Twentieth-Century Socialism Bred Environmental Nightmares

By Julia Glavas


There's no doubt the Soviet Union was an economic failure. After its collapse in the late 1980s, the world was provided a glimpse of the state of Russia and the rest of Eastern Europe for the first time in decades. What the world wasn't expecting was the grotesque environmental destruction as a result of government ownership. 

Wait a minute, we are often told that "environmental deterioration was precipitated by the logic of capitalism and its relentless pursuit of profits," and that socialism would produce a society "populated by men and women living in harmony with each other and the environment?" as said by researchers Sergio Díaz-Briquets and Jorge Pérez-López. Not precisely, by one estimate, in the late 1980s, particulate air pollution was 13 times higher, wastewater was three times higher, and levels of gaseous air pollution were twice as high per unit of GDP in Central and Eastern Europe than in Western Europe. 1

A model example of environmental destruction by the USSR was the exploitation of the Black Sea located at the southeastern extremity of Europe. The government's five-year plan for industrial housing and other constructions required enormous amounts of gravel and sand to be extracted from around the Black Sea's beaches, also knocking down trees in the process. The unfortunate result was the Black Sea's shrinkage by half between 1920 and 1960 in addition to hundreds of landslides per year and the collapse of buildings, including a military sanatorium, into the sea as shorelines gave way. 2 There was no value attached to the gravel or the trees on the shorelines, no liability for environmental damages, nor any private ownership that would incentivize being good environmental stewards present in a capitalist society. 

Let's not forget one of the planet's worst environmental disasters: the destruction of the Aral Sea between former Soviet-occupied countries Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Not only did central planners mandate immense amounts of water diversion from the Aral Sea for cotton production-a commitment that sold the local people into servitude-but also allowed for untreated sewage to be dumped into its feeder rivers. The sea itself shrunk about one-third with a landscape now described as a salt marsh and a former port-city of Muynak now lying more than 75 miles from the sea. 3 Strong winds blew dry deposits of salt and accumulated pesticides from agricultural operations thousands of miles, adding a public health problem on top of an ecological disaster. A myriad of respiratory diseases, throat cancer, and other illnesses that continue to be felt today are a result of the inhalation of salts and other toxic contaminants. The infant mortality rate was five times the national average. 4

The air quality was no better. It's a well-known idea the Soviet Union was heavily fixated on catching up with other world powers in terms of industrialization. Although that didn't necessarily work out, air pollution from stationary sources such as factories was ranked the highest on the list of environmental problems that faced the Soviet Union, according to the Soviet environmental protection agency. Since a high concentration of heavy industry was focused in urban regions, citizens living in many industrial areas suffered some of the worst air pollution in the world. The city with the record emissions was Norilsk, a Stalin-era industrial boomtown located in central Siberia. In 1991, the volume of pollutants pumped into the air surrounding Norilsk by local metal smelters was around 2.5 million tons—roughly half the volume of air pollution in Mexico City. However, Norilsk has only 1 percent of the number of residents and a similar percent of automobiles. 5

Although people often attribute climate change to capitalism, the Soviet Union was responsible for the emission of over 1 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere—almost 18 percent of the world's carbon emissions from energy production that year. Despite being second in carbon emissions to the United States which produced 22 percent, the USSR's economy only estimated about one-fourth to one-half of the United States' economy. 6

Environmentally-conscientious voters should note socialism's dismal legacy with the environment before pointing fingers at capitalism. Although no effective economic system can completely prevent environmental impacts, capitalism is the only one that can produce the technology and creativity to mitigate it and sustain a cleaner environment. 

About Julia

Twitter: @JuliaGlavas

Instagram: @juliaglav

Julia Glavas was born and raised on Long Island, New York. She is currently a sixteen-year-old student at Smithtown High School West. Striving for a degree in political science, she frequently writes political editorials for her school's newspaper and website.

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