The Sky Has Fallen

Annual flooding in the Balkans has become a sign of the region’s vulnerability to climate change. What are people and governments doing about it? Ivana Kazazovic reports.

 

Rain that was meant to fall over the course of three months inundated parts of the Balkans in just three days. Cities such as Obrenovac in Serbia and Doboj in Bosnia and Herzegovina were temporarily wiped off the map in May of 2014. That year, Germanwatch rated Serbia the country most vulnerable to climate change, with Bosnia close behind in third place.

 

“It’s a complicated metric. All sorts of things are measured, including damage on the economy, and the number of people dying [as a result of weather events],” says Djordje Samardzija of Jedan Stepen Srbija (One Degree Serbia), an NGO concerned with climate change in the country.

 

The floods brought death and destruction. They ruined homes, schools, hospitals and made arable land unworkable. It was the biggest flood in the region in a hundred years, prompting people to refer to them as “Biblical”. The scene has, on a smaller scale, been repeated in the years since.

 

Paradoxically, what awaits the region is both an abundance of water, as well as a dangerous lack of it. Every spring, higher than average temperatures make the mountain snow melt sooner and at a quicker rate, leading to plentiful rain followed by months of borderline drought.

 

“Primarily, we are expecting bigger droughts,” says Mr. Samardzija. “When we talk about a four degree increase in temperature on a global level, it can seem like ‘Wow! Great! It will be four degrees warmer!’ but those four degrees are on land and water alike, which means the land will be much warmer than that.”

 

Mr. Samardzija adds that this means summers in the region will be about six weeks longer. “Summer is already hellish as it is,. Six more weeks will disrupt the whole ecosystem”.

 

Droughts cause significant economic, environmental and social damage. Among other things, farmers lose business and food becomes more expensive. Droughts also damage the soil, can cause forest fires, and can endanger people’s well-being by causing health problems related to heat, dust and a lack of clean water.

 

“So that’s one side of the story with the droughts,” continues Mr. Samardzija. “The other is with the rainfall. On an annual level, the presumption is that there will be a decrease in the amount of rainfall. But there will also be a disruption. Instead of there being relatively constant precipitation, there will be big storms during which most of the rain will fall — which was the case in 2014, when a third of the year’s rain fell in three days,” he said.

 

“That’s really a cataclysm,” he adds. The reason is that there is less rain over the remainder of the summer, which is lengthening, causing more prolonged periods of drought.

 

Some people are trying to fight these challenges by changing small decisions they make on a day-to-day basis.

 

Milica Adamovic is an ecology student from Belgrade who, having attended an environmental film festival, left with a life changing decision.

 

“When I came out of that film [Cowspiracy], I didn’t feel good. I was shaking. I was with three of my friends, and they were sitting like this,” she said as she froze up with a frightened expression. “And I was crying, shaking and swearing, swearing… He [Kip Andersen, director of the film] went to these organizations of environmental protection that I love and follow, and I was swearing. Sitting and swearing, is this possible? Is it possible they’re [the heads of environmental protection organizations] so stupid?”

 

Ms. Adamovic has been a vegan for about seven months. This means she consumes no animal products of any kind — not meat, not eggs, nor dairy products and honey, and she avoids any clothing in whose production animals might have been involved.

 

Veganism can be difficult in Serbia. Not only does the country have a culture of meat and yogurt, but as a developing country there still isn’t as much variety in stores and supermarkets as you might find in the West, or their strict labeling policies.

 

“My dream is that one day a shop called Vegan will open up, where you can just go and buy anything,” she says.

 

Veganism has been growing around the globe, seen by the noticeable increase of vegan restaurants being opened in many countries, from the USA to Spain to New Zealand. At four percent of the population, Israel leads the way as the “vegan capital of the world,” while in the UK, one in eight individuals is a vegetarian or vegan. The trend is particularly spreading among young people below the age of 30.

 

So why are people making the switch?

 

It’s estimated that around 18% of green house gas emissions come from livestock, making them the biggest single contributor ahead of all cars and planes put together. The space they occupy, as well, is criticized as being plentiful as farmland takes up almost half of the planet, at 40%. Some suggest the land could more usefully be given over to rice or corn, which would improve the prospects of addressing world hunger. Furthermore, the livestock industry is notorious for its cruelty to animals.

 

So how much of an impact could one person eating less meat even have? After all, one less customer at the butcher’s counter won’t lead to one less chicken being killed.

 

However, one example in Denmark shows that there is a noticeable shift happening. The supermarket chain Coop has observed a standstill in the amount of meat being sold, while sales of protein alternatives, such as beans and nuts, are growing.

 

“Our expectation is that we will continue to see a fall in volume, but that those who continue to eat meat will go for better quality or, for example, a higher level of animal welfare,” said Thomas Roland, head of Coop’s responsibility department.

 

In Serbia, veganism might not have grown to be quite so large. The biggest Facebook group called “Vegan Kutak” has about 2,600 members. (For perspective, the group “Let’s forbid veganism in Serbia,” which seeks to “end the terror vegans bring to plants,” has 2,100 members).

 

Still, according to Ms. Adamovic, the country is still joining the overall global trend. “Every month there’s 20-30 new members [in the Facebook group], that’s something,” she says.

 

However, despite changing buying habits in supermarkets, the question remains: how much of an impact could vegans have on the real, palpable reality of the huge agricultural industry, wherein it causes enormous damage to the planet?

 

In an interview for the travel site Matador Network, author of “The Vegetarian Myth” and ex-vegan Lierre Keith, says “lifestyle is not politics,” and vegans won’t solve the problem of the agricultural industry.

 

“There are no personal solutions to political problems. Only political movements can confront and dismantle unjust systems of power,” she says.

 

Environmental activism has been around since the early 20th century, turning into radical environmentalism in the 90s when activists started taking more extreme action, like treesitting, where the protester sits on a tree preventing loggers from cutting it down. In this century, environmentalism has become a big part of political dialogue in the Western world, as left-wing political parties tend to align with green politics.

 

In Serbia, however, this trend has not gained much traction. Despite the visible impacts of climate change on the region, such as the floods and longer, drier summers, whether global warming is real is still disputed.

 

For example, Velimir Ilic, a minister without portfolio (meaning he’s a minister without specific responsibilities, but holds the title of minister), made an interesting statement this year. He was in charge of overseeing the management of the floods during the state of emergency, and when asked what caused them he said they were simply “God’s will”.

 

The president himself, Tomislav Nikolic, has made interesting statements in the past. In 2014, he said those catastrophic floods were caused because Serbia was “bit by a water snake”. He added: “[The rivers] woke up, bit, released their venom. And now they’re hushed again.”

In the 2015 UN Summit he somewhat changed his tune. He recognized that climate change is a real danger, but denied that Serbia, or indeed any developing country, should take any action.

 

“The responsibility for these developments [battling climate change] does not lie with those who combat poverty in their countries to create conditions for a life worthy of man. This responsibility does not lie with Serbia which opens soup kitchens to feed many their only daily meal. The responsibility does lie on those who have the most [meaning developed countries like the USA or UK, among others] irrespective of whether God gave or they gained it by the force they use to exploit other peoples [referring to, for example, colonial pasts of countries like the UK],” he said.

 

Later in 2015, at the COP21 UN Climate Change Conference, better known as the Paris conference, he changed his statement again. He stated that it is in fact possible for Serbia to reduce its emissions.

