The ecology of freedom

This article is available in Bulgarian.

I was a child, but I remember.

The question with which I associate Sirakov’s 1986 score in Mexico is “When will we be able to eat salad again?”. My mother is a chemical engineer, but she didn’t know. The answer was known only to a small circle of people and we weren’t among them. I associate our travels along the south Balkan line with people telling us to “Close the windows! We are getting close to the copper production combine.” I barely remember the visits to my relatives in Ruse, but there is one memory that will stay with me forever. A key question was always present in their daily conversations:

Will we be able to breathe today?

Do you remember any of this? If your answer is “Yes, but we lived better and the environment was better conserved”, it means it’s time for me to remind you that you are suffering from amnesia. We will talk more a bit further down. If your answer is “No, but grandma says that electricity and bread was cheap and there wasn’t so much trash laying around”, then it means that you need to read this, so you can understand how fortunate you are to be alive today because you are free and able to enjoy life in a much better country than the one I grew up in.

Do you believe that the air we breathe today is dirtier simply because Westen Europe has cleaner air and the media is constantly reminding you of this fact?

Try to remember what it was like back then… What did the areas around every cement factory look like? What did the sky in the direction of Kremikovtsi look like? We rarely saw it, no? How did it smell in the cities and fields around the chemical factories? How did the power plants work? Did they have adequate filters and desulfurization equipment? Do you remember the holes in the pants that your mother used to hang out to dry in the acid-saturated fog? And the smell of the gas diesel oil stove at home? Or, did you use coal instead? 

Yes, you are right about the cars – there are too many of them these days and they produce lots of pollution. Do you recall that back then all cars ran on gasoline? The entire eastern bloc Council for Mutual Economic Assistance simply couldn’t produce a good diesel engine. And at one point they began to call the gasoline we used “unleaded”. Today there simply isn’t any othe type, and the term became unnecessary, but that wasn’t always the case – in the past all of the gasoline was full of lead and it was much more toxic.

And what about that asthmatic boy, tortured by the national industry, who moved in during the third grade from Sofia, Devnya, Dimitrovgrad, Plovdiv, Galabovo, Burgas, Zlatitsa, Vratsa or Ruse? His parents had done the impossible, having received approval to relocate and get new work, just so they could live somewhere with cleaner air. They just wanted their child to live a better life.

You say the rivers were clean. Exactly how many waste processing stations were there in the past? And how many of them had secondary and tertiary processing steps, or the ability to utilize methane? And the waste dumps? I hope you don’t believe they had geomembranes that prevented the waste from leaching into the groundwater. They were little more than mountains of trash! And now that I remember, did your neighbors also dump their waste from the seventh story balcony?

And what about the fertilizers and pesticides that were prayed without limits, because they were virtually free?

Where do you think they ended up? In the food on the tables of everyone, or simply into the rivers?

I lived in an apartment building that faced the Tundzha river, and on the opposite bank was “Rodopa” – our local slaughterhouse. The river’s color transformed through all the various reds on the spectrum, and hundreds of seagulls waiting to catch the latest release of blood, bones and entrails was a daily sight. Try to remember, I’m sure you have similar memories. Remember the color of Mesta after it had passed through Razlog, Iskar after Sofia, Struma after Pernik, the entire Topolitsa, Luda Yana and even the Dunube after Sviloza. We even managed to paint a river the size of the Danube with our wastes.

You say the sea was in great shape. Go back two paragraphs and try to remember – did the socialist human body produce wastes, or was it a wasteless system?  Dysentery and hepatitis were regular occurrences at pioneer camps. Do you remember those soft black pieces that came out of the sea and got stuck on our feet, taking forever to rub off? They smelled a bit like a gas oil stove. They are difficult to find lately and I can’t show them to my daughter. If you see one, call me! 

You say that the environment was well protected during the socialist period.

You love birds, right? Do you remember the Dragomansko swamp back then? You fell for it! The Dragomansko swamp didn’t exist, it was just a field, like many other swamps, lakes and old river beds that were drained by the socialists’ love for nature. And Srebarna, the only Danube lake that survived the genocide? It almost disappeared but thankfully the political changes came and a canal was made. Our largest lakes near Burgas and Varna were dead from pollution, and now they are alive and well.

According to you, there were more wild animals, and now we can only see them on television. Do you remember your ecology teacher? He or she always repeated that “man would overpower nature!” and explained the difference between harmful and useful wildlife. Carnivores were considered to be harmful. This is why the war against wolves started from the cradle and ended with stubble on the bodies of sheep. At the beginning of the 80’s only a few mating pairs were scratching out an existence in no man’s land. Today they can be found in all of the country’s mountains. As for the bears – there were more of them in chains on the streets than in nature. Do you remember how they “danced” and how we treated them to get an encore? 

Yes, my friend, the times were harsh for both people and animals alike.  

