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How 'green' is Bulgaria?

Author: Robert Louis Chianese* Date: Fri, Nov 12 2010 14 Comments, 3132 Views
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The quick answer is that it is very green right now. Recent weeks of rain keep trees, bushes, and grasses in and out of cities fresh and chlorophyll-rich. Even with the bright cascade of yellow leaves that the Roma women sweepers whisk up all day long, greenery abounds, even in late October.

In my temporary city of Plovdiv, the topped-up Maritza River keeps vegetation thriving along its banks, the rain-blackened bark of trees sprouts new growth, moisture darkens the soil of parks and hills, and the air smells not just of pleasant decay but of quenched musky earth. That apparently wafts up from fragrant bacterial spores in the soil bounced aloft by raindrops. The pleasures of this wet, green autumn stimulate multiple senses.

However, visual blight offsets sensuous pleasures – trash lies just about everywhere. A wet blanket of plastic, paper, and glass blemishes the ground, pavements, and hillsides. The locals seem to sow this toxic crop deliberately as if to reap a noxious harvest. Instead of winter wheat, they lay down a year-round garland of garbage, sad adornments to a health-conscious land that touts its yoghurt, honey, rose lotions, and bodybuilding, but also where a quarter or more of the population still smokes.

In squares and plazas one spies occasional containers for this unnatural cornucopia – green for glass, blue for cardboard, and yellow for plastic. But people toss just about anything into these ECO-PAK recycling bins and seem not to differentiate them from the regular all-purpose containers that line side streets. Scarce and misused, ECO-PAKs stand as silent, half-filled witnesses to a failure of consciousness about trash and its effects on the land, and on us.

My Plovdiv University students abhor this junked landscape and eagerly agreed to a clean-up sweep of our own university front yard, decked out as it is with discarded plastic water bottles. Perhaps enrolling in my course in Environmental Approaches to American Literature provides some impetus for wanting a hands-on experience in ecological fix-up. But any stimulus would likely motivate these with-it college seniors. It seems no one has asked them to pitch in. Consciousness about environmental repair seems absent here, so no one takes initiative, gets a bag and picks things up. Trash here is in sight and out of mind – or is it?

You may have heard of Balkan gloom – that bleak cultural atmosphere that used to hover over the tortured peninsular lands of southeast Europe, including Bulgaria. But even with EU accession and somewhat improved economic prospects, that gloom lingers. Corruption, sinking standards of living, and a limited future drain off lots of personal energy, especially from the young, who often dream not of homegrown success but of emigration.

Components of the current gloom have to include the psychological effects of a disorienting, unhealthy townscape. Things shift from new glass and steel tower blocks to sagging, rusting homesteads all within a few metres of each other. Mounds of bags, cups, food wrappers, picked over by dogs and cats, fester by the side of ultra-modern storefronts. Turn your head, the scene flips from gloom to glory and back to gloom again.

Walking anywhere but along the grand promenade requires deft footwork since broken paving, dented, wobbly grates, abandoned work sites strewn with debris, and ominous openings seem to tilt one toward oblivion. It’s a dizzy dance through a scary urban "fun house". This reminds one of how uncaring of others we can be, a gloomy thought sure enough. Add graffiti, peeling posters, and grim photo death notices and it can push gloom to blind denial.

Some places are refreshing. The central park near the main square is very clean, requiring full time attention from the women eco-workers just to sweep around and empty the stubby trash containers. Many people will use them when they are available and not overflowing. That’s the first problem – not enough or big enough public trash bins.

But climbing venerable stairs up one of Plovdiv’s ancient hills for photo prospects, one comes across crevasses, cracks in rocks, alcoves stuffed with garbage, as if stashed for a future archaeology of trash. It’s mainly ephemera but it could last for ages – plastic bags, bottles, some electronic components and plenty of paper, on hill and dale and spread on open ground. It dominates the current settlement of old Philippopolis.

All of this un-recycled trash reminds one of the extravagance of modern society everywhere – over-consuming, useless products, mounds of packaging. In cash-strapped Bulgaria, near the bottom of the EU economic ladder, it’s doubly obvious.