 

Djordje Samardzija, from Jedan Stepen Srbija, noticed the changes. He says President Nikolic was finally faced with the facts and figures of the problem of climate change, and had no choice but to change his stance.

 

“We in Serbia like to say we have character because we never change our minds, but if you actually are confronted with an exact science, that’s no longer character. I don’t have character if I don’t change my mind, I’m just insane,” he says.

On a global level, the Paris conference is regarded as the biggest climate change agreement ever. Its aim is to reduce emissions drastically, bringing them to 0 by 2050.

 

“To Serbia, this agreement is of particular importance, because the key thing of the Paris agreement and the fight against global warming is ending the exploitation of coal. The exploitation of coal is a key problem for modern society. That’s the core of the problem,”  says Mirko Popovic, project coordinator at the Belgrade Open School, a non-profit educational organization.

 

“So we have to stop digging coal. To Serbia this is a particular problem because most of our electricity comes from coal. 70% is made from coal, or actually from lignite, which is of a much lower quality than other coal,” he adds.

 

He adds that Serbia is among the countries in the world with the highest rates of lung cancer and cardiovascular disease.

 

“The technology that would show a direct and unequivocal connection between producing coal from fossil fuels and these types of diseases doesn’t exist yet. But there has been some serious work, and some serious academic journals have concluded that it is in fact coal which causes these diseases,” he said.

 

The coal industry therefore not only pollutes the land, air and water, but leads to human lives being shorter. The Paris agreement, in that since, has the potential to drastically improve quality of life across the globe. 178 of the 197 UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) members have signed it, including Serbia, but only 19 have ratified it – meaning it has become part of local law.

 

Serbia is not one of the countries that have already ratified the Paris agreement. In fact, a pretty strange thing happened as Serbia submitted its plan for emissions reduction – known as the INDC (Intended Nationally Determined Contributions).

 

“It’s humiliating. Serbia submitted a document where it said it will reduce emissions by 9,8% in relation to the base year of the Kyoto Protocol. However, when you do some math at the level of a third grader, you notice that a 9.8% decrease compared to 1990 is actually a 15% increase in comparison to 2013,” explains Mr. Popovic.

 

Back in 1990, the borders of the country were different. At the time, along with Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Slovenia, Montenegro and Macedonia, Serbia constituted the much larger Yugoslavia, which has since broken up. Subsequently, the claim of independence by Kosovo made Serbia that bit smaller. Despite the fact that the government doesn’t recognize Kosovo’s independence and classifies it as an autonomous region of Serbia, data from the two large thermal plants placed there isn’t officially included as Serbian emissions.

 

“And that’s how we, with some fraudulent behavior, now say that we’re going to decrease our emissions, when actually we’ll be increasing them constantly,” concludes Mirko Popovic.

 

Without taking a closer look, EU officials praised Serbia openly as a leader in the region and an example to be followed because of this plan. Miguel Arias Canete, the EU Commissioner for Energy and Climate Action, shared a picture of the Serbian flag on Twitter saying just that, calling Serbia “leaders in the region, neighbors to follow soon”.

 

“When people told them, ‘hey do you understand what happened?’ they were like ‘no no no, we were praising that Serbia submitted a plan not what was in it,” says Djordje Samardzija. “I don’t think the European Commission will allow an embarrassment like that again”.

 

As a new document, the NDC (Nationally Determined Contributions) is due soon, the government will hopefully change its plan. “I believe that the next INDC, the one we’ll make in 2018, that it will be a real reduction. That’s good for the country and for people and the world,” says Mr. Samardzija.

 

Meanwhile, climate change discourse in Serbia is limited. Most of the time, it doesn’t exist at all.

 

“First of all,” says Samardzija, “climate change is not a topic here at all. It’s not a topic in the same way as in the West. The Guardian has a whole page as part of it’s Environment section dedicated just to climate change, which has a couple of new articles every day. I mean, the Guardian is an incredible newspaper, but climate change is a topic. Maybe they’re not number one, but they really are at the top of any political dialogue in the West”.

 

Sometimes, like in the case of the 2014 floods, the topic becomes too big. Then the media often appeal to local folklore and superstitions to explain what can no longer be ignored.

 

Milica Adamovic gives an example of an article posted in 2014, during the floods. “I read that a husband cheated on his wife, so she went to throw some incantations for her husband to be killed. That’s still common in Serbia, that kind of thinking. That witches are organizing it all up there, that it’s God’s will, that God is testing us, that’s all still very common,” she says.

 

Some struggles, however, resonate even in developed countries with stable environmental reporting. Journalists have an obligation to show two sides of the story, which, in the case of climate change reporting, has created confusion.

 

“On one side, we have a scientist who is saying that climate change is dangerous and real, and that we should do something about it, and behind him it’s 99% of the scientific community. And then you have some pseudo-scientist, behind whom there’s no scientific research, and he’s talking about climate change but doesn’t know anything,” says Samardzija. “I think media can make a difference by reporting on scientific facts rather than somebody’s pseudo-science,” he concludes.

 

The situation in Serbia, where the media is torn, the government unmotivated and limited impact of personal lifestyle changes, is nothing new. This country is like a microcosm of the bigger, global picture. Under these conditions, how can a problem as big as climate change be solved?

 

“The story that was relevant in the ecological movement for the last 20 years, do a little to make the planet better, that doesn’t make sense anymore. That may have made sense 20, 30 years ago but not anymore,” says Samardzija.

 

He tells me about a village in France called []. The community got together and they built windmills from which they now earn more than is that town’s designated budget. A similar thing happened in Germany, where the citizens voted in a referendum to buy off the electric power distribution system of their solar panels. These communities are now using clean energy and making a profit at the same time.

 

“We can say ‘Germany is just like that,’ or maybe Germany is like that because it has people like those. But we, on the other hand, are passive. Always waiting for someone to offer us or impose on us a better solution. A lot of people are waiting for that, for something to come from above,” says Samardzija.

 

Energy from coal is still cheaper than more renewable technologies can offer, especially because of the subsidies the industry gets. And while people are waiting silently for a solution from above, some people do make their voices known.

 

“On one side we have the fossil fuel companies, on the other politicians and then the citizenry. And since the citizenry hasn’t said what it wants yet, but the fossil fuel companies have said what they want, then politicians listen to them. I mean, that kind of behavior on the side of the politicians, it’s just human,” says Samardzija.

 

So what will it take for the citizens of Serbia to take a more active part in this debate?

 

“You know, this is a country that in the last, how many, 30 years, survived wars, survived bombing, survived political and economic crises. I think that the living standard of life in this country for the average citizen is so low that to him neither the environment or public health, to him it’s about that small circle in which he lives and about which he thinks about is whether tomorrow he’ll be able to secure the most basic things like food and pay the bills. You know, when the first of September comes around, most people’s problem is they can’t afford to buy shoes for their kids. There’s no environment, there’s no public health, to them it’s a problem to buy their kids shoes,” says Mirko Popovic.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Waste of a Nation

Serbia is bringing back the Green Fund – a pot of money to be used solely for environmental protection. Does this mean the government is getting serious about fighting pollution and climate change?

 

The Serbian capital, one of the oldest cities in Europe and the meeting point of two great rivers, the Sava and Danube, is the home of contradiction. It’s landscape is filled with symmetrical brutalist architecture, but glass and color will inevitably pop up amidst the gray. A gateway, between Eastern and Western Europe, it has been destroyed and rebuilt, more than any other city in the world.

