Bison forests of Białowieża give a glimpse into Europe’s lost past

Maybe they can also offer inspiration for its future?

Last month I traveled to the border of Poland and Belarus to one of the last great untouched European forests, a UNESCO World Heritage site and a place of unique wild beauty whose past and present are a monument to the many-faceted relationship between humans and nature.

We saw wild bison, visited a tree memorial to the thousands of Poles exported from Białowieża village to Siberia, and stood in the beautiful forest at the site where Nazis had buried hundreds in a mass grave. We witnessed signs left by the changing climate as well as recent clashes between logging and environmental activists, and traces of the transformation as the forest adapts to new conditions. But it all began with a strange and unexpected nightly noise concert.

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Berlin Critical Climate Action: roller skating nuclear polar bears fight fossil dinosaurs and Prof Hansen speaks

13.11. 2021 Berlin at Brandenburg Gate: Rollerskating Melties and climate demonstrators from all over Europe protested the closure of nuclear power plants. Photo by Pawel Glogowski.

My trip report was published originally on the Finnish Ecomodernist page (in Finnish).

The last Stand Up event of the year took place right after the UN climate meetings ended, in a country where a huge amount of emissions-free energy is scheduled to be taken offline prematurely in 2022.

Among the organisers were the environmental organization FOTA4Climate, German Nuklearia, and the German-speaking division of Mothers for Nuclear, a power-group of women who had participated in a string of demonstrations on site at each of the six nuclear power plants threatened with closure.

The month before, Britta Augustin from Mothers for Nuclear had joined the crowds at a climate strike in Berlin, organized by Fridays for Future, and experienced a violent attack. A man pulled her to the ground and ripped her sign in a striking demonstration of the prejudice shown toward nuclear power in Germany, where a “nuclear exit” next year is going to cause one billion tons of excess carbon emissions, laid out in a report published by the German Ökomoderne. This is the reason why it is critical for climate action that we Stand Up for Nuclear in Germany.

Having followed my fellow Mothers’ efforts at a distance in Switzerland, I was thrilled to finally have the chance to join them. On the eve of the demonstration, I packed my signs and materials and headed to a night train to sleep my way to Berlin.

Displaying my arts and crafts for nuclear. Left: “Land is precious. Nuclear = more power, more space for nature”
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The EU Poised to Allow Gene-editing to Improve Farming Methods and Nutrition

Early career researchers in Europe are asking for their work to have the chance to contribute: #GiveGenesAChance

The current EU GMO-legislation, based on late 1990s understanding of biotechnology, would leave Europe without access to current and future gene-edited crops, including existing ones like fortified tomatoes, soybeans with healthier fatty acid profiles, and nitrogen-fixing bacteria for fertilising agricultural soil, as well as varieties in development such as: drought-tolerant and resource-saving plants aimed at climate adaptation and mitigation. But things could soon change.

Recent EU assessment points out that the old legislation has failed to consider the societal and environmental benefits these techniques have to offer, because the current regulation wasn’t designed to promote sustainability of the food and agricultural sector. Who would have thunk that’d be important? They now propose that a sustainability analysis be a part of regulations going forward, and are calling for comments.

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COVID-19 Vaccine Suspensions May Be Rash Rather than Precautionary

In the past month, two adenovirus-based vaccines against COVID-19, developed by AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson, have been temporarily suspended in 18 countries in Europe, South Africa, and the US pending a review on very rare incidence of specific type of blood clots. Most countries restarted them again soon after. I fear there is a potential for these hasty vaccine suspensions having led to more harm than good.

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Contaminated Concepts about Chernobyl

I’m heading over to shake hands with a plant worker who had been fishing in the nearby cooling water channel when the top of the reactor blasted off. Photo credit: Des.

After visiting the town where people had remained despite orders to move, we had spent our two days in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone talking to groups of field researchers, scouring the wetland bushes by the cooling pond, and hiking the grasslands in search of a herd of Przewalski horses within a fifteen kilometer radius from the accident site. On our last day, we finally got a tour of the power plant itself.

Our guide was an international PR representative of the power plant, a man whom the researchers had met before. He was a very experienced and well-spoken, and had a flair for showmanship, too – I got the feeling that he knew how to give the visitors what they wanted out of their tour.

