1985 Right Livelihood Laureate Janos Vargha.

Unravelling the future: Janos Vargha’s journey through environmental challenges and societal shifts

News 09.02.2024

Hungarian environmentalist Janos Vargha urges young activists to break free from the cycle of relying on politicians, reflecting on Hungary’s alarming shift towards far-right ideologies and what he views as a looming ecological collapse. Drawing from his own experience preserving the river Danube, an accomplishment that earned him the Right Livelihood Award in 1985, Vargha instead encourages today’s activists to adopt a holistic approach to address environmental issues.

Vargha is a man driven by a desire to understand the world. In the study of his Budapest apartment, the walls are covered with books from floor to ceiling.

Vargha’s concerns about the current state of Hungary are palpable. He paints a vivid picture of a society tilting towards far-right ideologies with a worrying surge of nationalism. Drawing from history’s lessons, he underscores the perils of polarisation and the urgent necessity to tackle environmental issues and human nature in unison.

“I am spending my time following and studying what is happening today, both in terms of environmental protection and human nature,” he says. “That includes polarisation and nationalism, which I consider among the greatest sins and mistakes. The shift towards the far-right in today’s Hungary is tragic.”

Today, cooperation around a common goal in Hungary seems impossible. That was not always the case: the environmental movement Vargha co-founded 40 years ago to save the Danube from the construction of a dam system brought together all parts of society.

The Danube Circle

Trained as a biologist, Vargha was working as a journalist for an environmental magazine in the early 1980s when Hungary was still under communist rule. He found out about the plans for a dam on the Danube during an interview he was conducting about environmental threats in a town north of Budapest. Later, he attended an official meeting to find out more.

“It all started with a propaganda film,” he says. “I think it was called ‘Between New Shores.’ The person chairing the meeting tried to keep critical comments to a minimum. And I didn’t like that.”

The meeting led him to look into the planned construction, resulting in a highly critical article that was pulled from publication at the last moment. In response, he started an in-depth investigation on his own that took him on a historic journey: turns out, plans for such a joint construction between Hungary and then Czechoslovakia dated back to World War II peace negotiations.

A year later, in 1981, he published an article in a samizdat newspaper entitled “Dam or Dunasaurus?” The latter phrase, which he coined, became widely used. Further articles followed, including in the weekly Reality, which was the first time that the issue was presented to the general public.

What became clear from Vargha’s research was that the project, agreed on by the communist governments of Hungary and then Czechoslovakia in the 1950s, would have highly negative environmental impacts and made little economic sense.

“I naively thought that if people understood the problems then they couldn’t be persuaded to support the opposite of that,” he says. “I was naive because personal agendas and economic calculations override the truth. A portion of the engineers knew exactly what was happening and what the problems were – but they denied it, created false documents and studies, and misled the politicians.”

In an attempt to raise the alarm, Vargha spoke to everyone he could: opposition groups (whose gatherings were illegal at the time) and university students – as far as he was allowed by the authorities.

In 1984, a committee called the Duna Kör (Danube Circle) was established. They managed to raise awareness of the issue, garnering large-scale civic action – a rarity under Hungary’s communist regime.

In 1988, the movement organised several public protests and planned to call for a referendum. Eventually, in 1989, as the communist regime was crumbling, the construction was stopped.

“The river is flowing freely today – this is a very important aspect, preserving the free flow of the river,” he says.

The surprise news of receiving the Award

Vargha and Duna Kör received the Right Livelihood Award in 1985.

“We didn’t even know about the Award: we found out when it was all of a sudden announced on Radio Free Europe,” Vargha says.

“At that time in Hungary, the news about us receiving the Award could not be published. But once it could be publicised, it was held in high regard by the public and also in the press.”

It was the international recognition that shielded the movement from “more serious retorts.”

“I was fired from my job, others were threatened, but in reality, this was an operetta compared to the tragedy that had been going on sadly in this country,” he says.

Future ruins of a “golden age”

Thinking of the future, Vargha paints a chilling picture of a potential ecological and civilisational collapse. If that happens, survivors might find themselves in a world reminiscent of prehistoric hunter-gatherer societies, scavenging amidst the ruins of what once was, longing for a bygone era.

“They will remember a ‘golden age’ when there was prosperity,” he says. “They will ask themselves: Why did we lose it? What can we do?”

He warns against the pitfalls of focusing solely on climate change, advocating instead for a comprehensive, all-encompassing strategy. Humanity needs to address interconnected issues like deforestation, the dwindling population of large mammals, and the overuse of underground water reserves. These, he argues, are the collective culprits behind the intricate and detrimental processes reshaping our planet.

“It’s incomprehensible why there is no feedback to all these processes,” he says. “One explanation is capitalism. The other one is human nature.”

His message to young climate activists?

They need to find a way to break out of the vicious cycle of calling on politicians to act.

“They won’t act,” he says. “Why have movements and initiatives, like the UN’s Millenial Development Goals, been unsuccessful? Because people keep thinking in the dichotomy that there are the people and there are the politicians – and politicians will never be environmentalists. ”

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