Writing environment: changing times

Earth Hour 2014 in Vilnius. Image by K. Simonaityte.

Earth Hour 2014 in Vilnius. Image by K. Simonaityte.

In the previous post I rambled on how in my first year after graduating from ecology programme I’m trying my hand at writing and journalism. This part should be more about the writing itself and the topics I get to cover in my job. I was going back to this and adding bits for over a month, so it ended up being 4 separate but somewhat related stories – a rather long read, too. 


Let’s start with a recent anecdote1. I assume that most of you are aware of the situation in Ukraine. About two months ago now, for a brief time – before all this Crimea crisis has started and just after the fleeing of Viktor Yanukovych – the thing that world’s media focused on was the lavish residence of the ousted ex-president. It has been made open to the public and it was discovered that among other ridiculous things it hosts an actual zoo with hundreds of different animals! As has been common lately I got to cover this foreign story.

However, other than including the photos, no English language media at that point had any mention on what was happening with the animals. I could’ve easily told my editor that and moved on to the next thing. But… There must be something in Ukrainian or Russian, I pondered. Just a tiny problem there: I have no knowledge whatsoever of those languages, and it’s all in cyrillic, so I can’t even read it and try to guess some context. And yet, a few hours later I ended up submitting an informative and up-to-date article – all thanks to Google Translate!

So how do you go about something like this?2 First, come up with a few keywords, e.g. Mezhgorye (name of the fancy residence in question), zoo, Yanukovych, animals etc. Feed them into English – Ukrainian translator thingy and then simply google the news using the resulting cyrillic “code”. You can then translate the entire search page into English (a very handy ‘Translate page’ function) and then it’s just the matter of checking the articles on there and picking up quotes and general info. And it all worked perfectly – a bit crazy, this technology thing, isn’t it? Most info was in the top three of the search hits, and after digging a bit more I also found the original press release from the Kiev Zoo, which was charged with taking care of the animals. True, there were some bits I needed help translating as Google Translate isn’t that perfect. Though it’s very close to!

This wasn’t the first time I had to rely on Google Translate in such a way either. Other occasions – stranded whale on the Baltic Sea coast and a YouTube video from Białowieża Forest – were in Polish, another language I don’t understand. I think I had to do something similar while at uni as well, when I was writing a report on Danube delta’s transboundary conservation area shared between Romania and Ukraine. Appallingly little information in English!

Of course, the actual stories are not some profound and important things, but the point I’m trying to make is this – I’m proud of having skills and smarts on how to approach and unearth these things. For example, it took me about 10 minutes to track down the Polish video (didn’t do anything else with it, was just helping a colleague out), but if I had to do it again now using the same starting points (essentially, the general location and the fact it was two wolves and a wild hog captured on night camera), I’m not sure I’d get there as quickly. There are many different things to consider – pick a wrong keyword and you’re stuck for half an hour or longer. Of course, these are also rather extreme examples because information is in a language I don’t understand – so I might be looking at something that is relevant but couldn’t really tell. I also do these kind of things in English/Lithuanian almost everyday: finding some obscure pictures, videos, old reports, people’s contacts, pieces of research – all part of the job as a journalist.

And there’s so much information nowadays! Sometimes it feels like you’re drowning in it. I have tens upon tens of interesting articles bookmarked, favourited and liked to be read and possibly translated/adapted later, as well as dozens of topic ideas written in notebooks and virtual sticky notes on my desktop, which will probably never get developed because there’s always more pressing “news” to be busy with.

It’s funny, this time last year I was working hard on my dissertation and was immersed in only one and quite narrow topic – wetland restoration in Lithuania. Though it’s still very interesting and fascinating to me, I haven’t looked it up for a long time now. And nowadays it’s a topic per one, two or three days max. Very often the only commonality between the topics is that they all are held under the (really enormous) ENVIRONMENT umbrella — which apparently can fit even the animals from the personal zoo of the ousted Ukrainian president.


Some time ago I got a chance to sit in at a discussion between Lithuanian environmental NGOs and representatives from different ministries. The topic was Lithuania’s position on the new 2030 EU climate and energy strategy. It took me a while to write it up but for some reason it didn’t go out (only second time this happened to me). It’s a bit sad as the discussion was fascinating. Fascinating in the sense that it was interesting/horrifying to hear the official opinions on the topic from Lithuanian institutions. When I was transcribing and writing it up, I was actually swearing out loud because listening to people talking utter rubbish over and over again was just painful. To make matters worse, the “winner” of them all was a representative from our Ministry of Environment. Yeah. Here’s his actual translated quote: “This discussion raises a question – why does Europe have to save everyone else? After all, it is responsible for only 11 percent of all the global emissions, so it’s natural to ask, why should we invest?”3 What the actual F…?!

I’m glad that we finally have active environmental NGOs, but they don’t make decisions – these people in the ministries and Parliament do. I heard or read recently from someone that Lithuania chooses to follow the lead of other countries on the environment front and simply agree with the goals proposed by the EU, which are not necessarily very ambitious, even though we could very well be among the leading countries, at least when it comes to renewables – we are already close to meeting 2020 EU strategy goals! I couldn’t agree more and this is probably the main reason why I’m against building a new nuclear power plant or fracking in the Lithuanian context – I just think that we all could win so much more if we decide to go the way of 100 percent renewables. This could be quite a big discussion, especially in the light of the recent geopolitical events, so let’s leave it for later.

