First Summer School for European Women Interested in Ecology
Living better with less
2 - 1 0 August 2000, AGAPE House, Sväty Jur, Slovakia
Elisabeth Bücking and Ruth Conway, a member of CEL describe the meeting
We have lived together for a week as women from ten countries in Europe, East and West. Out of very different experiences, we all came with a deep concern for the sustaining of life when ecological processes are in danger and social injustice is rampant. We shared those experiences through presentations in word and pictures, but also by the praise and prayer which began and concluded each day, by cooking simple, tasty and nutritious meals for each other, by expressing ourselves through painting, by dancing both meditatively and joyfully, and by punctuating the day with songs and hymns and graces. We tried to walk together - physically and metaphorically - with eyes, ears and hearts open, and with much laughter. We learnt to recognise hope in the courage of those who speak the truth where it is being deliberately hidden and in the care shown to those whose suffering is being ignored and disregarded.
We imagined ourselves alongside a woman caring for tender plants that are giving her much joy. Suddenly she finds someone stamping on them. What is she to do? She somehow finds the courage to start planting seeds again, while also trying to protect the plants and even to change the mentality of the destroyer. This is our commission!
I Ecological housekeeping
We were stimulated into thinking about styles of living by hearing a description first of home life in the Ukraine from Olga Rsayewa, and then of a way of living in Germany that has its roots in India from Dorle Polster. Olga spoke of city life with her husband and daughter in a flat that has three rooms: a kitchen, a bedroom and a guest room. The few pieces of electrical equipment are negligible compared with what is on offer in catalogues, but she judges them adequate for their needs. She feels that the system of a standard fixed charge for gas and water gives no incentive to limit their use. They can manage financially because she and her husband both have jobs.
Life in the villages is different. The villagers produce enough food for their family and then sell the surplus in the city market so that they have money to buy other basic commodities such as bread and washing powder. There are many old people and for them the market is a social life-line. Life is hard for them: there is no health insurance and their pension is extremely low. The cost of hospital treatment is prohibitive and has to be negotiated with the doctor. This forces them to use traditional plant medicine, which in some cases is beneficial. There are free polyclinics, but the good doctors work in the private hospitals.
Relationships are close within families, with life-long caring of parents for their children and vice-versa. There is very little advice for women on contraception, pre-natal care and birth, though there are now some books that can be bought. Abortions are legal and common and there is no limit to the number of abortions one woman can undergo. Breast-feeding is fully accepted and women are keen to do this.
Dorle spoke of the way her family lives in the Black Forest in Germany. Her goals were very different when she and her husband went to India in 1964. They were full of Western ideas of progress, enthusiastically ready to put all the latest academic research on chemical fertilisers and irrigation schemes into practice by building a demonstration farm in a barren place. After 5 years the ground had been turned salty and harvests were poor. Fuel for the machines was very expensive. Two of their children died suddenly, she thought possibly related to their Western diet. Finally, after moving to another area and learning to respond to the skills of the very poor villagers, she and her husband changed their thinking, their methods of farming, and their food. They also learnt to use traditional herbs and remedies. They found the joy of living simply and hospitably.
They decided this was a message they needed to take back to Germany, living without concern for the possessions that so many people crave. They were able to buy a school house with a large garden and they feed their family and guests (even when their 8 children were all at home) with the vegetables and fruits they can grow, supplemented by produce from the local farmers. They have plenty of choice of second-hand furniture and clothes! They have a wood stove for heating and cooking. She allows herself an electric mill to grind cereals into flour. Most of their children have adopted the same life-style, including the three who are married with children.
II Commercial environment
Business culture and values
Ruth Hofer spoke of her experience of working in Information Technology for global firms. During her four years with an international bank it changed its name five times following mergers, and she had seven different bosses. She reflected that such living is very stressful: some people are able to cope with the pressures of continual change, but others can not. The mix of cultures in an international firm is potentially enriching, but requires sensitivity and a readiness to learn from others. Seeing the workings of the stock-market at first-hand is frightening: often immature young men gambling with other people's money.
The switch to an international service firm has brought her into a different business culture. Their declared values of respect, integrity, enterprise and commitment are summed up in the slogan 'Join us, together we can change the world'. The staff have good working conditions and it is beginning to be recognised that ecological protection is sound business! And it is more effective for a big company to take steps to recycle, cut down waste, etc. than for individuals to take action! This is a welcome change from working some years earlier in a firm making parts for nuclear power stations. Profit and physical security were the main criteria. No consideration was given to the character of the regime owning the power station or to the consequences of technical failure. The clash with Ruth's concerns over responsible care for the future were so fundamental that she resigned.
Water for life
Agata Szuto works in a Research Institute of the State Mining Corporation in Poland on problems of water supply and quality. She explained that the available water supplies in Poland are among the very lowest in Europe. Furthermore, the sources of the rivers are concentrated in the south which is also the area of greatest industrial activity and where coal-mining takes place.