 

Once home to one of the oldest European civilizations, the Vinca, whose many artifacts, suggestive to some of alien contact, are housed in one of Europe’s most significant archaeological sites, a few kilometers west of Belgrade. Yet, just a short distance to the north you will also find one of the biggest and dirtiest landfills on the continent, bearing the Vinca name.

 

You won’t find a lot of garbage on the streets of Belgrade, but look into the rivers, or God forbid, under the Gazela bridge, one of most important bridge in the country and part of an international road network across Europe, and you will know where Serbs stash their trash away. There’s no primary selection system in the country, meaning there’s no infrastructure for citizens to separate recyclables from organic garbage. But, people can go to the post office and apply for special bags in which they can separate their recyclables and leave it outside their homes on a particular day at a particular time – and keep their fingers crossed that it will be delivered as promised.

 

“I don’t know why you have to apply at the post office. That was never clear to me. I almost didn’t apply because of it. What does the post office have to do with the environment? But whatever, you apply and then you separate it,” says Mirko Popovic, the project coordinator at the Center for European Integration at the Belgrade Open School.

 

“I don’t know if the right communal service comes and picks it up. I see that the next day the bag is not there, and I really hope that the secondary collectors are the ones who take it because, if it is the public communal service that is taking it, I know it is ending up in Vinca”.

 

It is definitely more work to recycle than not to, and the only people who bother are the minority that want to do it in the first place. The only so-called ‘incentive,’ is a reduction on the monthly bill for garbage collection.

 

“The taking away of garbage costs around 100 dinars (60p). What kind of reduction on a 100 dinars can you get that will motivate you to do this? If they took away the entire cost of the service, it’s still nothing,” says Mr. Popovic.

Other than that, recyclable and organic waste alike end up in one of countless landfills across the country. There are around 120 legal ones, of which only a handful are sanitary, meaning they are very isolated from the environment which protects it from the materials which haven’t degraded yet. On top of this, there are a few thousand illegal landfills, according to unofficial estimates.

 

Otherwise known as ‘wild landfills,’ illegal ones are dangerous because there’s no control. Dangerous waste, such as chemicals from slaughterhouses, gets thrown out on a random strip of land along with all other waste, and can endanger health and the land itself.

 

“[The people who dump this waste] don’t even dig a hole. They just find some vacant land and stuff it all in there,” says Ana Petrovic-Vukicevic, the president of the Association of Recyclers of Serbia. “And all around it is farmland, and then the wind blows some of the garbage all over the highway, and it all just flies, bags and trash”.

 

At the same time, the recyclable material is often ruined by rain, sunshine or soiled by other organic waste, and can no longer be reused. At best, it can be resold at a much cheaper price, which is the case with cans.

 

“Cans are resold solely on the value of their aluminum,” says Jelena Kis, the manager of the Riken foundation which promotes recycling of cans in the region. She says that, when a can has come into contact with organic waste, the recycling company can sell it only at “ten times less than it could otherwise because the material is unclean. So in that sense primary selection is crucial, because it’s absurd to sell it at a price ten cheaper.”

 

Another problem is that the state of research makes it near impossible to get accurate information about the state of damage done to the environment. “We don’t have [the data]. The government tendentiously doesn’t keep track of it,” says Mirko Popovic.

 

“That which the local authorities give, I am deeply convinced that that data is wrong. They do not measure it. They can’t measure it. Because, first of all, landfills are in open spaces, where anyone can come around and throw anything in there,” he continues.

 

Furthermore, as part of the country’s plan to join the European Union, the legal framework has been changing radically across all boards for years. These changes are mostly done in compliance with guidelines crafted by the EU, so as to meet their standards for joining.

 

However, a landfill law has been changed recently, and is one of few which are not in compliance with EU rules. A new category has been introduced.

 

“The new law about handling waste, we criticized it severely, the term ‘unsanitary landfill,’ has been introduced. You know what that means?” says Mr. Popovic. “An unsanitary landfill is a landfill which isn’t in compliance with regulations, but which is handled by the public communal company”.

In other words, an unsanitary landfill is an illegal landfill on which materials are dumped by official government garbage collectors. There’s no care for the environment or public health being given, and yet it is allowed.

 

“And in that way, in my opinion,” Popovic continues, “the state of things has been accepted. Lawlessness has been legalized. That is what the government does. In this way it puts lawlessness into the legal framework”.

 

He goes on to compare the new law to legalizing theft. “Say you stole a car,” he explains, “[and then the police officer tells you] ‘treat yourself a little to that car and we will say you are the ‘unlawful holder of other people’s property.’ And then you have three years to use that car, do with it what you will, and nothing happens”.

 

However, the recycling industry in Serbia has a lot to offer. It is the only industry to have grown during the 2008 crisis. By EU estimates, it is capable of creating up to 40,000 jobs. This is because the factories are less automated than those elsewhere in Europe, and require more manual labor. It has already provided a number of jobs, especially to people from marginalized groups.

 

“They include people with little education, who can’t find a better job in the 21st century, or from the Roma community, or those with special needs, or for example veterans. There’s a whole army of people who can find a job in the recycling industry,” says Ana Petrovic-Vukicevic.

However, the work of secondary collectors, meaning those who manually pick out recyclable materials from bins across the country to sell to recycling companies, is a legal gray area.

 

“The law says that the waste belongs to the citizen, up to the moment he throws it away,” says Osman Balic, the president of the Yurom Center which promotes the inclusion of the Roma community in Serbian society. “[When the citizen throws it away] since the garbage can is the property of the community, the owner of the waste then becomes the municipality. When a Roma citizen comes, a child, takes it out, they are stealing municipality property. But otherwise that waste would just stay there until it stank, but this guy took it that day and took it away for recycling, sells it, and earns from it”.

 

Almost all waste is collected by members of the Roma community. Known as the “city’s worker bees,” they individually collect, on average, between 150-200kg of waste a day according to studies done by the Yurom Center.

 

They do this with their bare hands, and often with the help of their children. Seeing them around the city, digging into garbage disposal sites, is so common most people no longer notice.

 

“Those are people who’s contribution to the protection of the environment is huge, immeasurable,” says Mr. Balic.

 

For this work, however, they don’t have pensions or health care, annual vacations, or any other of the benefits a worker recognized by law would have. They work when it’s scorching hot and freezing cold, and earn just enough to scrape by. To change this would mean to legalize their work fully.

 

Furthermore, another opportunity presents itself. Serbia’s neighbors are relatively small. Considering the recycling capacity Serbia has already installed, countries like Bosnia, Montenegro and Macedonia could, according to Ana Petrovic-Vukicevic, export waste here and recycle it, at a price.

 

She argues that because they’re small, they don’t generate enough waste for it to be profitable to build their own recycling capacities, which are quite expensive. Instead, they could export their trash to Serbia, which already has the infrastructure, and pay for the service.

 

“But that’s another thing for which the prime minister, and that of Montenegro, and Bosnia, have to sit down and make a deal. This isn’t impossible. On the contrary, it’s a very smart solution,” she says.

 

However, things may not be as simple as that. According to Rijad Tikvesa, the president of the Bosnian organization EKOTIM (the association for the protection of the environment, nature and health), sending Bosnian trash to Serbia is not a realistic solution.

 

“When it comes to Bosnia and Herzegovina, and recycling in Bosnia and Herzegovina, it’s true, very little waste gets recycled. But there’s different reasons for that”, he says.

 

In Bosnia, there still isn’t a developed legal framework for recycling, as well as a lack of technical infrastructure and will to recycle from the side of the people. However, sending it off to another country may be more complicated still.

