Written by Community Solutions Fellow Jim Merkel
The documentary film collaboration with Community Solutions previously titled “The 100-Year Plan” now has a working title of “Saving Walden’s World.” In 2016 I reported on our filming in Cuba. After attending a Degrowth Conference in Budapest, Hungary, last year, I boarded a train to Slovenia, one of the countries highlighted in the film. The beat of train wheels upon steel rails accompanied me as we headed west out of Budapest toward the Slovenian countryside. At the border, sagging rooflines gave way to neat homesteads, vegetable gardens and orchards lining the tracks and beyond. The train snaked along sparkling rivers into canyons with lush forests clinging to mountainsides, through villages, and past people at work splitting and stacking wood or scything and drying corn and hay.
Once in the capital, Ljubljana, I bussed to Robin Turk’s home to borrow a bike for three weeks. Robin has cycled in 50 countries and, through the organization “Warm Showers,” opens his home to cyclists. In the morning my 25-pound backpack’s contents of camera and personal gear were divided into pannier bags, and I was off.
Ljubljana has earned the title of “European Green Capital” for its sustainable practices. The inner city is car-free, and tourists are drawn to its vibrant cafes and quiet streets. A zero waste program is in place. Forested green spaces surround the city. Community gardens, co-ops and the use of renewable energy are increasing.
Gaja Brecelj, who works with Umanoterra, an NGO focused on sustainability, explains: “It is not just living within the planetary boundaries, but it’s also, as a society, how we can be in solidarity, respect each other.” And, she adds, referring to the refugee crisis, “how we can be open to people who need to move or are forced to move.”
“Ten years ago everyone knew we could go anywhere by car,” she said, noting that there was resistance in the beginning to making the town center car-free. “That’s why this strategy of doing it bit by bit, was very good. You take one small road, you close it… ahh, people would complain, but it’s not so bad.” Every year they broadened it and now, Gaja says, “nobody wants to go back.”
Slovenia’s 11-acre per capita ecofootprint is well below that of the US (17 acres). The country also has a lower infant mortality rate, lower gender pay gap, and less poverty while having higher literacy and more women in politics.
Živa Kavak Gobbo is the president of a sustainability group call FOCUS. She loads her four-year-old boy into a child carrier on her bike, drops him off at a government-funded childcare center, and cycles in to work on bike lanes. When asked to describe the safety net for young women, Živa responded: “We have good access to education. We have good access to health care. The healthcare is free, for us and for the children. If we decide we want to be mothers, we have access to all the doctors we need. We have a one-year maternity leave, so you can have your child, you can breast feed and then go back to work.” It is common for grandparents to care for the children during year two. However, childcare is free and available to anyone who needs it.
Živa continues: “If you don’t want to be a mother, you can still use contraceptives, which are for free. You can abort. It is also for free. And it’s not a taboo. This is something that we have and we want to keep as a woman’s right. I think women are strong enough to demand this right, to take care and decide about your own body. I don’t see why a society should decide what is going on with my body. I mean, it’s me who is the mother, and it’s me carrying the child for nine months. Being pregnant and having a child, if I don’t want the child— is it good for the child? No.”
I met with Dr. Vesna Leslosek, the Dean of Postgraduate Studies at the University of Ljubljana, who focuses on gender and welfare. “To control your reproduction is very important,” she said. This gives you the power to control yourself. If you don’t control how many children you will have and when you will have them, then you do not have a control over your life.” Slovenia’s abortion rate is half that of the U.S., and the teen pregnancy rate is 12 per 1000. In the U.S. it is 57 per 1000.
Back in the U.S., salaries, on average, are higher and taxes are lower. But those with lower incomes are struggling. These folks work several jobs. Put your kids through college? Tough. Dental care? On your own.
Our youth are saddled with an average of $37,172 of student loan debt per student (college class of 2016). If your parents can’t pay, or don’t have a home to remortgage, you could work nights. It isn’t easy. Along comes Romeo—handsome, nice car—you know the story. In Maine, 58 percent of women without college degrees are single moms.
Only 12 percent of women who graduate college become single moms. What does all this have to do with a sustainable planet? As the status of women rises, more go to college. They have fewer, healthier children later in life, which eases population pressures, but more importantly, this increases the quality of life for the child and mother. Low infant mortality rates could be considered a better measure than GDP of how well a society is doing. In Slovenia, 2.9 children die per 1,000 born. In Cuba, one of the other nations featured in “Saving Walden’s World,” the rate is 4.3. The U.S. stands at 6.7.
It is clear that in the land of too much, millions are struggling unnecessarily. For my son, Walden, and his generation’s sake, I don’t have the luxury to do nothing. It feels more necessary each day to share the stories through this film of people and places that are showing the way toward a more sustainable and just world.