Coal-mining contributes to the problems because its effluents, for geo-chemical reasons, are proving very difficult to treat. They add to the salination of the ground water which then becomes unusable. 90% of rainfall in Poland is added to the ground water and is lost for human use. Agata sees her work as part of the contribution of the coal mining company towards responsible management of the scarce water resource.
There are two approaches to dealing with the scarcity. One is to save water. People and industrial firms are becoming more conscious of this: the amount of water used per capita is falling and the factories are economising by building their own waste-water treatment plants and recycling the water.
The second approach is to build more reservoirs. Up to now only 6% of the total river flow is used, but this could be increased to 15%. For a long time ecologists resisted the idea, but the massive floods in 1997 led the ecologists to acknowledge that in the areas where reservoirs had been built there was considerably less damage. The potential damage could be further minimised if restrictions were placed on people building houses in the flood areas as the Institute recommends.
Reservoirs are built where the quality of the river water is high enough for drinking. One example is the Sola where three reservoirs have already been built. The big rivers, Vistula and Oder, are heavily polluted however. At no point is the water of the Oder drinkable, and less than 1% of the Vistula comes up to the necessary quality. The pollution of these rivers is also damaging to all forms of life in the water.
As for the quality of water for domestic use, in 1998, in urban areas, 5% of water in the pipe-line system was of doubtful quality, 7% in rural areas. But in rural areas 25% of the water used comes from wells and 32% of this water is suspect.
The main sources of contamination are the fertilisers used in agriculture (cattle excrement rather than chemical), industrial waste, and the inadequacy of the sewage systems in towns and villages. Agata's Institute are helping villages to build sewage systems and to install water treatment plants.
III Health and personal life-style
Sister Barbara Haug reminded us that we are part of the whole Creation, subject to the natural cycle of birth, growth, ageing and death common to all God's creatures. There is vulnerability in this cycle of life, but God has given us the means by which we can cope, such as recreation in sleep and an immune system. 30% of all disturbances to our health are healed naturally.
80% of all sickness is related to life-style, not least through psychosomatic effects. Treatment should often begin by addressing the points of stress, apprehension or anger. It is important to accept the ageing process.
As patients we need to take part in the healing process. We can support or endanger our health by our behaviour. With this in mind, Sister Barbara suggested ways to improve health and happiness. These included attention to diet (e.g. fresh fruit and vegetables, fibre-rich food, less convenience products, at least 2 litres of drink a day) and adequate exercise, but also the nurturing of good relationships within the family and with friends, particularly those in the younger generation. Artificial medication should be used sparingly, while accepting routine medical check-ups. We should prepare ourselves and our homes for old age, and accept our children's independence. The Commandment to honour our parents does not mean you can force your children to look after you or that you may organise their households. But there is still a special promise of blessing in this Commandment!
Is health the main point in life? It is an important factor, but it is more important to have peace in your heart and your surroundings and with God!
IV Coping with environmental disasters
The urgency of ecological problems, bioethical questions, and the impact of environmental disasters was brought home to us by the Rev Dr Svatava Klenovska, lecturer in biology in Bratislava, Maria Magdalena Payer, teacher and law student from Baia Mare in Romania, the group from Belarus under the leadership of Dr Irina Gruschewaja, Olga Rsayewa from the Ukraine, and Vijera Suhanek and Ludmila Jurrcova from Novi Sad in Yugoslavia. We were also challenged by the Christian perspective that marked their presentations. Points they emphasised included the following:
1. Ecological systems comprise dynamic, reciprocal relationships. The action of human beings can disturb delicate balances and cause irreparable damage to the vitality of the whole.
2. Such interference is often rooted in political and economic power struggles. Long-term and far-reaching impacts are easily disregarded in favour of short-term profit or military advantage. An example is the disastrous pollution experienced in the Baia Mare region as a result of the mining and processing of metals. Another example is the enormous ecological and psychological damage inflicted by the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia. During the bombing there was the traumatic experience of living in cellars, at times without electricity or water. Then the repeated bombing of the bridges in Novi Sad prevented people reaching their work and the specialist hospital on the other side of the river. In the longer term, the fallen bridges have blocked the passage of boats down the Danube causing the loss of millions of dollars in trade and forcing greater use of the road network, which contributes further to global warming. Bombing of the refineries close to Novi Sad led to dense smog which not only caused immediate inflammation of the eyes, nose and mouth, but has washed down into the soil and has now contaminated the water system.
3. There were many examples given of the tendency of governments to cover up the extent of environmental damage and to hold back vital information. For instance, to name a few, Irina and Natalia from Belarus gave details of the impact on their country of the accident at the nuclear power station in Chernobyl and of how their Government has reacted. The day of the accident was clear and sunny, but nobody alerted the people who were enjoying themselves in the open air to the danger. The May Day parades were not cancelled. By now, in highly contaminated areas less than 10% of children are healthy. Nevertheless official sources go on assuring people that all is well. Statistics on the rise in the occurrence of diseases are only available up to 1995 - since then publication of such statistics has been forbidden. Especially moving was Natalia explaining that she could not breast-feed her son, now 4 yrs old, because her milk contained too much lead. This was a consequence of lead being used in the attempt to contain the fire in the damaged nuclear reactor, causing high levels of lead in the air. But no official warning was given of this.