 

“As far as this idea goes, to send it off to Serbia just because there the infrastructure is already there, shows that that’s not a serious approach, because in some cases, the cost of transport alone is more than the cost of entire process of recycling”, he adds.

 

However, despite the great recycling potential the country has thanks to the high capacities that already exist, the rate of recycling has been somewhat stable since 2009, hovering at around

 

“Eurostat qualifies us as 0% recycling, but that’s not true,” says Ana Petrovic-Vukicevic, of the Association of Recycles of Serbia. “By our data, we recycle between 10 and 12% of waste. We have really good capacities but they aren’t used to full capacity”.

 

The problem is that the recycling business can’t sustain itself. The end product seldom pays for the process, meaning factories need the money that should be collected by the so called Ecological Tax (Eco Tax), which is imposed on polluters as an extra cost to be paid to the government for their damage to the environment.

“That reimbursement is calculated in two ways, of which the first is completely wrong and the other isn’t applied,” says Mirko Popovic.

 

The first way he is referring to is for polluters to pay according to size of property. This means two businesses of equal size will pay the same amount of ecological tax, regardless of their actual impact on the environment. There is a vast difference in the damage done by, for example, a hair salon and a plastic bag store, according to Mirko Popovic.

 

The second method is that, in accordance with EU legislation which Serbia has adopted, the polluter pays. Money gained from this Eco Tax should go to, among other things, helping the recycling industry conduct business.

 

However, in Serbia there tends to be a huge space between what is legal on paper and what is enforced in practice. The Eco Tax is not enforced, and those who don’t pay it aren’t penalized. Furthermore, the law no longer sees this revenue as specifically collected for this one purpose.

 

“What does this mean?” explains Mirko Popovic. “When a certain revenue is defined as ‘designated,’ it can be used exclusively for that one purpose. So, if that is the revenue for the protection of the environment, then that revenue can only be used for the protection of the environment. By taking out that ‘designated,’ characteristic, the revenue collected for the protection of the environment become part of the entire budget of the local authorities and they can choose to do with that whatever they’d like”.

 

Ana Petrovic-Vukicevic adds: “I am extremely against the money being used for pay and pensions, that the green money is being used for other purposes. To me, that is unconstitutional. To me that is criminal. To me that is the undesignated use of designated money. Put simply, it’s a kind of theft and abuse”.

 

A lot of collected waste is exported and sold in other countries for recycling. This is done by the secondary waste collectors and brings Serbia a lot of profit each year. However, this means that local factories often don’t have enough raw materials.

 

Furthermore, considering how unstable support from the government is, it is difficult to give adequate assurances to investors and practice predictable business management. The government is often late in its, at times insufficient, payments to the recyclers that they should be receiving from the Eco Tax. This forces factory owners into taking bank credits which they can’t always repay. Even when they can, a lot of their resources get wasted on things like interest and currency conversion, adding another challenge to conducting business.

 

“If we had regular financing, then that percentage [10% of waste recycled] could in a few years grow really quickly to some 35%,” says Ana Petrovic-Vukicevic. “Those are some estimates, if it were an ideal situation, we could in some 5-6 years reach 50%, which is the EU average. Because we have the infrastructure. And the factories that exist now could invest in expanding, and then others would become interested in investing.

 

Because, you know what’s the problem, the recycling companies started working in 2009 and then [the government] cut their wings. It’s like if you have a kid who just learned to walk and you leave him on the street”.

 

What Ana Petrovic-Vukicevic is referring to is that in 2012 the Green Fund, a special pot of money to be used solely for green purposes, was absolved.

 

“Again, because of political reasons,” explains Mrs. Petrovic-Vukicevic. “There were some alleged abuses with the money. After all of that, no one was processed or prosecuted, but the fund was cut. I really resented the minister, at the time Zorana Mihajlovic, for cutting the fund. She could have changed it, restructured it, changed some member statutes, to prevent abuse, but not end the institution”.

 

She continues to say that Mladjan Djinkic, at the time the Minister of Finance and Economy, is a smart financier who saw that there was a lot of money there (£45mil), and that then “that was lost somewhere in the budget”. In other words, it was re-purposed.

 

This year, however, the Ministry has announced the re-introduction of the Green Fund. Could this mean the government is getting serious about funding environmental protection?

 

Ana Petrovic-Vukicevic is not convinced. “Let me tell you. This year, after three years, with changes and additions to the law, in February the Green Fund has returned, and that in, shall we say, a declarative way. It will begin in January 2017, but this Green Fund isn’t a fund in the classical meaning of the word.”

 

She explains that the new Green Fund, rather than being that, is actually a “budget line”. “It’s an item in the budget which is called the Green Fund, so the administration has filled out some form that the EU expected from them in the process of joining, and so we now have a Green Fund, but in an actual operative sense, we haven’t solved our problem”.

 

The problem is that, rather than having a reliable pot of money that comes from the Eco Tax, the minister has to, on a yearly basis, decide how much money to give for ecological purposes.

 

This will mean constant negotiating and lobbying, rather than having a set, dependable source of resources. As Mrs. Petrovic-Vukicevic points out, this year, the recycling companies received 22% less from the government than what the industry predicted they would need to conduct business, without even a guarantee that that money will be paid out in the first place.

 

There is little question that, if it weren’t for European Union’s expectations, there wouldn’t even be any strategy for the protection of the environment in Serbia. Still, one third of all the changes Serbia must make as part of its EU accession are part of Chapter 27, related to ecology. It would stand to reason that this is of high priority to the government.

 

However, despite the demands on paper, there doesn’t seem to be much pressure from the EU in practice to take Chapter 27 that seriously.

 

“The environment is not a priority to the European Commission,”says Mirko Popovic. “The environment is not a priority to the government of the Republic of Serbia, and the environment won’t be the thing that will decide on the scale whether Serbia gets into Europe or not”.

 

Candidates don’t have to meet every demand by the EU before becoming members. Joining is dependent on many different factors, and some issues get precedence over others. In Serbia’s case, those are currently Chapters 23 and 24, to do with rule of law. They are particularly significant because of accusations the government protects individuals accused of war crimes from the 90s conflicts, as well as the issue of Kosovo’s independence. Still, entering without complying wouldn’t be without consequences.

 

Ana Petrovic-Vukicevic seems a bit frustrated, and has something she’d like to say to the country’s officials.

 

“People, where are you running to into Europe, but the key thing, the environment, you’re not solving!”

“The colleagues that we work with in Croatia, they’re always telling us that it’s better we hold off on the EU a couple years than that we go in unprepared, because now they’re paying huge fines,” she continues.

 

Greece alone has paid around 20 million euros in penalties for not meeting EU standards regarding treatment of waste, due to their many landfills. Getting plunged into European Union expectations without the ability to cope could prove to make things more difficult for Serbia.

 

“What I’ve noticed, through unofficial contact with the representatives of the ministry and with, again, unofficial contact with our partners in the European Union with the European Commission, is that they are aware of the mistakes they made with the accession of Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia.. That they are ready and understand that Serbia needs a lot of time, and it seems to me that within the European Commission there’s the tendency to not make the same mistake again,” says Mirko Popovic.

 

He continues to point out that “on the other hand, you know that the decision whether Serbia becomes a member state isn’t made by the European Commission but by the member states. So there is a danger that that by political decree we become a member without meeting these standards. Without solving the problem of rule of law, without solving the problem of transparency in finance which is, again, a problem of rule of law, we will never be capable of solving the problem of the environment. If they give us 500 years, we won’t do it”.