Our scientist hosts told us that they had earlier caught the same guide telling the visitors tall tales about the death count of the accident. I was uncomfortably aware that people may visit the place “for kicks,” in order to revel in an aura of horror, in the process unnecessarily mischaracterizing the true nature of the tragedy. Drawbacks of disaster tourism. The scarier the stories the guides could tell them about the place, the greater the dramatic effect.

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The Animals of Chernobyl – Trip Report, Day Three

On the way to Chernobyl. Photo credit: Des.

The single most dangerous moment during our trip to Chernobyl happened on the road on our way in. We were still aways from the checkpoint guarding entry into the heart of the Exclusion Zone, crossing the forests of the larger Zone. Our driver Alexander didn’t spare the gas pedal and well inside the Zone, the roads got old and bumpy – “more hole than road,” as he put it. A hare sprinted across the road right in front of us, and Alexander swerved to avoid it.

Nothing happened, luckily, and all we got was a little scare. It wasn’t the only time we had a surprise animal crossing in front of the car in the Zone. The adventurous overtakings on the more well trafficked highways before that (photo) might have counted among the more risky moments too. But that little occurrence with the hare is an illuminating facet of the Zone all in all: it’s full of animal life.

We didn’t see much more of the wild kind that night, but as we found our way to Hotel Pripyat inside Chornobyl town, animal life was the most immediate and defining feature of that place too, because of the dogs. They were everywhere.

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The Town That Remained Despite the Chernobyl Accident

Building on the Narodychi town square. Photo credit: Rua Meegan / ruameegan on instagram.

We left Kyiv behind us (The Most Dangerous Part of the Trip), and headed north in our repurposed German cleaning and building supplies van, now working as a minibus. Our destination: Narodychi. Officially the people of Narodychi were told to leave their homes three decades ago – but they never left. Their lives went on.

Because of the town’s peculiar status, it faces an uncertain future. As the rules stand, it is not possible to develop or cultivate the land, and the inhabitants best make do with the old infrastructure they have.

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Visiting Chernobyl, Day One, The Most Dangerous Part of the Trip: Kyiv

nullI finally found time to write about my visit to Chernobyl. I hope to do justice to the tremendous impression left by the people I got to meet, including locals living in the area, former clean-up workers, as well as scientists currently working in the Exclusion Zone. First up: arrival in Kyiv.

The first thing I noticed about Ukraine were the fires. As my airplane descended toward Kiev in the east, I saw three large pillars of smoke rising from the countryside underneath. Continue reading

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Decarbonisation at a Discount? Let’s Not Sell Future Generations Short

Economy: an intricate system of mediums of exchange that enables many complex workings of our societies. It’s a wondrous interconnected network of symbols, really, a true testament to human ability of abstract thought.

How we should best steer or influence the economy is a vast arena for political debate. But even before we sit down for that political discussion, we should bring a few fundamental insights about the role and workings of the economic system to the table.

One thing is certain: any major change of our societies should take into account its impacts on the economy. Another thing is certain too: if we allow climate change to continue past several degrees in the near future, the effects will be so grave that many concrete fundaments of a working economy, things like resource availability and organised networks of laws and societies that coordinate their exchange, are set to change dramatically. There will also be a great deal of suffering, death, and major blows to many of the natural ecosystems as we know them, along the way.

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The Risks of Failed Risk Assessments On Natural vs Unfamiliar Sources of Energy

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Read here for the German version Das Risiko, Risiken falsch einzuschätzen.

German society Nuklearia kindly invited me to write about risk perceptions on the topic of energy on their blog, where this piece originally appeared in German. You can read it in English below.

Humans are naturally bad at assessing complex risks. We have an inborn ability to make risk-assessments quickly using mental shortcuts, or biases, which have been helpful to us in the course of evolution. But in a world full of abstract information, it’s important to realise that these shortcuts are very far from error-free.

No one is immune to these basic biases – not policy makers, regulators, scientists, or anyone else. I highly value my training as a scientist, but as a mother, I also know that any potential threat to my children will elicit a jolt of worry long before I have time for a slow and deliberate weighing of the risks in light of best possible evidence. However, I also understand that if I persistently fail to give the slow and reflective assessments of risks a chance to check my instinctive judgements, I can unintentionally end up exposing my children to more harm. Continue reading

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