Reflections on Summer School on Environmental Activism and Climate Change. 2022 Novi Sad, Serbia

From fight to understanding and cooperation. From city streets to countryside gardens.

I’ve mixed reporting and reflection parts in a single stream, findings during the school, and my previous and further experiences in time and space neighbourhood. Here is a Google.Docs version of this text — for detailed comments and corrections.

Overview

Thanks to all the people involved, I have participated in Summer School on Environmental Activism and Climate Change 2022 (facebook announcement), hosted by Volonterski Centar Vojvodine (VCV) within 3-party partnership that includes BiH branch of IPSIA and GAIA Kosovo funded by WBF (Western Balkans Fund) and co-funded by the European Union to promote regional cooperation. It was five+ fully packed days of:

  • Discovering the related theoretical framework, delivered by well-known Serbian practitioners
  • Aptly chosen ongoing (meanwhile successful) local cases, with ‘how-to’ insights and on-site visits. All the program has been created by Francesca Fornari from VCV. Here is the pdf with the School’s program (and the call for participants) and here is the info about the experts who were involved.
  • Smooth and active interaction between all the participants was professionally facilitated by Katarina Knežević-Nikolić and Eva Vitorović, members of Zeleno Doba NGO (Green Age).
  • The school students represent a wide range of highly motivated persons (aged between 19 and 55) with related experience in social impact projects.

All the technical, accommodation and logistical details were done on a high level as well. The productivity of the event was really supported by the created environment. I would conclude that it was a perfect introduction to the region’s environment protection scene and overall it’s 5 out of 5 stars.

Study visit: small-scale permaculture spot by Dušan and Nataša Petrović.

Harvest

The key outcomes for me (at least judging on the presented context and my previous 4 months of ‘Sustainability at the Balkans’ field trip [1][2]) is that:

I. Even among people who are longtime activists, changemakers, and practitioners the current agenda of ecological crises and social separation is stuck with narratives, that:

  • underestimates the level of problems with psychologically driven denial
  • could mislead into even more separation with energy-wasting ‘fight against’ perspective instead of approach ‘understand and find solutions together’
  • create even deeper gender and non-human disbalances and rights oppression within still highly in use anthropocentric values system
  • indulge personal responsibility
  • ask questions that are more about ‘firefighting’ instead of a deeper search for original causes of the problematic situations

So the scene mostly looks like ‘activism as usual’ that requires to be revisioned, rethought, and ‘refeeled’ to shift the paradigm into the area of holistic, regenerative, and maybe biocentric approach that is actually quite a hard task to do, as it demands a lot of personal work and re-evaluation of basic values and practices within environmental activists community (e.g. personal consumption, having pets, read/write tons of documents to make bureaucracy works for nature/humans instead of just occupying actions).

Photo from Mina Covacevic report on our visit to “Šodroš” kamp (in Serbian) and some topics from the Open space format.

The school has provided opportunities to see newly appearing examples of these ‘second generation holistic participatory activism/cooperation’. Especially:

  • Let’s preserve Karlovački Vinogradi case that is led and was presented by Biljana Simonović — a lot of read/write documentation and claims work (the initiative pays attention to representing the situation in an understandable and clear way, e.g. this video)
  • Wild Belgrade initiative by Milja Vuković who introduced the topic of ‘Representing other living beings in activism’)
  • Small-scale permaculture spot by Dušan and Nataša Petrović. They regularly cooperate with VCV in workshops on practice/theory of permaculture for the local community, free of charge. The result of their last cooperation is this publication (introduction to permaculture to beginners, which was curated by a VCV volunteer).
  • Young participants’ driven topic, which appeared in the school — is understanding natural beekeeping and protecting bees by Lidija Mašić and Dejan Zivkovic (both have their family bee-gardens). Lidija is also co-founder of Bee Park Kosovo (see a short interview with her at Sustainable Living Kosovo).
  • Ecovillages as an option for sustainable/regenerative communities and lifestyle (I proposed this topic for open space format and we did the session). The most advanced people in this topic were the school’s facilitators: Eva, who lives in an intentional community created in a traditional village in mountains in the South of Serbia and Katarina, who cooperates with Global Ecovillage Network Europe. Here is also worth mentioning that ecovillages are by design places where natural beekeeping is one of the key activities. E.g. Fedor Lazutin — the founder of one of the oldest (20+ years) ecovillages and kin domain settlements in Russia — ‘Kovcheg’, internationally is known as one of Europe’s most successful natural beekeepers (see more details in the book devoted to his lifepath).
  • Cooperatives — for production and consumption instead of businesses. We had Predrag (Peđa) Momčilović — a representative of electricity cooperative Elektropionir. He mentioned also the first cooperative solar power plant in Serbia Solarna Stara, an initiative to crowdfund solar panels for public buildings in villages in Stara Planina.