 

Ultimately, it all comes down to a lack of political will. “Serbia doesn’t function in line with the principle of sustainable development,” he says.

Pseudo Prosperity

Is Serbia’s energy policy bringing about grave health costs due to its unsustainable energy policy?

 

There’s a couple problems Serbia’s demographic trend is facing. For one, the size of the population is shrinking at an alarming rate, at around 40,000 less people each year. This is mostly attributed to an old citizenry and high migration rates, as well as high levels of stress, and having kids at an older age.

 

Secondly, this relatively small country has some of the highest rates of cancer and cardiovascular disease in the world. This is partially due to the leftover radioactive depleted uranium that can still be found across the land, which was brought by NATO bombs during the war in 1999.

 

Dr. Dragica Grujicic, the Head of the Department of Neurological Medicine at the Clinic of Serbia, says the rate of cancer in this country is 2.5 times higher than the global rate.

 

“In the world, the rate of cancer is about 2,000 for every million, but here it is 5,500. And the most affected areas are Kosovo and the area around Vranje, where there was the most impact [by the bombs]. The other parts of Serbia aren’t protected either, because uranium dust spreads easily, even to areas that weren’t bombed,” she says.

 

She goes on to point the finger at the government for not having taken enough action to clean the land from this poisonous substance.

 

However, not everybody agrees that uranium is such a big culprit. Dr. Ana Jovicevic, an epidemiologist from the Institute for Oncology and Radiology, says: “The high numbers can be attributed to lifestyle changes. The USA and developed European countries started implementing preventative programs such as banning smoking, propagating a healthy lifestyle and physical activity, as well as reducing damage by industrialization, much sooner than we did.”

 

One thing both these doctors seem to be arguing is that there is more the government can do to make people healthier.

 

Around the world, governments are waking up to their responsibility in ensuring their citizen’s health. Even in the USA, which once proudly spoke of small government and praised the private system for health insurance, now has ObamaCare, a state-funded health care system. So why should the government get involved in people’s health?

 

Beside the moral aspect, health is after all a social issue. For a country to meet its developmental goals, it needs a healthy strong people to work, engage in the economy, reproduce, take up arms in defense if necessary, etc.

 

Looking closer into the moral aspect, in the World Health Organization’s (WHO) ‘World Health Report 2013: Research for universal health coverage,’ the WHO argued that everyone should have access to quality health care services and that this requires a “strong, efficient, well-run health care system”. They also argued that this cannot be achieved without proper scientific research.

 

So what is Serbia’s health care system like? In 2012 and 2013, the country ranked as having the worst one in Europe, as it got last, 35th, place in the European Health Consumer Index (EHCI). Last year, it ranked 30th, showing some progress. The report states that this is partially due to the new government’s decision to appoint the Chairperson of the organization “Doctors Against Corruption” as Special Adviser to the Ministry of Health.

 

However, other aspects of the system remain problematic. The most telling of these is very long waiting periods for surgery and checkups, especially in the oncology department. On average, patients wait between 6 and 8 months for these, often urgent, services. A lot of the equipment is also outdated and short in supply, as are doctors. For years, Serbia has not had enough practicing physicians, as qualified persons migrate in huge numbers. The majority go to Germany, Slovenia and Scandinavian countries where they have a higher pay, more benefits and a higher overall standard of living than Serbia can offer.

 

Most telling of all, public campaigns to raise money for individuals in need have become very commonplace. Most frequently, it is parents looking for money to send their children off to hospitals in Germany or the USA. They ask the public through tabloid newspapers to send texts and donations to cover the high costs of transport and lodging, and sometimes the procedures as well (although these are at times free). They have had varying levels of success, but ultimately lead people to ask the question – ‘why can’t we cure ourselves at home?’

 

Having, therefore, failed to secure even the most basic treatment facilities, it would seem preventative measures become even more crucial. However, the government hasn’t lived up to its promises in this department in the past. For example, a third of the country’ s population smokes, yet a ban on smoking in public places never went through, despite being talked about for years. Just this February, an article titled “For or Against: A ban on smoking in public places?” was released in one of Serbia’s biggest tabloids, Blic, where the argument against it was that “[Serbia] is a smoking nation,” and the slippery slope argument of “does this mean the next step is them coming into our homes and telling us how to live?”

 

However, if anti-smoking laws were to be enforced, it would still likely lead to a decrease in smoking rates, as it has in the past in other so called “smoking nations,” such as the UK or USA. As it is now widely accepted that smoking has a direct link to lung cancer and cardiovascular disease, it would stand to reason a government trying to make its country healthier would do all it could to minimize the spreading of the habit.

 

Another big factor in preventative health care is the environment. Air, water and land contamination rates in Serbia are much higher than their more ecologically conscious EU neighbors allow. These rates are mostly attributed to a very outdated energy policy, wherein coal is dug at all costs with very little thought being given to long-term consequences. Other aspects include very poor waste and water waste management.

 

“We have a long history of not caring about the environment,” says Mirko Popovic, project coordinator from the Belgrade Open School, a non-governmental educational organization.

 

“One of the reasons is that we are a poor, developing country and we’ve always looked at the environment as something to serve the economy and bring the economic resources we need”.

 

So what is Serbia’s energy policy?

 

It would seem unhinged, unsustainable growth is of top priority to the government. Without much consideration for the environment, a few years ago Serbia signed a deal with China for an expansion of the Kostolac power plant. The deal is worth over $600 million and has been highly disputed for its illegal endangering of Romanian land, due to being so close to the border.

 

“Cities like Uzice, Valjevo, Kraljevo, they have problems so bad people can’t walk outside from the pollution,” says Popovic.

 

It’s true. In Uzice, a town to the west and nearby one of Serbia’s most beloved mountains, Zlatibor, air pollution is so bad doctors recommend windows remain closed and people stay in their homes. This winter, Valjevo, another western city, had its highest air pollution in years at nine times the legal limit of soot. Kraljevo, on the other hand, can’t even use the water in the river Ibar for doing laundry, how contaminated it is.

 

The reason for this kind of pollution are the many factories in the area, as well as poorly kept sewage systems. The river Ibar alone is polluted by more than 250 industrial plants and waste from 40 different cities and villages.

 

And the price for this is high. According to a 2010 WHO report, “Economic cost of deaths from air pollution (outdoor and indoor) per country, as a percentage of GDP”, 33.5% of Serbia’s GDP goes to covering health costs related to this type of pollution alone. That is a very high price to pay indeed.

 

Djordje Samardzija, from the NGO “Jedan Stepen Srbija” (One Degree Serbia), which tackles climate change and pollution in the country, finds this fact ridiculous.

 

“The excuse for not investing in the environment is that we’re poor. But maybe we’re poor because we’re not investing in the environment, maybe that’s the solution,” he says. “Because if 33% of our GDP goes to covering costs related to air pollution, maybe that’s exactly what we need to solve and then we will all be richer. There are both moral and economic reasons to have a more sustainable policy”.

 

Still, change would take time. As Samardzija says: “Nobody is saying that [the system] should be changed overnight, because it took years and decades to build, and that means something. But a healthy economic and energy politic would surely mean transitioning to renewable sources of energy”.

 

The problem of course, is that renewable sources of energy tend to be expensive. It is much cheaper in the short term to indiscriminately dig for coal than it is to build new

capacities.