Olga reported a similar situation in the Ukraine. There also the population has not been informed about the possible consequences of the reactor accident even though, compared to 1989, the number of diseases of the thyroid, blood and skin have increased dramatically.
4. Refusal to acknowledge the seriousness of environmental contamination has led political leaders to take irresponsible actions. For example, farmers in Belarus are subsidised to return to cultivate their polluted gardens as part of a programme of "re-establishment of normal conditions", while health professionals and teachers are obliged to serve in contaminated areas for two years after graduation. In Yugoslavia, politicians under-estimate the long-term effects of the bombing on people's health not least because scientific studies concentrate on physical aspects while disregarding psychological damage. Government priorities can also lead to inadequate health care for those suffering from after-effects. Natalia was concerned that the Belarus Government is prepared to spend money on its army but has no money for sick children.
5. Policy and managerial decisions are made in the circles of the few who will profit. Those who have to bear the negative consequences are not consulted. The pollution caused by the metal mining industry in the region of Baia Mare was described in a written report from a member of 'Cer Senin la Baia Mare' ('Clean sky in Baia Mare'): poisonous gases in the air, toxic waste in the rivers, and high concentration of heavy metals in the soil. 50% of children and 20% of women are ill with diseases such as cancer and leukaemia. The population were not consulted when the mining industry was developed and are now not receiving compensation for the catastrophic effects on lives and livelihoods. Neither should the consultation stop at national frontiers: when a containing dam burst, spilling cyanide into the river system, the poison was carried down the Danube killing the fish in Yugoslavia, adding one more layer of ecological damage and consequent suffering there.
6. In Romania, Belarus and the Vojvodina region in Yugoslavia, beautiful countryside and vibrant communities have been devastated by these environmental disasters. For the people of Vojvodina, the bombing come literally out of the blue. They did not know what was happening or from where the enemy was coming. How can people defend themselves against such disaster?
7. Women's experience and perspectives should be the first consideration in the development of reproductive technologies. Women who have been exposed to radiation also have particular concerns. They live with the possibility that their babies will be disabled or prone to diseases. They need support and advice, without undue pressure, particularly if faced with a decision over abortion.
8. Governments, industrial enterprises and agribusinesses need to be pressed publicly on their responsibility for the maintenance of ecological systems. The ecological conscience must be strengthened! How can we educate children to care for the natural environment and to be sensitive to the needs of others, when politicians show no such responsibility?
9. Support is needed for those who are working on alternative economic goals and alternative approaches to conflict situations. Violence breeds violence. There is a vicious circle of totalitarian disregard of democratic expression leading to more totalitarian action, as seen in Chechnya. This kind of vicious circle needs to be broken. A small proportion of the money used for the NATO bombing campaign could enormously strengthen initiatives within civil society to find alternatives, forcing politicians to take peace-building seriously.
10. Positive, persistent action to protect the Creation is rooted in, and continually sustained by, our relationship to God. Religious education that encourages gratitude, respect and stewardship is vitally important.
1. Responsibility for, and response to, ecological disasters needs to be made a priority issue in election campaigns, e.g. in Romania.
2. Information about such disaster areas should be spread both within the country concerned (standing up to authorities who are trying to suppress the truth) and internationally through the media. Maximum use should be made of email. In some cases, Church Information Officers can advise on which media people to contact.
3. A letter on NATO's responsibility to rebuild the bridges over the Danube will be drafted in German and in English. This can form the basis of letters to members of national parliaments and of the European Parliament, Prime Ministers, the Secretary General of NATO and Madeline Albright.
4. Some of us can look into the possibility of an appeal to the European Court of Justice with regard to the liability of the mining firms for the life-threatening pollution in the Baia Mare region.
5. Manifesto 2000 can be signed on the Internet (www.unesco.org/manifesto2000) any time before the Millennium General Assembly of the UN in September. We can also all join the project "Lights for Peace".
6. Individual projects can be initiated and supported e.g.:
(a) A workshop for young people from Belarus and Germany is being planned by Beate in Leonberg.
(b) Dorothy and the Mothers' Union invite a different family from Belarus each year for a month's holiday in England.
(c) Caritas funds a youth centre and a soup kitchen in Belarus,
(d) Irina and Sabine are planning a project for teenage girls in a prison colony in a contaminated area of Belarus.
(e) We hope that the 'Children of Chernobyl' can meet together with some of the young people from Romania.
(f) Women from Belarus are working together with the Diakonie Westfalen to provide advice for girls and women on trafficking in, and violence against, women.
Irina witnesses that working for and with these projects becomes a healing process.
Elisabeth Bücking and Ruth Conway Sväty Jur, 8 August 2000