Environmental Perspectives in Central and Eastern Europe

After four billion years of evolution based on the technology of DNA and proteins, one species started to use other technologies in order to gain ecological advantages (survival, proliferation) against the limitations of the physical environment, against other species and to gain military power against other human populations. This resulted in an accelerated expansion of human population, domesticated species and some other species (living in symbiosis with them or their parasites) and of technological systems. These elements form a system (which can be called the ‘technosphere’), which is usually not restricted or controlled by the much more complex system of the biosphere. The development and behaviour of the technosphere is dominated by the interests of technology, because this part of the technosphere provides the power to rule over the biosphere. The other elements of the technosphere therefore need to accomodate themselves to the technologies. (An advertisement of the Braun company: ‘The form to which man’s hand has been designed’.) Rapid success of the technosphere made human life easier and safer. This model was developed in Europe and invaded other parts of the world. Accomodation to the rapidly evolving technologies required more flexibility of the societies, and led to the decline of traditions, to the development of market economies and parliamentarian political systems. Therefore, these structures represent technological rather than other interests.

Social conflicts during the last century were the first serious problem of the European model. Two main types of solutions were suggested: the evolutionary (social democratic) and the revolutionary (fascist and communist) way of changing the European model. However, both types were based on the continuous development of technology and further economic growth.

Two kinds of the European model ruled the world after the Second World War: the Western (usually described as a parliamentarian democracy and market economy) and the Eastern model (usually described as a totalitarian system and centrally planned economy). The evolution of technology in the Eastern model was slowed down by the economically unreasonable operation of the totalitarian political systems based on state property, central planning and central redistribution. This resulted in the development and extension of industrial and agricultural systems consuming more resources per production unit and producing lower quality products than the technologies developed within the much more flexible Western model, which produced more products of higher quality. However, the competition of these systems forced them both to grow. The main fields of the competition were the armaments and the world economic market.

Expansion of the technosphere caused deterioration of the environment within the central units of both systems as well as in the Third World, which was controlled by them and provided resources to supply the high demand of the core areas. These impacts are directly related to the purposes of the technologies, that is, to gain advantages over others.

The responses of the systems were very diverse. The Western model allowed the increase of public concerns and the organisation of grassroots activities to pressurise states to accept certain control of technology in order to protect the environment. (Social movements similarly had achieved the introduction of social policies.) Features of the Eastern model did not allow such a response, which resulted in an increasing environmental impact, especially on human health.

The development of technological monopolies (mining, energy, metallurgy, machine industry, military-industry, etc.) in the Central and Eastern European economies has been directed by oligarchies which have gained extremely strong political influence. These groups, in cooperation with state administration, controlled almost all parts of society. In spite of their inability to operate the economy effectively, they were able to keep their power for a long time. Thus, the periodically emerging economic and political crises were solved without changes in the system itself, but led to increased exploitation of resources and a deteriorating environment. As a consequence, the Eastern model achieved the limits of resources earlier than the Western model, which was also more effective in controlling resources in the Third World.

The weakening of the political power of the Eastern model recently led to the development of environmental movements. Public opinion in Eastern Europe has linked the crisis of the environment with the political system. This view created among the public the hope that a change of the political system would solve ecological problems almost automatically. People in Central and Eastern Europe became fascinated by the economic and military success of countries of the Western model. Improving air quality in London, improving the water quality of the Rhine and the use of unleaded petrol and catalytic converters suggest that basic environmental problems can be solved radically by market economies.

Dramatic political changes in 1989 terminated one- party political systems. The totalitarian political model lost the armaments race and economic competition in the world market, due to the low efficiency of technologies developed within this model. The younger generation of the political elite realised the unavoidable defeat just in time, which allowed for the basically peaceful start of the transition. At the start of this process, environmental movements seemed to play an important role in the political scene. According to a Western observer, ‘One of the distinguishing features of the Eastern European revolutions of 1989 is their strong environmental movement in the pre-revolution days, which served as a rallying point from which broader demands for political change emerged. Initially perceived as relatively benign by the region’s Communist governments, environmental movements soon acquired unstoppable momentum’. It was assumed that newly formed political parties, unanimously aimed towards the market economy based on privatisation, would incorporate ecological principles into their programmes.

This assumption is reflected by the environmental programmes of new governments. A brief overview of such programmes of the current Hungarian, Polish and Czech governments illustrates the environmental concepts of new political forces in Central and Eastern Europe.

The Hungarian government published its political programme in the second half of 1990. The environmental programme is summarised in Chapter 5. (It is important to note that, of the twelve pages of the chapter, two-and-a-half pages deal with the problems of the Danube hydroelectric power plant systems. This joint Czech-Hungarian project, which was built with Austrian participation, initiated a strong environmental movement in Hungary during the final years of the totalitarian system. In 1989, the movement successfully blocked the construction of the project.) The most important principles which can be deduced from the text of the programme are:

  • development and operation of the economy in harmony with the environment;
  • environment-friendly change of the production structure;
  • establishment of the market economy;
  • improvement of the ‘owner’s attitude’;
  • change of priorities with an increase in environmental consciousness;
  • the right to a clean and healthy environment;
  • the general use of environmental impact assessment;
  • environmentally oriented credit, tax and customs policy;
  • cooperation with the environmental institutions of the European Community;
  • the separation of the issue of environment from the direct interests of production.