 

“Here there’s that wrong assumption, that wrong thinking, about the price of energy, which is that solar energy is expensive. It is, when you compare it to the subsidized price of coal” says Samardzija. “But if you count in the 4 billion euros of added health costs from the production of electric energy from power plants, that price isn’t 5 euro cents, it’s 26 euro cents [per kilowatt], and that’s significantly costlier than the price from solar panels.”

 

Furthermore, Serbia really does have the natural potential. Especially when it comes to solar energy.

“Considering that the price [of solar panels] is constantly dropping, it’s not longer a question of should we or shouldn’t we, but whether we have enough sunlight, whether we have enough of that resource. In Germany, let me tell you, a huge amount of households has solar panels installed, and they have 40% less sunny days than Serbia,” points out Samardzija, noting that the country doesn’t lack in ability, but will.

 

It also shouldn’t be a matter of lack of funds. After all, the government is obligated to secure pots of money solely for green purposes.

 

However, misuse of these resources is also common. Often, these funds don’t even get used up. When they do, they don’t always have much to do with protecting the environment.

 

As Popovic says: “What is spent, is spent in the most ridiculous ways, which have no direct connection with protecting the environment. Maybe the best example of that is that they were used for maintenance of the zoo in [the city] Jagodina. And you know what the explanation is? That is very original. The protection of biodiversity. Because there are giraffes there, so you know.”

 

The funds that don’t get used up are simply transferred to the next year. This means that it isn’t even a case of simply not having the money because Serbia is a ‘poor country,’ as it is often said. It is a case of poor management and unfocused governing, showing a lack of motivation in the department.

 

“We have a very weak ministry [the Ministry for Agriculture and Environmental Protection]. We have a ministry that doesn’t have enough administrative capacities,” says Mirko Popovic. “And on top of that, is in charge of four huge areas, which are economy, forests, water and protecting the environment”.

 

With a ministry with little power and a lot of responsibility, handling day to day activities certainly becomes difficult. Other countries, which take sustainable development more seriously, organize these responsibilities better. For example, Sweden has a whole ministry dedicated just to this cause, the Ministry of the Environment and Energy, who’s sole duty are the government’s environmental, energy and climate policies.

 

“It’s not that Sweden has such high living standards because Swedes are better people” says Popovic. “Not at all, it is just that someone actually implemented laws over there.”

 

This brings about the next issue. Despite having introduced good environmental laws, based off European Union guidelines and standards, Serbia doesn’t enforce these. Granted, this isn’t only a problem in environmental law and spans across the board, but it certainly affects this field as well.

 

“[Serbian society] has gotten used to acting irresponsibly. [It] has gotten used to not having to respect laws. In this city people are still throwing trash out their windows,” says Popovic.

 

The other problem is transparency. “There’s not a single public debate about the environment,” says Popovic, who looked into transparency in environmental policy as part of a workshop this May, titled: “How can civil society organizations contribute to a transparent and participatory process to the negotiations regarding [the negotiating chapter related to the environment for joining the EU] Chapter 27”.

 

“Most of the information is not available,” he says, and goes on to explain what happened when a law about protecting the environment was scheduled for a public hearing. “The public hearing about this law happened in July of 2015. That is also very interesting, that those hearings happen in July and August, it’s clear to you what the motive for having those hearings in July and August is,” suggesting they are purposefully held at the slowest time of the year, when many people are on vacation.

 

“They are always held in the minimum provided time frame [15 days], never longer than that, and it’s very common for there to be more than one law at these hearings at a time”.

 

He goes on to say that these laws are huge, involving a lot of material. “Whoever wants to seriously devote themselves to going through it, can’t even go through one law in 15 days, much less three at a time”.

 

A side effect of lack of transparency, as well as Serbia’s long history of corruption, is that people become aware, and therefore expect it. This makes trusting the government difficult, and how could be expected to ask something of a government they believe they should be protecting themselves from?

 

“I honestly find it difficult when I go work on the field, and I work in the field a lot, it is very hard for me to explain to regular people why what I do is important,” says Mirko Popovic. “On one side, there is a lot of distrust towards those who are making decisions, on the other side, there’s a big distrust towards organizations of civil society,” says Mirko Popovic.

 

So what needs to change? Ultimately, either people will rise up first and demand something more, or the government will truly change its policies and include the public in the decision making process. Alternatively, nothing will change, and everybody will lose. Which one it’ll be, only time will tell.

 

 

The cost of second skin

A young fashion designer’s fight for a better tomorrow 

Alexandra Wall welcomes me into her cozy studio on a rainy Friday afternoon. She’s asked her two interns, a second-year fashion student and an air hostess, to take the rest of the day off so we could talk. Tucked away in the middle of the labyrinth that is this old church filled with art work, the blonde twenty-three year old leans back on her chair and speaks with the confident professionalism you’d expect from a business owner. With the faint sound of a pop song coming from her Mac Book Pro, she says:

 

“I don’t want to be a millionaire. As long as I can make a living off this, and still have a pint on a Friday, I’m happy”.

 

She sits in front of a large colorful church window that she “just fell in love with” when she was scoping the space only a few months ago. After placements for six months in London, Alexandra found she had no more to learn from unpaid positions and decided to move back to Cardiff. Even though most of her family is from England, by the time she came around they were living in Bridgend. “I’m very much Welsh, you can’t tell me I’m not Welsh! I was born in Wales, I’m Welsh”.

 

She loves being patriotic in what she does, she tells me, and considers it an advantage to be based in up and coming Cardiff, rather than larger, more established London. “Yes, I’ve come from Cardiff. It’s a brilliant city to be, kind of, like, spokesperson for fashion. You don’t need to be in London! London is so overrated and I need people to realize that,” she says smiling.

 

Her business, Xandra Jane, has an androgynous aesthetic and is built around a sustainable philosophy – meaning using organic materials, and no scraps get thrown away.

 

“Trying to be eco and trying to go forward with zero-waste is actually, it’s a challenge for a small business…. It’s kind of like healthy eating, it’s more expensive. It’s so much easier to buy for 50p chicken nuggets, but if you want to eat healthy and take care of your body, you have to fork out and buy the good fruit and veg and stuff,” she says. “But, if there emerging businesses in fashion don’t do it, then who is going to lead the way?”

 

Certainly a question many are asking. The fashion industry is second only to oil in how much it damages the environment, and has been associated with sweatshops and mistreatment of workers across borders.

 

The complexity and size of the industry makes it difficult to determine the exact size of the carbon footprint. However, a good starting point is looking into the pesticides used in cotton farming, as well as dyes and general waste of discarded materials. On top of those, extraction, farming, harvesting, processing, manufacturing and shipping cause immeasurable damage.

 

“There’s a dark world to it and I just need to rebel against it,” says Alexandra. “Morally I couldn’t go down another route. My morals would just get in the way”.

 

She highly recommends the documentary True Cost by American filmmaker Andrew Morgan. This is the film that made her pursue environmentally-friendly clothing by bringing to light both ecological consequences, as well as the exploitation of cheap labor in developing countries, of the industry.

 

In the beginning of the film, Mr. Morgan says: “I came into this story with no fashion background at all, beginning with a few simple questions. What I’ve discovered, has forever changed what I think about the things I wear and my hope is that it might just do the same for you”.

 

In Alexandra’s case, he seems to have succeeded. Her dedication to sustainable fashion is, in her own words, “a challenge for a small business”. It’s not only more expensive, but having to use every bit of fabric has an impact on the creative process as well.