A few topics that I didn’t notice were touched at all (but IMHO worth mentioning at least) were:

  • bioregions regeneration,
  • rewilding.

A good example of territory regeneration I’ve just found (thanks to OpenStreetMaps) on my way in Bosnia and Herzegovina (just after exploring Novi Sad surroundings) — a 2+ hectare plot near the Drina river, mentioned on the maps as Eko-park ‘Jezera’. I’ve been lucky to meet and talk with a couple who initiated and lead this initiative ‘Eko Put’, founded in Bijeljina — a town in Republika Srpska close to Serbian border. 20 years ago it was an unauthorized garbage dump, now it is a natural park location, which next year will become an officially protected natural area. This year they organize a camp for biology students from Bosnian universities to describe the current composition of flora and fauna.

The basic theory and the practices of bioregion are usually designed and promoted by Daniel Christian Wahl (e.g. see his Bioregional Regeneration for Planetary Health), while practitioners of rewilding could be reached at Rewilding Europe — an independent, non-for-profit foundation registered in the Netherlands.

II. Feminism agenda without the mentioned ‘revision of basics’ could lead to even more gender disbalances, separation and exploitation. At the school, we had an intro to the eco-feminism topic by Laura Pejak (activist from Novi Sad) and Manon Pilia (from France, currently volunteering in VCV). Their workshop showed us that women are in the most important and meantime less paid jobs. And during the ‘open space’ session, Annea Kuçi presented a program in Kosovo on women's energy efficiency initiatives. After all, I have a question:

“What if the general feministic agenda took us away from opportunities to look for holistic approaches, where not female, male or in between roles are considered, but couples, big intergenerational families, and small communities or even new kind of tribes are are in the focus?”

So it could be about family businesses, small community non-profits, and neighbour cooperatives where work and decision-making include all ages and genders. An apt example of family collaboration was shown by Dušan and Nataša Petrović (site visit on permaculture) — sustainable living in the countryside is most often possible by couples or even bigger collectives.

Even this perspective could be considered much wider with help of e.g. Donna Haraway’s recent studies. She is a leading scholar in contemporary ecofeminism, her works criticize anthropocentrism, and introduce the concept of multi-species kin and corresponding kinship relations. These relations Haraway sees as a matter of humankind's survival [3]. And that leads us to the topic of non-human beings' rights, where feminism and ecofeminism are very important, but not the final steps on this way to sustainability.

Returning back to the school context, here is also worth mentioning that all the organizers of the summer school were women, among the invited experts it was only one male presenter, and in the participants’ group it was 3 men out of 12 overall. While non-human beings were really in shade, I noticed only a fruitful fig tree, who saved us from the sun for almost half of the daytime, and a cat living in the family, that owns and manages the hostel.

III. The last school’s takeaway for me is yet another acknowledgement of the importance of international youth organisations. At least three of our speakers were members of the Serbian branch of the Young European Greens — Elena Petrovska (climate change overview, now she works in Cooperation and Development Network Eastern Europe (CDN)), Predrag Momčilović (a keynote about Green Capitalism and Degrowth), Milica Adamović (talked about eco-anxiety).

Venue

The sustainable/regenerative venue in the countryside could be another ‘actor’ to help with taking the agenda deeper. The current venue was Varad Inn hostel, which was cosy and comfortable as a place for group work, some sustainability-related tweaks were in place and a yard with a fig tree, but still, it’s ‘business as usual’ (although the hostel is a small family business, so it made sense).

A lecture in the hall of Varad Inn hostel

As an example of a co-participating place and host for further events, I would mention is Šumska 1 (web site, facebook), a three-generations family project. Their land is close to Fruška Gora nature park, while the city of Novi Sad is just 30 minutes away by bus. It’s a rural spot with a garden, event-camping space and the main house with guest rooms intended for educational activities in nature (clay building, forest school, etc.).

Šumska 1 surroundings

Even more, their neighbours are a couple, who are in social sciences with research interests moving to ecological thought as well as dismantling nature/culture divides — Goran Tomka and Višnja Kisić. They are in the process of creating a Forest Pluriversity, as an alternative place for creating and sharing knowledge among humans and more-than-human world. As they have broad international experience and strong academic background they also could be a part of the event. E.g. presenting the case of MAMA foundation in Columbia [3], which is really about the redefinition of how and where art, ecology and politics could come together. When the school was over I’ve visited both these families by hiking directly from the school’s location to know more about their developments and research.

A quotation by K. Vonnegut, that I’ve found in one of the MAMA foundation publications.

