Sustainable development in the example of Chernobyl, Ukraine
On April 9 of 2017, students from more than ten countries of the Baltic sea region met in Ukraine, Kyiv on Kontractova Square, under a common sign reading: “BUP 2017”. These students would spend the next five days in Moshchun, a village near Kyiv, in the hotel Puscha Lesnaya getting to know each other, their respective countries and the life they come from – this in the context of sustainable development. The conference we all attended was titled “Baltic Region Collaboration in Agenda 2030 Implementation. My Contribution in Achieving Sustainable Development Goals 2030”.
The conference was organized by The Baltic University Program, alongside the National University of “Kyiv-Mohyla Academy”. Such conferences are held annually (alongside other student-programs like Sail etc.) and all member universities send their representatives to participate. Since Tallinn University is also a member of the BUP, we had the lucky opportunity of becoming their representatives this year. These conferences aim to strengthen ties between countries in the Baltic region and this year specifically, educate participants in the concept of sustainable development. The latter indeed turned out to be a more complex topic than most of us thought at first.
After arriving at the hotel and freshening up from the trip, we were greeted by the director of the BUP, Madeleine Granvik and the vice-president of the Kyiv Mohyla Academy, Tetiana Yaroshenko, who welcomed us to the conference and gave an outline of what was to come. The day continued with a crash course on the state of Ukraine by Viktor Karamushka, director of the academies ecology department. He presented us Ukraine’s ups and downs regarding politics, industry and environmental issues, without hiding difficult subjects or shying away from answering provoking questions.
This, I believe, set the free and honest tone of the days to come, and Viktor became a crucial anchoring point for discussions outside of the workshops, as he would sit with you in the dinner table and freely talk about his experiences, having been in academia for over 25 years.
Of course, the topic of eastern Ukraine and the convoluted conflict with Russia was unavoidable. We discussed many political issues, which at first glance are unrelated to the topic of sustainable development. Yet on the contrary, it’s a major component of sustainability. In order to not simply recite the on-goings of each day at the conference, we will instead convey the main points learned during our stay. Briefly then on the concept of sustainable development.
The phrase is often misunderstood to mean conservatism, which of course is not the case. Conservatism can be used as a tool for sustainable development, but is not it’s synonym, since the former emphasises sustaining recourses, whereas the latter emphasises development. Humans need to consume environmental recourses to survive, whether we like it or not – how we do this however, is our choice: in a way reminiscent of a saying from pre-revolutionary France: “After me, let the deluge come”, or in a more stable, sustainable manner. The latter is what we call sustainable development! Developing in a way, which accounts for factors of the unforeseeable future and the finite amount of recourses at our disposal, so that humans may continue this developing, long after “we” are gone.
Furthermore, aside from being mistaken for conservatism, often the term is limited to recourse management only. This however is not effective enough – political nuances etc. are important as well. How and why? That’s what was in the focus of our seminars and workshops, and what the we will convey to the reader now.
To start, we participated in multiple workshops centred around the sustainable development goals, set out by the EU. These are quite remarkable, if not a tad vague, conglomerates of factors we should achieve, before sustainable development can be reached. During the first workshop, we wrote down what we thought to be the most important goals for our respective countries, purely from a subjective perspective. In the second workshop, our groups were mixed between countries and the same objective was proposed, yet this time the results were different. From these two workshops, a striking contrast was visible – how very different are the perceived important goals were between neighbouring countries.
This in itself, was an eye opener to how different our homes are. The contrast was especially vivid between eastern and western Europeans. For example, eastern European participants generally regarded infrastructure, medicine and corruption as most important, while western European participants leaned towards social equality and welfare.