Erecting nest boxes for Tawny Owls at Panemunės šilas, Kaunas. Image by K. Simonaityte.

Erecting nest boxes for Tawny Owls at Panemunės šilas, Kaunas. Image by K. Simonaityte.


Something else has been bothering me though for quite some time – how ecology is understood here at home. In Lithuania, word ‘ecology’ basically means anything ‘green’. So we are talking about ecological furniture, ecological food, ecological this and that. Which, to be honest, until quite recently I found infuriating.  I mean, you say ‘ecology’ and people here usually imagine something completely different – often something to do with waste recycling. (“Oh, that kind of ecology”, one person commented indifferently and dismissively, after I had to explain for the millionth time what it actually means when I say that I studied ecology) When I mentioned this to my then-coursemates, all non-Lithuanians, they simply couldn’t believe it!

However, now I look at it a bit differently. You know how word ‘theory’ has a very different meaning in scientific and everyday language? I think it’s exactly what happened here. In Lithuanian the word ‘ecology’ somehow got appropriated and now it is used to describe a slightly different phenomena. Is that a bad thing? Although it pains me to say this, probably not. Most people don’t care or don’t know about the ecology-science anyway, so for them there’s no confusion. After all, words used are secondary, more important is what the conversation is about4.

Wild black currant. Winter plants walk at Kaunas Reservoir Regional Park. Image by K. Simonaityte.

Wild black currant. Winter plants walk at Kaunas Reservoir Regional Park. Image by K. Simonaityte.


What the ‘ecology’ (not the real one, the Lithuanian one) conversation should then be about? About getting people, and especially children, outside to get to know nature better. About climate change. About renewable vs conventional energy sources. About losing species and habitats, here at home and abroad, and why we should care about it all. About habitat restoration. About interesting people working in, with and for nature, in Lithuania and other countries. Or at least that’s something I’m always excited to write about.

Now, when I wrote all this down, I feel that we (the publication I work at) do write about these important things. Just sadly the emphasis is often more on the scandalous, alarmist and click-baity headlines, which often have little to do with the story itself (but I think that’s a problem with most online media nowadays). Also, basically anything that can even remotely be pushed under the ‘green’ umbrella goes. Even something that really shouldn’t be. (There might be a war? Is it possible to squeeze an environment-related story from this?5)

Promoting confrontation rather than a civil debate is another thing. The big story at the moment is the African swine fever (or plague) – a few months ago the first cases of it were confirmed in the Lithuanian wild boar population. The responsible agencies decided to deal with it by allowing hunters to kill 90 percent of the population. It’s a huge deal but if the virus gets into farm pigs, they’ll also have to be killed and this will be a huge blow to Lithuanian pork industry. I guess, the solution is understandable, plus our boar population is huge and breeds incredibly quickly so it should bounce back soonish. But the narrative! Everyone seems to be angry at everyone, hunters, conservationists, government agencies and ‘know-it-all’ public. Lots of misunderstanding and hostility, which sometimes seems to be fueled by the media.

On the other hand, what makes me quite happy in this story is the fact that there was an online petition started by one of the environmental NGOs to stop the wild boar killing and it got over 12 thousand signatures! (Which way is actually better, killing or not killing the boar, is an entirely different question, though) This shows that the Lithuanian public conscience about such things is finally forming. I believe that it can only be a good thing6.

And finally, there’s all the fluff! It gets a lot of flack (I’ve done it myself) but it’s actually a good thing. It’s usually something fun and interesting that can also be used to introduce people to larger issues. You share a beautiful video of ice caves in an Alaskan glacier, but you also mention climate change, which is the reason these caves have formed in the first place. Climate change is still a tricky subject here (as in many places really), but if people see it more often mentioned as a fact (even as a throwaway), and not as something that is still disputed, hopefully more will accept it as such and not as being some evil plot by illuminati or something, jeez. This is something that motivates me when looking up and choosing these little filler stories. And it seems to work, too.

1 This is the part written over a month ago, so now rather outdated. Funny how things work nowadays.

2 Also, what do other people normally do? No one’s teaching me really, I pick up things as I go along. This is just my solution.

3 And yet, I did get chided quite recently by the agency responsible for the appropriate use of Lithuanian language (we have that) because in my article on food miles I used the incorrect term for ‘emissions’! I found it all rather funny, especially when I was told what term should be used instead – something I’ve never even heard before and it was hilarious. I’m not using the ‘wrong’ term anymore, but not using the ridiculous one either.

4 Now when I think of it, this could be an actual reason why it wasn’t published. Probably not, we’re free media after all, plus it was a big event, hundred or so people in the audience, listening, taking notes, recording. But quotes like this should totally be a reason not to publish.

5 This didn’t happen in the end, thankfully.

6 Although, it has to be mentioned that the petition was raking signatures rather slowly and the major push was given by a very sad story we published of the orphaned wild boar piglet – including photos!


3 responses to “Writing environment: changing times

  1. Pingback: Writing environment: the Basic things | EcoPost·

  2. Pingback: The Frustrating World of Dangerous Living | EcoPost·

  3. Pingback: Writing environment: uncomfortable journalism | EcoPost·

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