And even such a countryside place is not the deepest context. More local involvement could be experienced in places like:

  • In Pellumbas (Albania). where there is a traditional village revitalization project run by Ilir Hysa and Festim Duqi with a garden, camping, some local food from neighbours, and the initiative to cooperate more with locals in creating sustainable tourism opportunities. The village is just 20 km away from Tirana and on the way to a deep cave which is a popular hiking destination (It is my longest stay of 5 weeks in one place during this Balkan field trip — I’ve joined the volunteering team here).
The house in the village project in Pellumbas , Albania
  • In a vital community inhabited in Russian northern traditional village in the Arkhangelsk region. The Kulyasovs family [5] was a key to hosting international immersions on such ecological topics as ‘Ecophilosophy. On the edge’ (2018) and Seeds of action Post-apocalyptic hopelessness and hope (2020).
  • Or even in a monastery with its own farm located in the countryside. In BiH in Republika Srpska I’ve visited orthodox Christian monastery Osovica. Its Igumen — Feofil studied in St. Petersburg and speaks Russian as its mother language, so we had an opportunity to discuss easily how open they are to sustainability activities, organic agriculture, and working with youth and universities on projects related to climate change monitoring and adaptation. I believe that monasteries are social structures that we can work within a really long-term timeframe, as people there are far from fast-changing priorities and contexts. E.g in Osovica they started cooperation with a neighbour villager who initiated a seed-saving practice.

The catering (even with vegan options) was already a significant step into the holistic event, a cook Milica Lisica owner of the tiny local restaurant ‘La Petite Cuisine’ nearby, came from time to time to be in and get immediate feedback. Most of the products were local. Participants were responsible for washing dishes for themselves, and the food that was not eaten was donated via the Facebook group Obrok za porodicu (Meal for a family) where everyone can post what food they are willing to donate and anyone can apply to receive the food and/or to deliver it to a needy person who can’t pick it independently (all the participation is on a voluntary basis, currently many cities in Serbia have their own groups on the same style). The further development of this format could be e.g. cooking together under professional guidance and participating in procurement and researching more about suppliers to have conscious consumption as a build-in practice.

A radical example of how far the information exchange event could go we can find in a paper by Finnish scientists [6]. Another proven source of sustainable events is the Rainbow gathering format, with co-creating flat organizational structure (I arrived at the School directly after visiting the Balkan family gathering in South of Serbia, quite high in the mountains — no electricity and electronic devices, live music, workshop and donation based vegan kitchen with about 200 people at the peak time).

What’s next

As one of the solutions to the mentioned issue ‘revisioning basics’, I would suggest designing three-five days gathering of the Balkans environmentalists to question and redefine even the gathering formats (searching for the simplest and zero-waste/energy facilities and slow group work) as well as the basics of ‘used-to’ perspectives, narratives, and approaches probably with the help of participants that are rare for such agenda e.g. psychologists, artists, high-tech industries representatives, corporate strategy consultants (BCG, McKinsey, …), indigenous people, shamans, etc, with an attempt to include non-human beings. Ecologists from other countries also could add value and make the agenda more comprehensive, e. g. Nara Petrovich (Slovenia) [7], Lasse Nordlund (Finland), Antonina Kulyasova (Russia), Igor Polsky (Russia/Montenegro).

One another theme for an event could be ‘children's education related to sustainability.

The most known case on kids' education on sustainability is Estonia-wide cooperation between their national school system and Gaia Education that led to introducing a curriculum that promotes a sustainable lifestyle, caring about the Earth and the well-being of the human being. The private community school — Gaia Kool was also founded.

In the Balkans, I know that the mentioned Šumska 1 initiative is working on the forest school format to start in Autumn 2022. At Pellumbas village in Albania, we hosted a group of kids from the British School of Tirana — it was the intro to gardening and clay building.

One of the Mokna’s immersions.

One of the GAIA Kosovo former volunteers Mirjeta Shatri — a psychologist and a mountain guide runs MOKNA — an initiative to increase psycho-social well-being of children and young people through educational and sports activities in nature.

As for the broad audience and as well as for kids sustainability narratives, in my opinion, on the one hand, should include acknowledgement of the environmental and social crisis and on the other hand, it’s to find stories and images of the future that instead of eco-anxiety inspire regenerative lifestyles and scenarios [8].

References:

1. Ecology Practitioners in Serbia, 2022

2. Expats from the Post-soviet Countries in Rural Montenegro (in Russian), 2022

3. Making Kin Not Population: Reconceiving Generations, by Adele Clarke and Donna Haraway, 2018

4. Tickling The Sensible — Art, Politics, and Worlding at the Global Margin by Višnja Kisić and Goran Tomka, 2020

5. Kulyasovs family. Applied Ecosociology in the Russian North (in Russian), 2018.

6. THE CONFERENCE REIMAGINED: Postcards, Letters, and Camping Together in Undressed Places by Soile Veijola et al. 2019.

7. Interview with Nara Petrovich, Slovenian Ecologist, 2022

8. Positive Images of Future that Inspire Ecological Movements and Actions, 2021

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