urban spaces. This inspired us to create a special service called "My day for nature" aimed at businesses.”
Biodiversity hosted an information booth at the last edition of the Beglika festival, and the foundation is getting ready for some bigger news in the fall.
This October will see the opening of Mahala, a new space for social entrepreneurs in downtown Sofia, at 3 Hristo Belchev Street. Its focus will be civil organizations that run businesses whose profits support social causes, such as people with disabilities, children at risk, environmental protection. The space will include a bistro and cafe, a store selling socially conscious products, and an event space. Rumyana describes Mahala as "a small, colorful and very warm world in which everyone is welcome, because whatever you do there (drink a coffee or learn to make candles) — will help someone in need feel better and be happier.”
The foundation is also working on the creation of an innovative escape room — the concept will be based on a scientific theme, in this case climate change, told through riddles and games. The room will be built in the basement of the National Museum of Natural History (Sofia, 1 Tsar Osvoboditel St.) and will open in early 2023.
Ivaylo and I have known each other since back when he was performing as a DJ, we crossed paths at concerts and festivals, oftentimes also at protests. What does he think is the soundtrack to these modern crises? "For me, music is perhaps a kind of escape from these heavy issues that I deal with. But definitely something that has influenced me a lot in recent years are musicians like Brian Eno, Niels Frahm and the jazz records released by Gondwana Records, I have an affinity for the mix of Afro beat and electronic music. When I think about it, rediscovering this music from Africa, I can draw a parallel to the wealth of this continent, which has been exploited for centuries and today also suffers from climate change. At the same time, the northern hemisphere still ignores the knowledge coming from this continent and continues to impose its vision of how it should develop, which is often pure neo-colonialism.”
The difficult issues that Ivaylo mentions are the causes for which he fights as part of his long-standing commitment to the environmental organization Za Zemiata (For the Earth). He has been a part of its team since 2003 and specializes in issues surrounding air quality, a particularly painful subject for Sofia.
How did he join this organization almost two decades ago? A friend took him to the film festival The Other Face of Globalization, which was organized by Za Zemiata. The stories of people around the world fighting environmental, social and economic problems caused by pollution shook him deeply. "There were discussions between screenings that included activists, scientists, researchers and citizens, who asked many questions: what is happening, why is it happening, what can be done, who should be doing it. That's how I got into it, but I'd always felt drawn to this. When I was younger, I was very struck by footage on TV of Greenpeace activists opposing whaling ships, or opposing the dumping of waste in the seas and oceans while water was being poured on them, or they could get hit by a barrel thrown overboard.”
When did he choose to focus on air pollution as the main issue he studies? "In 2015 and 2016, there were days with really bad pollution in Sofia, and the topic gained momentum because of the situations in India, China and Poland. I started to publish data about Sofia and other places, and not long after, Za Zemiata decided to start talking about this issue, because this problem had been neglected in Bulgaria for years and something had to be done. In 2017, I took over on this issue and now we have a team of five people working on it.”
Before that, Khlebarov mainly dealt with problems related to waste and the use of European funds in Bulgaria. "The two things that concern me the most right now are: how to get the city to be faster and more ambitious when it comes to implementing the measures that would help us reach the standards of the World Health Organization. But the city cannot meet these standards, even though it has been sued for its years of inaction.”
He is critical of the Low Emission Zone (a plan to limit the movement of some cars and heating with solid fuels), which Sofia Municipality is trying to introduce. According to him, these measures are short-sighted, as they affect only the months with the strongest pollution — from December to February. "This is only done because of the court’s ruling, which is why the quality of the proposal is low and there’s a risk the measure will fail and be rejected by the citizens.”
Khlebarov is also shaken by recent events surrounding the Brickel plant in Galabovo, closed by the ruling coalition in the last days of its administration due to severe and unregulated pollution, and subsequently reopened after a court decision. "Galabovo has become a feudal domain, and the residents and workers are hostages. We are looking for a solution to support people in the city who want to breathe cleaner air and send their children to play outside, not behind closed windows.”
According to Khlebarov, the level of societal awareness is growing and many people are taking steps to change their own daily lives. "But even if everyone does that, there's a limit to what we can accomplish. There’s a need for top-down change, not just bottom-up change –governments, MPs, ministries, municipalities – all of them are deeply indebted to people and the environment, because they have allowed the plundering and destruction of nature, and of the present and the future of all people to go unpunished. So the next step is for people to demand accountability from institutions."
Like Rumyana Ivanova, Ivaylo Khlebarov also sees the protests against construction in Bulgarian mountain areas as key events that motivated people and put pressure on institutions. "But while protecting the mountains and the coast are causes that are attractive and easy to understand, climate change, air pollution and to some extent regular pollution still don’t register on the average person’s agenda. This is changing with a new generation of activists who are genuinely concerned about their future and what kind of planet we are bequeathing them.”
“We want scientific facts to replace conspiracies”
Plamena Marinova and Olya Stoyanova from Climateka
Olya Stoyanova from Climateka
"We want climate change to be discussed accurately, using only scientific facts, and by Bulgarian scientists and specialists who are good at their jobs, who follow all the new research and publish with a clean conscience," says the co-founder of climateka.bg Plamena Marinova.
The platform’s goal is to make information about climate change more accessible and structured, thus largely supporting and developing green journalism in our country. Among the topics recently covered are how fake news is negatively influencing global climate policies, details around financial aid mechanisms and specifics from the EU's Green Deal, the record temperatures in Europe this July.
In two years, Plamena Marinova, together with the journalist, playwright, poet and writer Olya Stoyanova, gathered a team of 25 scientists and experts from various fields, who are facing up to the challenge of explaining complex problems in an understandable but also authoritative language. They currently have over 180 original publications.
"Some of our authors bring us new authors, other scientists and experts discover us themselves, and we continue to be open to new names and points of view. For both of us, it is important how science is written about in our country and what the place of science is in our media. We are looking for more analysis, more depth, we are looking for authors with a scientific and expert background," says Olya Stoyanova, who at the end of last year published her latest travel book, Putevoditel na khubavite mesta (A Guide to Nice Places), co-authored with Zhivko Dzakov and published by Janet-45
How are the two planning to develop Climateka in the near future – as a media outlet covering environmental issues or as a platform in which the journalistic and informational section is just one out of many? Plamena does not see Climateka as a media, but as a partner of the media. "We want to stimulate long-term dialogue on the topic and continue to build a bridge between the scientific community and the media, so that high-quality content on the topic reaches more people, we want our scientists to have more media appearances and collaborate better with journalists, and to see an overall improvement in the information environment on the subject of climate change in our country."
Nowadays it is difficult to tell apart truth from lies, real from manipulated news. How hard is this in the field of climate change writing?
The two started the platform mostly out of a desire to counter conspiracy theories and give scientists a voice. "We want there to be more competent discussions on the subject in our country, and for scientific facts to replace conspiracies," says Olya, and for Plamena, awareness is key for both global and local approaches to these problems: "For us, it is important to be relevant to the Bulgarian context, because climate change is not happening somewhere on the other side of the world, it has repercussions in Europe, the Balkans, and in our country. And this means that climate change has and will have economic, social, financial, health impacts on each one of us."