Next, we listened to a lecture by Olga Zuin, Project Assistant for the CBSS (Council of The Baltic Sea States). This for me, besides the discussions with Viktor Karamushka, was one of the most important talks in the conference. A particular instance, which Zuni talked about in the dinner table later, sums up the lecture well. Supposedly there was a situation in Italy, where the government, in order to comply with EU regulations, had to reduce nitrogen concentration in fertilizers near coastal areas, to reduce eutrophication. The government at first simply set out a new regulation, which they expected farmers to follow. However, this had no effect, because the farmers mostly used manure to fertilize and thought badly of the regulation, feeling that it was illogical and simply bureaucratic. When the time to present an assessment of their results to the EU, the government quickly realised that their practise has not worked and the situation was eventually resolved with scientists participating in the farmers everyday life and finding ways to incorporate new knowledge and technologies. This worked because the locals understood what was actually wanted, but also because the authorities no longer simply told them what to do, but instead took into account the nuances of their daily work. This clarified to me the effect and aim of grass-roots activities for sustainable development. People do not like to be told what to do, especially if their respective specific properties are not taken to account in it. However, people generally likes to learn and mutual respect is crucial for this process to work.
The next influential moment of the conference took place during the trip to Chernobyl. We spent the whole day touring around the zone area and even dined in the Chernobyl Nuclear Powerplants cantina. We were given Geiger-Müller counters and got a first-hand feel for how radiation contamination works and effects an area. This excursion deserves a small article in itself, but we will limit this to a summary of the main points, which were influential in the scope of the conference.
Firstly, about radioactive contamination. Most people do not know this, but almost every type of radiation decreases in intensity in relation to the distance to the source by the following equation:
where I is the intensity of the radiation and d is the distance from the source of the radiation.
What the latter means is that, as you get further from the source, the intensity drops down as the inverse square of the distance. So, the intensity can be many thousands of Sieverts right next to the source, but already a meter away, it is reduced significantly. Knowing this gives a feeling of safety to people walking past radioactive sources, since keeping a slight distance from them already reduces any risk to a trivial level. However, the horror of radioactive contamination comes from billions of small sources – radioactive dust – reaching practically every point of the contaminated area. Even worse – they can easily get into your organism, where alpha radiation is extremely potent, even in small doses.
Even more, the dust can migrate far and areas that are deemed safe one day, might not be so on the next. Contamination then is not so dangerous to visitors to the respective area, but significantly dangerous for long term stays. In regards to Chernobyl and Pripyat specifically however, the main danger is in unmaintained buildings in risk of collapsing.
Secondly, walking around in abandoned villages and Pripyat, we noticed how well developed the area used to be. Houses in Pripyat sometimes even looked better than many of the buildings people inhabit in Estonia (possibly in other eastern European countries too, but the authors will do not feel competent to comment on it). Another significant phenomenon was the resilience of nature. Trees grew through fences, benches and even buildings. Our guide commented on this in a very beautiful way: “Look at how resilient this live matter is. And always remember, you are made from matter even more resilient than this”. This quote had significant impact. It is important to note that we weren’t impressed with collapsed buildings (people experience similar sights in all post-soviet countries). We were shocked by the rejuvenation capabilities of nature. Hopefully the latter sheds light on why sustainable development is not only about conservation. It is not meant for the Planet specifically – it will survive. But if we do not consume it sustainably, will we?
The rest of the conference dealt with proposing different programs, tackling the previously mentioned common goals. The theme for the latter ended up being grass-roots activism and services, not economic policy, as elucidated by the lecture from Olga Zuni. More strength to this belief was given by Viktor Karamushka and his talks about Ukrainian politics, measures and dealings regarding their independence.
As a well presented sequence of events and talks, the above described stories made an impact on our worldview. Perhaps the biggest change was that we started to believe we that can still make change, even if we ourselves do not have direct influence over a certain aspect of sustainability. People are the ones most in need of a sustainable development strategy, more with each passing day. Understanding this and how our actions can contribute to potential futures – a well educated general public can guide our society to develop sustainably.
To summarise, the conference gave us a clearer understanding of why sustainable development is a complex term and even more, why it is important to convey it clearly. We value different things at different times at different places, a one size fits all solution is not possible through legislation. Too often do people with power consider their subjects as numbers in an excel table and people in academia are not seen as serving their community. An effective remedy to this problem might then be a well-educated general public and structured grass-roots activity by the people with the information, to the people who will in the end make the necessary changes for the betterment of all of us.