However, just a little better management of the city’s "ecos" or household, which is where the words "ecology" and "economy" originate, could spruce up the town’s look, its health, and the general mood as well.

The appeal to one’s green, altruistic consciousness may have played out here without much effect. Any local "green" organisation or activism seem invisible even if you search them out. Until further systemic revisions of the deep infrastructure – sewers, garbage, water, streets, run-off, transportation, pavements, etc. – make a bit more headway, ordinary citizen involvement could necessarily focus on the surface stuff. But that’s important.

A new tack may appeal to the Bulgarian flair for fashion and strength, particularly in the young. The women here are mainly thin and shapely and the men buff or working on it. Physical health and beauty motivate interest in sports, clothing, make-up, and demeanour.

A Bulgarian environmental programme that portrayed trash as a sign of sloppy style and unfit, out-of-shape civic bodies might just shift consciousness and promote clean-up. The slogan, "Give Plovdiv a Makeover" could turn a few heads to want to deep cleanse the smudged face of the city. One that urged a physical tune up, such as "Buff Up Plovdiv," might just see a few more folks twisting and bending their bodies to get more things into what bins there are.

The university and the environmental community could promote ecological civic engagement by holding a conference on Plovdiv’s very prominent environmental feature – the Maritsa River itself. Multi-disciplinary study and reports on the biological health, aquatic and riparian creatures, and basic economics of the river would likely show its intrinsic value to the city and region. It’s taken for granted, unremarked, but a prime candidate for renewed emotional attachment and respect. Historical review of its ancient past and living present would highlight its influential association with Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey as well.

The Humanities areas can showcase that history as well as art and literature treating the river’s impact on local lives. Galleries, writing groups, and schools could sponsor exhibitions and readings inspired by the Maritsa’s "cultural flow" through the life of the community.

Throughout this "eco-festival," the environmental health of the river would get proper attention and the impact of trash, urban and rural run-off, and industrial toxins would be revealed.
Perhaps more than anything to Plovdivians, the daily presence of so dominant a natural feature as the Maritsa would remind all that keeping it in shape requires attention to the greenness of both city and river – their interdependent ecological health. The fitness, beauty, and mental and physical health of ordinary people surely depend on it.

*Chianese is currently Fulbright Senior Specialist in American Studies at Plovdiv University, and Professor Emeritus from California State University, Northridge. He is also president elect of the American Association for the Advancement of Science- Pacific Division. This is his third Fulbright residency in Plovdiv.

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    • Anonymous
      MK Rating:
      #14 10, 25, Tue, Dec 21 2010

      What bothers me in some of the responses to this essay is the refusal as it is to acknowledge personal responsibility for the present state of streets, parks and towns we all inhabit on an everyday basis. It seems rather easy to blame structures and systems that come across at a remove from us, such as municipal administrators, governments, etc. In short, it looks as if the culprit is always somebody else located elsewhere (including the ridiculous historical other as the ‘500 years of subjugation’ remark, to which Bulgarians too often resort and which is posted here, reminds us). To [...]

      Read the full comment me this amounts to failing to act upon the present within each and everyone’s zone of influence – be it by going out on a Sunday morning after you have collected your newspaper to gather some litter on your block or by contacting your local authorities about irregularities or by teaching a seminar to your students, if you are an academic who does eco criticism in the humanities or any science. This does not mean letting authorities and administrators ‘get away with it’ but figuring out effective and constructive ways to make them improve their public services in this respect. That is the part about the essay I liked most – it contains feasible tips that could be taken up by any municipality.

    • Anonymous
      detai Rating:
      #13 11, 54, Thu, Dec 16 2010

      Who is to blame. The static system of government ofcourse. If the government impress its citizens by making life more bearable for them, they will in turn contribute in this regard. In Germany, people are being paid for recycling most of their wastes. Its all about money, afterall nothing goes for nothing. For now let the government do this alone because people have a lot to worry about because of thier poor and primitive system of government.

    • Anonymous
      The Boss Rating:
      #12 20, 45, Thu, Nov 18 2010

      Indeed a great article with very accurate observations of the Balkan littering tendency. Clearly the public administration in this country is incompetent not to say sucks big time and is simply not doing its part - be it in education, infrastructure, waste management, healthcare, the list goes on.

