Today is World Environment Day. I was invited to be a panelist to discuss environmental issues in Bosnia and Herzegovina. It was a well-organized event in the Botanical Gardens at the National Museum. There were ambassadors and ministers, public figures and fellow activists.
I have avoided any public speaking gigs lately...largely due to the fact that, if I'm truthful, my enthusiasm for this place is waning and has been for some time. But I put on my usual optimist hat and spoke on various subjects, ranging from media coverage of environmental issues, green politics, to green living. On more than one occasion I stated that, in spite of the fact that we still have a lot more work to do and the situation is far from ideal, things are getting better. I emphatically stated that things are better than they were 10 or 15 years ago.
When the panel discussion ended several people came up to congratulate me...all reinforcing what I said and how I said it. Then I saw my old friend Anes Podic.
'Tim, what is better than fifteen years ago?!" Anes asked me in is his usual soft tone. No immediate answer came to mind. I had to contemplate his question. The answers I gave, like our ability to communicate with ministries, the fact that we can take the big boys to court and actually (sometimes) win, the reduction in illegal logging activities, that the Via Dinarica can be a locomotive for rural development AND environmental protection, or that the ENGO sector is working much more closely on vital issues regarding the environment, didn't convince him. He systematically shot down each one of my arguments. And I could shoot down none of his.
I have known Anes for 20 years now. He is a walking encyclopedia on environmental issues and regulations here in BiH. I have always known him to be a man of exceptional moral integrity. I have not always agreed with how he seeks change but I have never disagreed with him on why. He and his wife Ceca are consistently on the front line of most important social issues in this city. The hijacking of the general hospital. Air pollution. The Urban planning farce. Destruction of our water protection areas. You name it, they are on the picket line. So when he asked me again "What is better?" I had nothing to say. Not a single word.
I took the umbrella gifted to us by the Federation Environment Fund and a walnut tree seedling and silently headed out. I saw my friend Lilly from the US Embassy, who has been masterful in bringing environmental groups and individuals together to talk, lobby and argue with local authorities. I told her that I didn't think I was going to do talks like that anymore. She cocked her head to the side, almost like a curious pup, and asked why. My answer was this:
'I think Anes was right.'
She assured me that things weren't all black and white. And that although things were far from perfect, progress had certainly been made on several fronts concerning the environment. It didn't soothe my conscience one bit, though. As I was walking back to my car from the National Museum towards Grbavica market I scanned through the last fifteen years of our activism. Things were certainly bad then...and the exploitation of this country's natural resources was literally a free for all. We lost most of our battles. We were threatened. Taken to court for libel and slander. We were systemically silenced...and generally ignored.
Today we can speak more openly about it and occasionally get someone to listen. But the bottom line, as Anes poignantly pointed out, is that we still don't have laws on forestry...there is no spacial planning...mayors can decide on their own, with zero control, on what to build and where...we still have the lowest level of protected lands in Europe...our forests are disappearing and our water sources are gravely endangered...we sometimes have the most polluted cities in the world during winter (yes, the world)... and plans are being implemented to allow wealthy Arab investors to buy up the best swaths of land to build resorts and whatnot in some of our most pristine natural areas. His list was actually much longer. But I think you get the point.
And so I went over what I had said during the panel discussion in my head. I was predictable in that I tend to want to please my audience. Perhaps I was saying things were better because I knew it would be popular. Or maybe I said that because we are drenched and drowning in negativity and I try to offer at least a glimpse of hope when I speak about this country. I strolled by the large poplars along the Miljacka. By the time I reached Cappucino this is the next thought that dominated my mind:
"Or did I just sell out?"
Did I? As harsh as I can be on myself...I still like to think that I didn't. I'd like to think that I tactically engaged my audience. I'd like to believe that in this unbelievably dysfunctional country there is still an inkling of hope remaining. I try to instill the belief that pessimism is easy...but the real challenge is to find the silver lining. That real change starts in the mirror.
I am more than willing to accept (to myself) that this country has accelerated its downward slide on an already slippery slope. Things are not really all that rosy. And my attempts to stay positive, sugar coat or live up to what I think is expected of me doesn't do this country or myself any service at all. But publicly I often balk at jumping on the 'Bosnia sucks' bandwagon. It's just too easy.
By the time I reached my car I hadn't convinced myself of much of anything...except that I was still pretty sure of this:
The planet is in peril. Bosnia is no exception. Whatever we're doing is simply not enough. I think Anes was right. Maybe things aren't better.