SOCIALISM | Ecological disasters
In the mid-19th century Tolstoy wrote of his misgivings about the pioneer exploitations of nature.
‘They want to flatten the whole world
More than a century later, Tolstoy’s words provide a bleak testimony to the current situation in his country, as the USSR begins work on some of the biggest megaprojects in history.
Two huge schemes will transfer to the south the waters from several northward-flowing rivers - the idea being to provide much-needed water for the agricultural areas of the Soviet Union in southern Europe and Central Asia.
The European section will initially take water from three large river-fed lakes in the north and transfer it via reservoirs, canals and pumping stations to the south-flowing Volga. Then in the I 990s yet more water, three times as much, will be transferred down to the Caspian and Azov sea basins where irrigation has reduced water levels by up to 30 per cent.
In Western Siberia a second set of diversions will transfer river waters 1,500 miles south to the USSR’s most important agricultural regions of Kazakhstan where water resources are nearly exhausted. The Aral Sea in Kazakhstan, which is fed by two rivers heavily exploited for irrigation, has seen its water level fall by 35 feet since irrigation schemes began 30 years ago.
The diversions will cost some $100 billion over the next five years - a cost which the government has justified by pointing to the agricultural benefits. One acre of irrigated land in the south, will, according to Soviet officials, yield five times as much food as non-irrigated land.
Siberian conservationists, however, fear an ecological disaster. Despite numerous studies by Soviet planning agencies, relatively little seems to be known about the likely impact of the projects. The schemes will certainly involve the forced resettlement of 16,000 people and the flooding of large areas of forest land. But beyond this there is the likely destruction of freshwater and ocean fisheries and even the possibility of a change in the climate of the entire northern hemisphere due to the alteration of the Arctic ice cover.
This mammoth tinkering with nature is yet one more example of the Soviet Union’s insensitivity to environmental issues. Their dubious record has been detailed in The Destruction of Nature in the Soviet Union, a book by a high Soviet official who uses the pseudonym of Boris Komarov.
Komarov’s revelations are startling. There are a hundred cities in the Soviet Union where the air is dangerous to health. Ten per cent of its habitable territory is a ‘sterile industrial wasteland’. And the consequence in human terms is that birth defects are rising by around seven per cent per year.
Komarov is also doubtful about the whole idea of creating new farming land in Central Asia, pointing to the inefficiency of existing schemes. Up to 70 per cent of the water in irrigation canals can be lost through evaporation and filtration. About half of all irrigation water is, he claims, wasted.
There are also damaging effects on the soil. Because of poor irrigation practices, around 90 per cent of the land has been eroded in one way or another. In Uzbekistan, for example, 1.5 million hectares of land have had to be abandoned since the end of the 1950s because of salination or erosion.
The Soviet Union’s nuclear energy programme is also a source of serious environmental concern. The industry is, however, shrouded in secrecy and excluded from public debate. The USSR has already had one of the world’s worst nuclear disasters, with an enormous explosion of radio-active wastes in the Ural Mountains in 1957. People had to be evacuated more than 200 kilometres from the site of the explosion and, according to Russian scientist Zhores Medvedev. the entire area was so heavily contaminated with radioactivity that it has been declared forbidden territory ever since. To this day no-one knows the number of victims or the full extent of the damage.
The nuclear programme in the USSR might be small by US standards but it carries with it some mega-problems. The industry’s solution for disposing of high-level radioactive wastes, for example, has been to simply pump them underground into deep permeable zones. And Soviet nuclear reactors - sold all over Eastern Europe and elsewhere - would not meet the minimal safety standards in most Western countries.
The environments in the satellite countries of Eastern Europe suffer from many of the same problems as the Soviet Union. And during those periods when political control has been relaxed even for a short period there has often been protest about the state of the environment.
The rise of Solidarity in Poland had as much to do with ecological issues as social or economic ones. In 1981, for example, 2,500 people from settlements along Poland’s Baltic coast marched to demonstrate against the pollution of Gdansk Bay by oil and chemical industries which had forced the closure of 20 resorts and devastated the local fishing industry. The governor of Gdansk district has stated publicly that ‘the state of the local water pollution has all the symptoms of the first phase of ecological catastrophe’.