 

However, it’s not all doom and gloom. “The zero waste thing I’m trying is actually quite an exciting process,” she says while tracing her fingers on a small white piece of fabric. “If you have, say, this piece of fabric and you’re creating a garment, and you have to use every square millimeter of that piece of fabric, that poses problems. It’s kind of like a logical puzzle that you need to work out”.

 

Her process goes against what most, especially the biggest, fashion companies are doing today. While hers is a more conscious business, it doesn’t satisfy the speed and low cost of what is known as  ‘fast fashion’.

 

Fast fashion allows masses of consumers to buy clothes straight off the catwalk, at affordable pricing.  These brands include Zara, H&M, Debenhams and many more. With constant turnover in collections and low prices, these brands give their customers fresh designs at low cost.

 

And how do these companies manage to achieve this? In one word, sweatshops.

 

The fashion industry is notorious for its exploitation of workers in poor countries. Places like Cambodia, India, China and many others, have a much lower minimum wage than that of the UK or USA where the companies are usually based. Most of the workforce are women, although many are children as well, and there is very little regulation when it comes to health and safety.

 

One particularly gruesome incident took place almost exactly three years ago. Over a thousand people died and more than twice that were injured in a garment factory collapse in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. Known as the Rana Plaza collapse, the incident happened when additional floors were added to the five-story building to expand the factory. It wasn’t built to take the weight and the walls started cracking. The workers noticed these and became worried about the safety hazard, but their pleas were ignored and their superiors forced them to return to work.

 

The factory made clothes for brands like Mango, Primark and Benetton, and many more. The incident caused an uproar domestically and internationally, and is seen as an example of the exploitation in the industry and a reason for reform within it.

 

These companies defend their ways by saying they are at least giving them jobs, and that they bring in a lot of money to the countries through imports and exports. Meanwhile, suicide rates are some of the highest in the world, sexual assault is rampant and mass hysteria phenomenons like mass faintings have been affecting thousands of workers.

 

It doesn’t have to be this way. Even big businesses can be sustainable and protect their workers – like Safie Minney’s People Tree, which highly prioritizes fair trade. It is an expensive, but possible, change for High Street to make.

 

While they catch up, Alexandra Wall is already there. “So far, everything I’ve been doing is UK sourced. I’ve met with the people who work for me, I know where my fabrics come from. If I don’t approach a collection with zero waste, I will ensure that I will have used all organic textiles”.

 

There’s no way around it. As she put it: “A lot of people like to scoff at fashion, but those people wear clothes. Unless you’re a nudist, you can’t really scoff at fashion …. It’s just like a second skin, isn’t it?”

 

Showing me a clip of her Graduate Week show, the most prestigious fashion students event in the UK, the happiness on her face is obvious. One of the models even has Alexandra’s favorite piece, black leather pants, put on backwards. As a march of waif-like models with pleasantly symmetrical faces and bored expressions showcase her work to the world, she laughs. “This one’s got a goat skull, cause you know, why not”.

 

“I love the industry and I love the people. Like, it’s surprising, the ‘bitchy fashion industry,’ and everyone is so lovely.. New people, all the time. Very social place to be. Great fun doing. I can get up and work seven days a week because I love what I do. It’s just easy”.

 

 

 

The “virginity” lie

The idea that the first time we have sex will change our minds and bodies forever is as absurd and insulting as it is exclusionary and inaccurate. Virginity is a social construct meant to say that it is actually possible for men to take something away from women through penetration; a lie which shames women into not having sex while pressuring men to have as much of it as possible.

Biology as an excuse:

The hymen, a thin layer of skin found in the vagina, is often cited as basis for the untruth that sex does indeed change a woman’s body. It is even used to justify the lie that the first time a girl has sex, it will inevitably hurt. On top of that, it is exclusively a women’s body part, with no male equivalent, making it easy to use as a political tool to police women’s bodies.
If the hymen were to remain intact by puberty, menstrual blood would not be able to be discharged which would be a serious medical concern. Some girls are born without a hymen, and even those who do have one often wear it out, either completely or partially, long before their first sexual encounter through anything from exercise to using a tampon. This thin layer of skin is even self-repairing, and holes can close again. Other women have an imperforate hymen, meaning it doesn’t wear away normally and doesn’t have holes big enough for tampons or erections to enter the vagina, requiring surgery.
It is also devoid of nerve endings, meaning there is no physical sensation caused by the breaking. The reason many girls experience pain their first time is that they expect to, leading to anxiety and tension. Lack of experience is also often at blame, as the vaginal (not hymenal) tissue can tear if there isn’t enough lubrication.
The hymen therefore cannot possibly be used as any kind of measure of virginity – it is completely unreliable in giving any information regarding sexual history. As flattering as it might be, men simply do not actually have any ability to remold women’s bodies through their genitals.

They do not change our vaginas through penetrative sex any more than they change our mouths through oral.

Denying identity:

So what about oral and anal sex, dildos and vibrators? Using this narrow definition of sex as penetration of the vagina with a penis means excluding a wide range of sexual activities and identities. How can someone say that a lesbian who never had sex with a man is a virgin, even if she has had sex with women? Or a gay man who had sex with men alone? Is a woman considered a virgin if she has only had anal sex and/or oral sex? What about if a man or woman pleasured themselves with toys before having penetrative sex? To dismiss all these is to be willfully blind to how large sex actually is and exclude a large spectrum of experiences.

 

Ultimately, virginity, this flawed social construct, is used as currency in a misogynistic and sexually repressed society. To varying degrees in different cultures, this lie that a person’s worth and their sex life are inseparably linked is used to exercise control over members of the group, making people combative and incapable of interacting honestly.

The Language problem:

The language we use itself is telling – virginity is something to lose and take. Sex itself is treated similarly. The woman puts out – gives her body away. The man (taps that, hits that) takes her. He fucks her, creates an action, whereas a woman is acted upon, as in gets fucked.

 

No two people can have equal value at the same time. Women have it before, men after sex. Sex is treated as a transaction, rather than an experience in mutual pleasure.
Women’s sexual behavior is therefore highly monitored. Depending from culture to culture, there’s a certain number of sexual partners women should have by a certain age. In most of the west this number should not be so high they are “sluts”, but not so low they are “prudes”. Unless a woman fits within that narrow window of acceptability, she will suffer social consequences; meaning that sexual behavior is policed beyond virginity, and encompasses all later sexual decisions.

 

Girls who get labeled prudes can be treated as strange, undesirable, or as if something is wrong with them. They can also be fetishized, as taking a woman’s virginity can be considered a great victory for the man. On the other side, those who are labeled as sluts due to their promiscuity can suffer anything from social alienation to having their sexual history used against them in, say, a rape trial.

 

A man’s sex life is also somewhat monitored. As long as the number isn’t zero, he has a large window of sexual partners that is socially acceptable for him to have. However, men in faithful monogamous relationships or those who wish to be in them are often represented as fools in media, poor saps who have been tricked or who are less manly.

Men’s Worth:
Growing up, boys are told that they are born missing something. That only once they have sex with a woman, they are complete – only then are they men. The more women they conquer, the more rewarded they are socially. They have earned their worth. This kind of thinking can manifest as anything from frat boy, bro and pick-up artist culture, dismissing infidelity/promiscuity as parts of male nature, and many more.