Did you know that there are more lynxes now? You don’t know what a lynx is? It’s a cute wild cat, something like a small leopard with a short tail and funny ears. Today they are safe and will remain so because the „panda“ is taking care of them. Do you want to help too?

You say the forests were all cut down? Is that what it says in Facebook? Take a trip deep into the country south of the Balkan range, in the Rhodopes, Strandzha, Kraishteto. Yes, you will see logging, but you will find many more ghostly places – houses, public buildings, factories, streets, roads and entire villages overtaken by wilderness. You will see trees growing inside houses and through their roofs, vines, snakes, lizards and bats. They are incredible!

Do you know what fraction of the abandoned fields are now overtaken by forests? Clear-cut logging, which is now considered a crime and is constantly on the news these days, was the rule of thumb back then. Large forest swaths were logged every five years in a controlled fashion. How else could the paper and furniture factories keep up their high pace of pointless labor? It’s true that the land was reforested, but it was done with species unfit for those locations. It was important to have a large standing stock of wood, and not forests. You understand the difference, right?

Do you remember the Blue lagoon? No, not the movie, but that lake that we all used to love seeing through the closed windows of the train that ran between Zlatitsa and Pirdop. I always used to ask my mom why no one bathed there, and she explained that its mesmerizing color was a result of the poison in the water. Well, there is a forest there now, and the large smokestack doesn’t work, while the factory produces much more, and the third waste processing plant on the site came online the other day. While there are still cities without waste processing plants, that site has three – and they are not waiting for someone in Brussels to certify or reimburse their expenses.

There is no longer a white cover surrounding the cement factories and the new power plant near Galabovo doesn’t even have a single normal smokestack. Can you imagine a power plant without a smokestack? You say it isn’t possible, but it is – the newest generation of plants don’t need tall smokestacks because their emissions are a fraction of the older plants. In Sofia there are already buses without exhaust pipes and children will live in a cleaner city without the need for their parents to relocate the family.  

Energy efficiency, renewable energy, resource productivity, product responsibility, ecological reporting, information and data transparency, carbon footprints – none of these were factors in the past. Don’t you remember? We used to keep the central heating and our space heaters on max, while our windows were barely even there. They kept us in the dark about Chernobyl, and you’re asking about carbon emissions? You’ve been spoiled by internet democracy. 

You only believe in official data?

I thought about sparing you the numbers, but if you insist, I will show you… The total emissions of all significant types of air pollution (dust, СО, SO2, NOx, NH3, H2S, volatile organic compounds) in Bulgaria have decreased by 60-80%, while heavy metals have decreased by over 90%. Our waters today are much less polluted by organic wastes such as nitrogen, phosphorus, heavy metals, chlorine compounds and pesticides, and their quality is much better as a result. Forests have grown by over 7000 square meters (>20%). Yes, these are young forests, far from the quality of mature forests, but their growth is equal to that of the entire Sofia region. The number of people living in villages have deceased from 3.1 to 1.9 million, while thousands of remote neighborhoods have entirely disappeared, leaving more living space for wildlife to proliferate without human pressure.

Over 35% of the country’s territory has some sort of protection status now compared to under 5% in 1989. The drop in the populations of large mammals and birds is under control and many of them are now increasing. Animals that were believed to be lost forever are now coming back. Bulgaria is among the leading countries in the world in regard to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Our emissions today are around 50% of what they used to be in 1988, the productivity of energy and water have increased by 3-4 times while the fraction of renewables in the energy mix is now 16%. At the end of the day, in 2014 we were in 41st place on the Environmental Performance Index (EPI), which is much better than our wealth measured in GDP per capita.     

I am far from claiming that we have reached the peak. Much work remains to be done. We are behind countries like the Czech Republic, Slovenia and not to mention Western Europe. Our air and waters are more polluted, we have far too much illegal logging and poaching, too much construction on the sea and in the mountains, loss of valuable habitats, we recycle far too little of our trash, and we have yet to start building adequate dumps, waste processing stations and we have a long way to go in cleaning up the mess left by the People’s Republic.       

How can we reach those other countries and achieve all of this? The graphic below illustrates my answer:

More economic FREEDOM

…which can be measured in the following four ways: rule of law, limited government intervention, regulatory efficacy and free markets.


© Денкщат

The environment in Bulgaria today – its air, waters and soils – are much better than they were 25 years ago. We can thank freedom for this – free people who want to live better and understand the personal responsibility they have, as well as the free market which punishes lack of efficiency, produces technological innovations that solve problems and provides the wealth that enables us to seek and achieve more. 

In conclusion, I hope that my memories of the good old times combined with the rational facts and arguments were clear enough, regardless of whether you remember the socialist past or not. I also hope that by reading this text you will appreciate your freedom and its ecological dimensions more, and to desire an even better future.

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