Filka Sekulova is an activist and a transdisciplinary scholar engaged with Degrowth and the study of meaningfulness, among many other things. In this interview, she reflects out loud on her personal story and early days, but also her last years in Academia. She touches deep topics such as coherence, meaningfulness, social change and connection to nature.
The first and the last time I saw this inspiring woman was on a bike. She arrived on her bike the first time I had her as a teacher on the Political Ecology, Degrowth and Environmental Justice masters I undertook in Barcelona in October 2020. She left with her bicycle again the day this interview was recorded- which happened to be the last one of her long period in this University (UAB).
When Filka is asked about her roots she says out loud “many roots”. As she pronounced these two words at the start of the interview, I had, for a second, the impression that she would not know where to begin. However, that was not the case at all. “There is a particular moment” in Filka’s memories in which she was looking at the mountains as a kid, in Bulgaria, and she suddenly felt “as if it was the first time” she saw them. That was probably one of the most impactful seeds that were planted in Filka’s life journey, or at least a very important one for her unconditional dedication to ecological affairs.
Many years later, while she was already engaged in activism as a teenager – she received some shocking news: that mountain she had connected with on a more personal level was in danger, as the forest was going to be destroyed for infrastructure expansion reasons. The protests, actions and blocades she involved herself in for this to stop were many. However, none of these attempts were enough to avoid it. “Then I realized it was something bigger than that”, she recalls. The loss of that part of the mountain had nothing to do with the decisions of a particular type of government or agency, but with “a global dynamic of power and continuous economic growth”, she states.
At some point during this first realization, Filka told herself “I need to engage with economics”, a thought which was coming out of the awareness that the ‘social’ and the ‘ecological’ are very closely tied.
And so she did. Filka remembers these years with a smile on her face: “During the mornings I would learn the capital cycles, the importance of economic and endogenous growth… And in the afternoon I would be de-learning all these Economic theories or researching the impacts those economic policies had.”
Once she was done with her Economics degree and had also completed an Environmental Economics Master, Filka had another realization: “Something like ecological economics must exist”, she thought. At that moment she was back in Bulgaria, in the vineyard of her grandmother’s place, and just typed that into the browser. After sending an email and waiting for some time, Filka ended up having a PhD offer in Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona. That’s how she started researching about climate change and happiness and came across “Degrowth people, ideas, literature, and networks”, she explains. And that is how Filka ended in the place where I met her, not only designing and imparting lectures but also “doing, thinking, researching, being, unlearning, learning”, as she says.
Of course, after hearing this first story, I wanted to know more about Filka’s insights on mountains. To her, mountains are “not a physical object”, but “a living thing and a source of inspiration and meaningfulness”. She regularly needs to go back to the mountains, no matter where they may be. “There is a different way of thinking when you’re on top of a mountain, a different type of vibration”, Filka assures enthusiastically.
In the same way mountains have led Fika’s journey, is there any chance that connecting with nature might provoke social change?
It was precisely seeking how to foster community-based mobilization for social change that Filka ended up involved with the so-called ‘Toxic Walks’. She would choose a mountain site completely destroyed by a mine that is also close to a beautiful picturesque natural place.
In Filka’s opinion, statistics on climate change and biodiversity loss do not really land in a way that encourages transformation: “Unless information comes in an experiential way and people can feel something through their body and skin it doesn’t really make a difference”.
On the ‘Toxic walks’, the group would first walk a path in the forest, appreciate the flowers and so on to then find the part of the mountain which had been devastated by mining. “The contrast would be so huge that you would not be able to process it with the mind”, she expresses. These emotional experiences are, in her opinion, “a way to produce transformation, sometimes”.
Another example would be the first COVID-19 lockdown. She explains how she studied through surveys how nature and human connection were the most missed things those days. However, this complex topic has infinite layers: “The more I study happiness, the more I understand it’s just like the cosmos”, she emphasizes.
And what can make Filka feel unhappy? What have been the challenges in her journey?
The transdisciplinary path she has chosen has not been an easy one: “I never believed I would care about academic comparison until the moment that I got rejected a couple of times and I figured out – by the way it impacted me- that I had internalized this productive competitive structure that University promotes”, she confesses .
I personally find it heartbreaking to hear Filka share how she finds herself questioning if what she does has a meaning beyond her economical survival. It is hard to see how the Academic system does not value at all the care and organization that are behind a professor’s work. Academia and universities do not acknowledge care and non-competitive collaboration but the opposite, and that goes against promoting a co-created necessary transition in which educational systems have to play their role more than ever. Filka was to me one of the most revealing teachers I ever had. For our Foundations of Degrowth final exam, she invited us to write an essay by hand and send it by post. It felt like an enormous gift during a moment of global pandemic marked by the sadness of doing all our work through a laptop keyboard.
One way or another, although Filka recognises the difficult material and emotional reality University has meant to her, hope is still alive in her words:
“Thanks to University I learnt to confront myself with this system, which is a tremendous form of richness if you know how to transform it”.