Politics is made in cities. Nature is out of focus by design. How to overcome it?
Reflections on Terrestrial Forum 2023 in Western Serbia.
Politics primarily unfolds within urban centers, notably in national and regional capitals, and this inherent bias toward urban interests can be perceived as unjust, as smaller towns and rural areas often find themselves underrepresented in these processes.
However, this disparity is just one facet of a more extensive issue. The crux of the matter lies in the fact that political mechanisms are often driven by individuals colloquially known as ‘city dwellers.’ These individuals predominantly originate from urban backgrounds, having been born and raised in cities. They typically possess academic qualifications obtained from urban-centric institutions, and frequently, their parents also hail from urban areas. Consequently, the worldview of these decision-makers and their advisors tends to be limited, with rural territories and the broader natural environment relegated to the periphery of their considerations. To them, the nuances, needs, and intricacies of rural areas and the environment appear not merely unfamiliar but entirely outside their purview. These facets only gain attention when viewed through the lens of resource allocation or during times of crisis.
This thesis appears quite evident in theoretical discussions. However, its true depth becomes apparent when you encounter it in real-world scenarios, revealing the inherent lack of holistic and balanced approaches in the rules governing such situations. My realization of this emerged during my participation in the Terrestrial Forum 2023, which took place in Western Serbia. This meticulously organized event was orchestrated by the Belgrade-based Ministry of Space collective (‘Ministarstvo prostora’), and received support from the Heinrich Böll Foundation’s Belgrade office.
This Forum marked its second occurrence, with the previous edition being the Zemalski Forum in 2021. In 2023, the Forum delved into several key themes:
- Just Energy Transition: This theme explored the socio-economic implications of transitioning to cleaner energy sources, with a particular focus on the Balkans region.
- Deliberative Democracy in Action: The discussions centered around the practical application of deliberative processes such as mini-publics, citizens’ assemblies, and plenums, drawing from experiences in both institutional and non-institutional contexts within the region and beyond.
- Political Economy of Urban Development: Participants examined the micro- and macro-economic forces shaping urban expansion and the challenges associated with aligning these processes with public interests, often overshadowed by commercial priorities.
Beyond these central agendas, the Forum also featured sessions addressing diverse topics ranging from the societal impact of AI development to the dynamics of public-common partnerships and a feminist perspective on urban development.
This gathering attracted around 100 participants from across the Balkans and beyond, featuring speakers and experts from Belgium, Germany, and the UK.
I’ve heard only highly positive feedback from the participants. As well my own experience is much above expectations. So along with the gratitude and gladness, the only question that I raised to the forum’s organization team during the feedback round at the end of the fourth day was:
How could it happen that through the whole terrestrial forum, it was only cases and scope related to the Balkan capitals and the urban agenda solely without any connection to rural areas and their social context as well as nature itself and ecological issues?
As most of the time it was 3 parallel tracks, I couldn’t grasp all the sessions, but the overall impression had been like this, while the important part of the story is that the forum itself was gathered in a small even non-touristic town Požega in Western Serbia with the population about 12 thousand inhabitants, thanks to the local host — FORCA NGO. This means the Forum’s team actually do care about ‘small territories’ not just in theory, but in practice.
Stefan Aleksic, a Serbian anthropologist, writer, journalist, and activist who moderated the closing session in his reply to my question stated:
“Politics is made in cities, so that’s why we focus on cities here’’
And I agree with it as one-third of the program was dedicated to deliberative democracy. Another reply from the circle was that the ‘Just Energy Transition’ topic inherently has rural territories and their inhabitants on its agenda. I don’t complain, I just wonder and continue my reflections.
A single voice from the ecology and climate side in the feedback circle was Predrag Momčilović, researcher, journalist, and political activist focusing on political ecology, degrowth, social aspects of climate change, food production, and just energy transition. He mentioned the importance of the ecosystem approach as a perspective to work with the forum’s topics.
His book ‘Sustainability, Growth and Food’ (Održivost, odrast i hrana) was silently presented within a set of hand-outs at the entrance of our lunch facilities. But again, Predrag was among the participants, whilst out of the program’s scope.
Although the Forum’s program committee follows democratic ideas in the programs’ design, though it was half of the third day dedicated to Open Space and/or Free time, which was along with the planned region’s tour filled with ad-hoc activities connected to paying attention to natural beauty. Sofija Stefanović, an activist and Ph.D. researcher at Cambridge University (feminist science & technology studies and environmental justice) organized a visit to the nearby Kablar mountain that came into activists’ protection because of the project to build a glass observation deck on it which is more then probably will be destructive for the mountain’s biotope.
But I skipped this visit in favour of going to another neighbouring nature spot — Rzav River to swim in its crystal clear waters.
For this ad-hoc immersion all of us who desperately were in need of this water contact during the hot weather days gratitude goes to Vujo Ilić — a Research Fellow at the Institute of Philosophy and Social Theory, University of Belgrade, and a Policy and Research Advisor at CRTA (Center for Research, Transparency and Accountability). In small talks at the river’s bank, it was easier to get to the environmental agenda. Melissa Magdaly Macareno Martínez who originally came from Mexico and stayed in Serbia for the last three years recalled Pachamama (‘World Mother’) — a goddess revered by the indigenous peoples of the Andes. In modern discourse, we’ve lost such impersonalization of Nature and ‘Mother Earth’ forgetting that without personal relations it’s harder to focus on any important phenomena and entities. James Lovelock brought us back to the vision of the Earth as a complex living being with his ‘Gaia Theory’ and Bruno Latour tried to bring this being to politics.
In conclusion, for further events to balance urban politics and nature politics I would suggest at least somehow expanding the focus with looking ‘Down to Earth’. Thanks to Latour for his book with this title (where the subtitle is ‘Politics in the New Climatic Regime’). And, maybe, introduce a vision of the Symbiocene, a concept by an Australian environmental philosopher Glen Albrecht.
This concept was already presented to the Serbian audience in Spring 2023 with a series of events ‘Ka simbiocenu’ (‘Towards Symbiocene’) organized by the Belgrade Cultural Center Belgrade-based ‘Plavo i Zeleno’ initiative, and Forest University from Fruška Gora, where among the other co-organizers was Višnja Kisić, who is also in the ‘Ministarstvo prostora’ governing board, she is a culturologist and researcher, she teaches politics and heritage management at the University of Arts in Belgrade.
Surely I’ve got many more insights, practical cases, contacts and other food for thought. It could take weeks of further reflection, so here I’ve just shared one of my first impressions. Definitely, it could be tens of notes written and I hope there’ll be feedback and publications from other participants and organizers.
This is my fourth experience joining an activism/ecology-related event in the Balkans. The previous ones:
- Reflections on Summer School on Environmental Activism and Climate Change. 2022 Novi Sad, Serbia.
- Reflections on Tivat Tourism Think Tank 2022 — Regeneration for Montenegro and the Western Balkans. 2022 Montenegro.
- Unaware (Unconscious) Violence and Seeds of In-action. Deep Live Gathering 2022 in Montenegro.
My other ‘Balkan reports’ are:
- Serbian Ecologists
- Interview with Nara Petrovic (Slovenia)
- Immersing in the Light of Albanian Nature and Culture
- Universities and Climate Resilient Communities in the Western Balkans and the EU (1FUTURE project and beyond)
- Expats in the Montenegro Countryside (in Russian)
- Social Slow Travel: Lowcost&Zerowaste (it’s a more general overview, but it’s heavily based on the latest experience in the Balkans)