 

Women’s Worth:

Women, on the other end of the spectrum, are considered born with worth and it is our duty to protect it. That letting a man penetrate us will mean losing a piece of us we can never get back. For this reason, women are told that their first time should be special; that we are so sensitive that if the first man who enters our body isn’t The One we will get hurt and never be the same.

 

These lies and prejudices we pass down generations cause tension and harmful gender relations. It creates a distance between us that leads to dehumanization, judgment and manipulation. Fear and pride take the front seat in sexual encounters, rather than interaction, pleasure and fun.

 

Women are not something to conquer, but people to interact with honestly. Men are not uncontrollable sex beasts whose only purpose is to spread their seed – they are capable of much more than that.

 

A person’s worth is untouchable – not by a penis, not by a vagina and not by any other external factor. Women should not be punished for expressing their sexuality, nor should men be rewarded for doing the same. We are all much more than the choices we make with our genitals, and are capable of living lives full of fun, food, travel, music, and yes, if we so choose, sex, as well as much more.

Russia’s Democratic War

“The Russian public has a foolishly high tolerance for civilian casualties,” says Alexander Titov, a professor from Queen’s University in Belfast who specializes in modern European history. “Much higher than the west. It’s much easier for it to understand the issue of Islamic terrorism because of some homegrown problems in North Caucasus.”

Referring to bloody conflicts spanning from the 1990s to the 2000s, Titov points out a factor often overlooked in western speculation of Vladimir Putin’s actions: his own country’s context.

Quick to assume any move by Russia is a sign of trying to “bring back the USSR,” domestic issues such as the Islamist extremism in Chechnya and Dagestan often get overlooked in the west. In fact, Chechens have become favorite recruits for Isis and Al Quaeda. With extremist training and Russian passports, they pose a looming threat in Putin’s backyard – one which his people expect him to deal with.

Not unreasonably, recent conflicts in Ukraine and the annexation of Crime have brought back fears of a more aggressive Russia. But with NATO at its borders and a weakening economy due to sanctions and cheap oil, how high is the risk of a new Cold War in reality?

“Putin’s foreign policy has always been pragmatic and hardly ideological,” says Agne Cepinskyte, a researcher at King’s College London focusing on ‘Geopolitics and National Minorities Abroad: Weimar Germany’s and Post-Soviet Russia’s Policies towards the Baltic States.’

“Therefore, despite him declaring a decade ago that the collapse of the USSR was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century, the idea of restoring the USSR in a straighforward sense is not a real foreign policy goal.”

On the other hand, Bill Browder, author of “Red Notice: How I Became Putin’s no 1 Enemy,” recently wrote for Prospect magazine that Putin’s actions in Syria may be nothing more than a tactic to get the western sanctions lifted. He speculates that Putin’s strategy is to make the refugee crisis so much worse, the west will have no choice but to give up Ukraine. “Putin presents a self-confident facade to the world, publishing videos of his workout routine and touting his supposed 89 per cent approval rating, but the reality is that he is in a state of raw panic. Russia’s economic crisis is accelerating,” he wrote.

Alexander Titov, on the other hand, may disagree. He believes that the increased level of collaboration between the west and Russia after the Paris attacks may offer a broader strategy in regards to Ukraine, but “it won’t have direct relevance. It has a dynamic of its own, I think.”

The downing of the warplane by Turkey is another issue which complicates things. In a reactionary move, Russia has imposed sanctions on one of its biggest trading partners. At the same time, these two nations have a complicated history due to Turkey harboring people Russia deemed as terrorists during the aforementioned conflicts in Chechnya. To hear it from Putin himself:

“We remember that the militants who operated in the North Caucasus in the 1990s and 2000s found refuge and received moral and material assistance in Turkey. We still find them there… We will never forget their collusion with terrorists. We have always deemed betrayal the worst and most shameful thing to do, and that will never change. I would like them to remember this – those in Turkey who shot our pilots in the back, those hypocrites who tried to justify actions and cover up terrorists.”

Russia sees the event as an attack on its well being, and Putin must show his people what he is willing to do in that case scenario.

The same goes for Turkey, which, as Titov points out, “wanted to make a strong statement to Russia to sort of mind its own business [and] consider Turkish interests.”

“Turkey was very unhappy with the way things were going in the Vienna talks,” continues Titov. “Particularly the issue of who it backs. The west was moving towards Russia’s position, kind of prioritizing the fight against Islamic State and leaving this fate of Assad to one side to deal after the IS has been dealt with. That really is unacceptable to Turkey because for Turkey IS is kind of way down the priority list of its concerns. Its top concerns are the Kurds and second on top of that is the Assad regime.”

Simultaneously, in a global context, failures in the Middle East by the United States have left an open spot on the world stage for a new world power to exert its will. As American political influence decreases, Russia’s rises. As Mike Whitney pointed out recently: “Putin doesn’t divide terrorists into good terrorists and bad terrorists, moderate terrorists and radical terrorists. If they’re terrorists, they’re terrorists regardless of their pedigree and regardless of whether they serve the geopolitical objectives of the state or not.” The Russian public is therefore very critical of the U.S. approach to counter terrorism, prompting the take-matters-into-your-own-hands way of thinking.

So while the world is left scratching its head, questioning this new and assertive Russia, locals see it only as a natural extension of a growing economy and rising soft power.

“It’s pretty much kind of consistent image and behavior,” says Alexander Titov. “[Putin] is kind of operating within the same behavioral expectations of the Russian public at large… He reflects the more broader attitudes in Russia towards various external threats.”

This is not to keep American politicians from making statements like:

“The US needs to do more the confront Russian President Putin [because of] his determined policy to sabotage American interests whenever and wherever he can,” courtesy of liberal presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

Or, from the other side, the republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina: “Having met Vladimir Putin, I wouldn’t talk to him at all… We’ve talked way too much to him.. What I would do, immediately, is begin rebuilding the Sixth Fleet, I would begin rebuilding the missile defense program in Poland, I would conduct regular, aggressive military exercises in the Baltic States. I’d probably send a few thousand more troops into Germany. Vladimir Putin would get the message.

So what makes the US so unwilling to cooperate with Putin? After all, it took the Paris attacks to prompt them to begin dialogue.

The Cold War is an obvious answer, as Americans have a deep rooted distrust of Russia. Nato has as a result been expanding further to the Russian border since the fall of the Berlin Wall, all the way to territory which used to be part of the USSR.

Russians therefore feel threatened and misunderstood by the west. They are at their borders, and they are gearing up for war. As Agne Cepisnkyte says: “There has been an increased Nato involvement in the [Baltic states] in the last couple of years – supplying weaponry and military equipment, troops, organizing military exercises, establishing Nato network of command centers and so on.. The US high officials and military representatives have assured on a few occasions that in the years to follow it would maintain or even increase its military presence in the Baltics.”

A question of which came first, the chicken or the egg, Cepisnkyte continues to point out that “since the 1990s, Russia has been clear about its intention to maintain political influence in the post Soviet space.” She points out that the Baltic states, although Nato members, have been targets of ‘threat signals,’ “from aggressive political rhetoric and economic and energy restrictions, to cyber attacks, spying scandals and military incursions in air and maritime space.”

The efficiency of a bombing campaign to get rid of Islamist extremists is questionable, but that’s what Putin is, at least for now, successfully selling his people – safety and growth. As Cepinskyte says: “Domestic support for the regime is a significant factor. ‘Rallying around the flag’ effect has worked following the annexation of Crimea, as Putin’s home ratings peaked. Equally important is for Russia to show its military strength to the international community, particularly to the west.”