The programme of the Polish environmental ministry, published in November 1990, mentions that the new environmental policy departs from what was once a narrow understanding of environmental protection to a broader goal of sustainable development. The concept of sustainable development is defined by the programme as ‘the attainment of a balance between social, economic, technical and environmental conditions in the process of development’. The basic principles of this policy are listed as follows:

  • control at the source (choice of preventive measures);
  • compliance with the law (no opportunities for circumvention of the law for reasons such as circumstances outside one’s control, public interest or impossibility);
  • the principle of common good;
  • an economisation principle (taking the greatest possible advantage of market mechanisms);
  • the polluter pays principle;
  • the principle of regionalisation;
  • the principle of common solution (for example, international cooperation);
  • the principle of staging (selection of priorities for each particular stage of a long-term policy).

The ‘Rainbow Programme’ of the Ministry of Environment of the Czech Republic, published in 1991, also gives a list of principles and basic approaches:

  • the concept of sustainable development (in contrast to the various economic strategies aimed at a high consumption of natural resources);
  • economic, legal and social conditions facilitating an ecologically friendly lifestyle in various forms;
  • the distribution of information concerning ecologically friendly processes in the production sector and among consumers;
  • renewal of the people’s contact with nature, especially in urban zones;
  • the principle of real effect (trying to restrict the growth of disorderliness of the systems in the planning of all activities);
  • the principle of reasonable consumption;
  • the precautionary principle;
  • the principle of consideration for other people;
  • the principle of respect for life;
  • the principle of citizenship of the planet Earth.

It seems that the governments are looking for effective environmental policies by the application of the Western economic model. The new concepts generally accept that the introduction of market mechanisms will also improve environmental conditions, and their undesirable impacts can be limited effectively by legislation and state control. Unfortunately, there are large gaps between the programmes and the real policies of the governments. General political difficulties are usually explained by the high costs of the political and economical transition and the resistance of old institutions. Deficiencies in the conditions for an effective environmental policy exist in many fields, such as environmental legislation and enforcement, economic mechanisms, environmental management, public participation, environmental research and education.

External determination plays an important role in the domestic affairs of Central and Eastern European countries. In the past, external determination resulted in the establishment of communist systems which became satellites of Russia. After the breakdown of the Eastern block, the former satellites declared their wish to turn back to the ‘European Common House’. This reproduces the decisive role of external determination, because these countries are not able to transform their economies and political systems without Western assistance.

In addition to the positive results, the possible impacts of Western assistance may be determined by negative factors, such as considering Central and Eastern Europe as a new market for technologies which have proved to be inefficient in the Western economies and/or dangerous for the environment, and the continous withdrawal of economic resources from the debt countries.

From a global point of view, the adoption of the Western model of development does not necessarily mean that the Central and Eastern European region will be an integrated part of the Western European core area of this model. These core areas (the highly industrialised countries) use most of the resources of the world and continue their economic growth, which means that the sustainability of the Western model involves the asymmetry of the global order. The ideology of continuing economic growth has been developed by the Brundtland Report as ‘sustainable development’. Specific resource demands of the core areas determine a minimal level (and probably a certain pattern) of asymmetry. If the upgrading of Central and Eastern European countries changes these conditions too much, their membership of the central unit as full partners will certainly be ruled out. In this case, the region would operate as an outside territory under strong control, just like many countries of the Third World. Present tendencies indicate that strong forces are pushing the Central and Eastern European countries in this direction. One example is the pressure from Western governments and companies to build power plants in this region, especially nuclear reactors, to supply electricity to Western Europe. Such actions may inhibit efforts to improve the domestic environmental politics of Central and Eastern European countries. This means that the successful implementation of their new environmental programmes depends essentially on the success of the transformation of the global order itself. Taking into consideration the limits of resources and the space suitable for life, the technosphere in a sustainable global order should be homeostatic, as the biosphere.

Political support from Western governments for old, inefficient and environmentally unsound technologies in opening up the markets of the Central and Eastern European countries, thereby gaining advantages of low labour costs and poor environmental regulations, will slow the transformation of the Western model itself. It will also contribute to the exploitation of global resources, delaying the necessary transition from a growing system to a homeostatic one. This means that, in the long term, Western societies also have an interest in an effective control of technology transfer. Support for the development of grassroots activities (the ‘civil society’) should have priority in order to create a balanced society. Probably the most important factor behind the poor environmental policies is the weakness of the civil society and of grassroots activities. The pluralisation of politics did not put an end to the monopoly of politics as a whole within society. The development of grassroots activities is a slow process requiring not only instruments such as the right to information, the right to associate, the right to participate, but also capacities in the processing of information, organising activities, free time and free energy for voluntary work. Unfortunately, the assistance for the improvement of grassroots activities represents only a small portion of total aid, and even the distribution is partially controlled by the Central and Eastern European states, which make use of the resources devoted by the ‘Western countries for environmental protection in a very inefficient way.

An essential step towards a better future for the region would be the change of the ruling paradigm. Instead of the passive adaptation of the Western model, another concept of the active selection and integration of the environmentally most advanced strategies and technologies is essential in fields such as energy, transport and agriculture. Priorities of governmental activities should be changed, the economy should be privatised as much as possible and the role of the state should be focused on social, cultural and environmental issues as the most important public affairs. The separation of Central and Eastern European countries, their competition for Western economic resources, and the conflicts between them makes this region unable to resist the old interest groups and environmentally hazardous technologies. To avoid a Latin American type of development, these countries should develop real cooperation in economy, defence, culture and environmental protection. Development of common strategies in energy, transport, trade and banking and the strengthening of transboundary regional cooperation at the level of grassroots movements and municipal governments are among the most important tasks.



Vargha, J., 1992. Environmental Perspectives in Central and Eastern Europe. In B. Verhoeve & G. Bennett, eds. The Netherlands and the Environment in Central and Eastern Europe. Proceedings of a Congress of the Dutch National Council of Environmental Policy, Zwolle, 1991. Dutch National Council for Environmental Policy, pp. 31–38.