08/04/2015 04:18 pm ET Updated Aug 04, 2016

Making Green Cool Again in Hungary

It was certainly cool to be an environmentalist in Hungary in the 1980s. Demonstrations against the government's plan to build a dam on the Danube drew lots of young people. Opposition to the Communist government, even in the more politically acceptable form that the incipient Green movement took, attracted the counter-culture, the dissidents, and the attention of the international community. In 1985, the leaders of that movement -- the Danube Circle and Janos Vargha -- won the Right Livelihood award, often dubbed the "alternative Nobel."

But that was 30 years ago. The environmental movement in Hungary has aged considerably since then. Other issues became hip, young people were drawn to other movements, and Green organizations shrank.

Then along came Zofi. Short for Green Roots (Zold Fiatolok), Zofi was founded in 2001 as an independent NGO made up of primarily young people.

"I got involved in Zofi four-and-a-half years ago," Julia Vass told me when I met with her and two other Zofi members in Budapest in August 2013.

I was interested in how people in the movement were leading sustainable lives. I wanted to meet people who thought like this, who rode their bicycles, recycled, things like that. I met them at a meeting. I thought it was cool, and I liked it.

Gabor Csillag agreed:

Environmental NGOs had this uncool hippy image. Young people couldn't relate to them. It was all these old, boring people. We started from zero. All of this we had to learn by ourselves. We started at the grassroots level and got young people involved.

Viktor Vida was an activist in the 1980s, and became more involved in environmental issues in the 200s. "In 2002, there were two organizations that thought about the environment -- Zofi and Vedegylet," he said.

But there was a difference between the two. Zofi was younger and a little crazy. And they listened to music. In Vedegylet, activists were a little more boring. Both were doing important and exciting things. Vedegylet was known all around the country. But Zofi was cool. In those years, Green activists looked up suddenly and said, 'Hey, what's this? Young people in the environmental movement in Hungary, what's this?'

In addition to its target demographic, what made Zofi different from other Green organizations was its multi-issue approach. "We were open to other issues -- to the global movement and to politics in general," Csillag continued.

We dealt with energy, with waste, with consumption. Also, Zofi had a totally different approach. It was grassroots. I remember one of the first times there was a gathering of Green NGOs. One of the founders and I we were on a panel in 2002. We suggested that we talk about gay/lesbian rights. And some people said, 'But we're environmentalists. We want to talk about the environment!' So, Zofi had a special mission: to bring in these issues and talk about the interconnectedness of issues.

The interconnectedness of issues is showcased in Zofi's signature event, Mirror to the World.

"It is a traveling exhibition and school workshops based on Manfred Max Neef's human-scale development," Vass explained.

The central theme of the exhibition: What does a human being need in order to be happy, and how do those needs affect his or her environment? To answer this question, 10 rooms have been thematically designed, following in the footsteps of the Chilean economist Manfred Max-Neef's philosophy.

The names of the rooms are: Knowledge, Survival, Choice, Creation, Identity, Relaxation, Security, Love, Dream, and Participation. We invite children from school between the ages of 8 an 18, and we provide them with an interactive guide. We sit down and talk with them about the topics of the rooms. We don't want to really guide them.

We just want to talk with them and ask their thoughts, ideas.... This method -- global education -- is quite new for them. In school, the teacher teaches, and they don't really ask the children anything. So it is quite new for them.

We talked about the state of the Green movement in Hungary today, the challenges of creating a Green party, and the polarization of politics that has affected environmental issues as well.

The Interview

Why did you all become involved in environmental issues, as opposed to other issues?

Gabor Csillag: The older generation, the founding mothers and fathers, got involved at the earliest stage for different reasons. I belong to the second generation, and now there's a third generation. I became involved at the turn of the millennium and that was the result of many things coming together. What we'll need to talk about at a certain point is the alignment of the movement to politics in general. When it started, the environmental movement was embedded in the politics of regime change. After that, it became a number of single-issue NGOs focusing on waste, energy, and so on. Then there was a moment around the turn of the millennium when we stated to reformulate the idea. We were not just interested in single-issue environmental stuff. We wanted to do something like what the Germans did: to do Green politics. That's where I got involved.

It was very symbolic that the first time that I got involved with the Hungarian young Greens, with Zofi, was at a protest when the mayor of the Third District - who is now the mayor of Budapest - wanted to expel gays and lesbians from the Sziget Festival. An NGO representative gave a very cool speech, and I started to think about how minority rights and human rights intersected with the environmental stuff that I was interested in otherwise. Then I had a chance to visit Berlin for just a couple of weeks. There I could immediately see the holism of the movement, which was something new in Hungary. Many of the NGOs were skeptical of politics. They said, "We're environmentalists. We don't want to have anything to do with politics."

Julia Vass: I got involved in Zofi four-and-a-half years ago. So, I didn't get involved as early as Gabor or Viktor. I was interested in how people in the movement were leading sustainable lives. I wanted to meet people who thought like this, who rode their bicycles, recycled, things like that. I met them at a meeting. I thought it was cool, and I liked it.

Were you living a Green life before you got involved with Zofi?

Julia Vass: Not so Green. But not so bad, either. But when I joined Zofi and learned about these things, my life became greener and greener.

Viktor Vida: The Communist regime said that environmentalism was more and more important. They said this, but they just wanted to use the issue because they were afraid of us. For example, when I was 13 years old, as a result of a group competition, I even went to an environmental camp in the countryside. And when I was in secondary grammar school, a teacher gave me many books, by Konrad Lorenz and others.

I was a punk and an activist from 1986 on. I was an anarchist. I was against the system. I wasn't just interested in environmental issues. When I went to Budapest in 1995, I met Andras Lanyi, who gave a series of talks. One year later, in 1995, I entered a new program at university on human ecology. In 2004, Lanyi and others established Vedegylet (Protect the Future), and I became a member of that. I also became a member of the global justice movement. We went to Prague to join a demonstration against the IMF and World Bank. After that I became a member of Zofi. I also work for Radio Tilos, a kind of pirate radio station, doing a Green, anti-globalization program.

I'm interested in the development of Green parties. I remember people talking about founding a party in 1990. I understand that different parties emerged in Hungary with different political profiles. Why didn't a German-style Green party emerge here at that time? Why did it take such a period of time before the Young Greens could organize themselves?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.