Leaflets handed out at a Solidarity Congress warned: ‘One third of the country’s food is poisoned, one fifth of the population is seriously endangered by air pollution, one third of Polish rivers are completely dead, the Baltic is dying, while 78 per cent of lakes have levels of pollution that far exceed any acceptable standard.’
The period of Solidarity saw the emergence of a broad-based environment movement. In
1980 the Polish Ecology Club (PKE) was founded and quickly spread to 17 other areas - emerging as Poland’s first independent grass-roots environmental pressure group, Its biggest success was the closure of an aluminium smelter at Skawina. This resulted from a massive local campaign including court action by local people claiming damages to their health from toxic wastes released by the smelter.
The PKE worked closely with Solidarity and local interest groups, academics and journalists, to challenge the model of infinite industrial growth at the expense of Nature, Environmental disasters and cover-ups came to light. Discussions of what an ecologically-aware society might look like and proposals for sound environmental policies were all in the air. The programme was more of a reaction to the failures of the post-war system than a clear blueprint for an alternative future. But it did provide hope that a solution was possible.
Then, on December 13th 1981, all hope was shattered by the proclamation of martial law, the outlawing of Solidarity and the restriction of civil liberties
Repression in Poland has not silenced the ecological movement in other Eastern European countries. In Czechoslovakia the human rights pressure group, Charter 77, has been pressing the government to act upon the findings of a report by the Academy of Science. The Academy revealed that 40-60 per cent of the forests of Bohemia and Moravia will be irreparably destroyed by the turn of the century and that many sources of Czech water are already unusable for drinking, agriculture or even industry.
Charter 77 calls for full information to be made available to the public and argues that ‘Only a fraction of the arms expenditure used to maintain the balance of fear would often suffice to prevent ecological catastrophes’.
In Hungary, a plan to dam the Danube formulated with the help of Soviet experts has met with unprecedented opposition. The plan calls for the Danube - a symbol of Hungarian pride - to be diverted for about 30 kilometres and for two power stations to be built. This will cause the water table to fall drastically, threatening vegetation and affecting a rich agricultural region, Budapest’s source of drinking water, already in short supply, would suffer further deterioration,
The Independent Circle of the Danube - Hungary’s environmental movement -presented a petition to the authorities in November 1984. But work on the dam continues.
Classical socialism has failed to incorporate ecological principles into its vision of society, In ecological terms it has proved, if anything, even worse than capitalism, suffering as it does from a lack of information and public debate.
To those who are not part of Western culture this comes as no surprise. From their vantage point, both the capitalist and socialist models derive from a single Western tradition that sees nature merely as a commodity to be exploited. Russell Means, one of the founders of the North American Indian Movement puts it concisely: ‘All European tradition, Marxism included, has conspired to defy the natural order of things. The conflict, he says, is between being and gaining: ‘Material gain is an indicator of false status among traditional people, while it is "proof that the system works" to Europeans’.
Russell Means’s critique calls for an alternative society that incorporates an understanding of how to live with nature. One of the best known spokespersons for this revitalized alternative is Rudolf Bahro.
Bahro is an East German who was imprisoned for criticising the version of socialism practised in the Eastern bloc and later released to become a major theorist of ‘Die Grünen’ - the West German Green Party. Bahro’s major point is that socialism needs to move from red to green; move from a fixation on large-scale technology and systems to human scale ones; move away from an ethic that seeks to dominate Nature for short term gain towards one that works with nature and is sustainable,
The Green movement has gained considerable influence and credibility - particularly in Western Europe. In the Federal Republic of Germany the Greens hold the balance of electoral power in several states and are a major influence nationally. Although parties exist in several other countries Green ideas have circulated far beyond formal party structures. They have caught the popular imagination and exercise an influence in favour of decentralization, appropriate technology, community power and politics on a human scale.
A shift to these values is the major challenge for socialism in the last years of this century. We would do well to heed Tolstoy’s words. Instead of spoiling everything for the common good, the test of a real alternative must be respecting everything for the common good,
Chris Plant is a journalist and Green activist from the Bridge River country in the interior of British Columbia.
This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7