    • Anonymous
      Phillip Brooks Rating:
      #11 10, 14, Thu, Nov 18 2010

      The standard answer to wrong doings or imcompetence is its not our fault!, what do you expect after 500 years of subjugation

    • Profile previewДесенWed, Nov 17 2010

      This comment has been removed by the moderator because it contained

    • Anonymous
      david millar Rating:
      #9 16, 18, Wed, Nov 17 2010

      lazy selfish ignorant people, in general the people dont care for anything or anyone apart from themselves , there are laws about rubbish but how can these work when most of the police are corrupt
      .There are no advertisements on the radio and tv I think the kmets of each village should have educate the people and work on this rubbish problem

    • AnonymouszzWed, Nov 17 2010

      This comment has been removed by the moderator because it contained

    • Anonymous neutral
      #7 17, 49, Mon, Nov 15 2010

      Probably a matter of mentality: absolute indifference towards the public domain. I'm sorry to say, but it might be an oriental trait. The pavement in front of my local Turkish baker is coated in discarded chewing gum, and I regularly see the pavement littered with the husks of sunflower seeds.

    • Anonymous
      Teresa Rating:
      #6 19, 56, Sun, Nov 14 2010

      I am english and live here , but feel very angry with people who just throw rubbish onto the ground when there are bins near by , some even seem to go out of there way to walk past a big bin and drop their rubbish further along , but that shows a total lack of care for the kids , and animals , I don't think it would take much money to advertise, teach the kids and they in turn teach the parents ,its a beautiful country just needs to be respected

    • Anonymous
      rapu Rating:
      #5 20, 55, Sat, Nov 13 2010

      some laws regarding litter may help, perhaps with a regular advertising campaign.

    • Anonymous
      Chianese Rating:
      #4 03, 58, Sat, Nov 13 2010

      Of course you're right, but that low per capita consumption rate comes at a great price--very low standards of living, poor or unavailable health care, and a constant nagging of oneself about whether to leave to stay. Obviously the homeless use very little resources, but that is no way to become "green." The thing is to revise our way of living so that necessary comforts come from sustainable resources. And trash clean-up is only one of many first steps.

    • Anonymous
      Anon Rating:
      #3 21, 41, Fri, Nov 12 2010

      It depends what you mean by 'green'. At the most important level, Bulgaria is one of the greenest European countries simply because it's per capita consumption is so low. The average Bulgarian contributes far less to global warming than most other inhabitants of this continent (rather unfair as Bulgaria will be one of the worst hit European countries according to the UN).

      The Danish for all their careful recycling and promotion of environmental projects have one of the world's largest environmental footprints because their per capita consumption is so high. They might feel very good about [...]

      Read the full comment themselves but they are trashing the planet and making life unliveable for those poor people in Asia and Africa who will be worst hit by global warming.

    • Anonymous
      bj Rating:
      #2 16, 49, Fri, Nov 12 2010

      great article, well written, and wonderful ideas, not just for Plovdiv but for the capital city!

    • Anonymous
      David Rating:
      #1 10, 11, Fri, Nov 12 2010

      I have just had a visit from my Daughter and Son-in-law, their first visit to Bulgaria. One of their first impressions was of rubbish everywhere, not a good first impression is it? My wife and I visited Romania in the summer and was amazed at how little rubbish and deterioration we saw in our travels all around Transylvania. The Romanian people, whether by nature, civic/national pride or by governmental co-ercion keep their country and countryside in a pristine condition. Many years ago a campaign started by Maggie Thatcher to "keep Britain tidy" was launched and by advertising by government and [...]

      Read the full comment enforcing the laws on rubbish tipping the UK is now quite clean. Other EU countries (ie: Germany) have quite strict laws on civic tidiness and rubbish clearance. Bulgaria has far to go but much to gain in that, a tidy country leads to a pride in ones environment and ones country, something Bulgaria could achieve quite quickly, certainly within the term of a parliament if one is prepared to advertise, enforce and dispense with "pussy footing".

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