Black Box East: Lessons from the Eco-Politics of the USSR

We need to re-evaluate the environmental practices and policies of state socialism, last but least because they had more environmentally beneficial than destructive effects. Hence, rather than dismissing state socialism’s heritage out of hand, we should reclaim it for contemporary eco-socialist ends, as critical geographer and author Salvatore Engel-Di Mauro argues.

Capitalist societies have had a good three decades to prove their environmental worth since reactionaries prevailed over the USSR and allied states. The repercussions have been dire. With the remaining socialist states in retreat, cumulative global CO2 emissions have nearly doubled (from 0.833 trillion tonnes by 1992 to 1.61 trillion tonnes by 2019). Moreover, the only country where people’s material well-being has been raised in an ecologically sustainable way is Cuba. While much of capitalist Southeast Asia and countries like Brazil are ravaged by deforestation, in Laos and Vietnam, under Communist Party leadership, forests have rebounded despite long-term forest devastation from US military attacks (Laos is the most bombed country in history), illegal logging, and international trade pressures. And this is only to scratch the surface.

Most environmental parameters clearly point to capitalism as an utter environmental failure compared to state socialism. And the same can be said of massive improvements in people’s lives under state socialism. It is also thanks to state socialism that once chronic famines were thrown into the dustbin of history in Russia and China. In the latter country, Communist Party policies have resulted in lifting more than 800 million people out of poverty within half a century, a historically unprecedented feat.

Yet many people, especially from within capitalist democracies, charge socialist states with all sorts of gruesome misdeeds, conveniently ignoring the massive pressures from capitalist democracies’ governments and their relentless attempts to destroy any kind of socialism anywhere. Critical assessments are certainly legitimate, but not when context and contrary data are ignored. When one looks into the evidence systematically, it becomes clear that instances of environmental degradation or disaster through state socialism were neither pervasive nor intrinsic to that form of socialism. This is in sharp contrast to the recurring capitalist ecocides and genocides, propelled by a compulsion for endless profit-making. The resulting death tolls caused through capitalism are immense and unrivalled in human history. Capitalist democracy is especially horrific, generating the worst eco-social disasters ever, like the continuing horrors at Bhopal (India), Hanford (US), the Niger Delta (Nigeria), Lago Agrio (Ecuador), and Fukushima (Japan).

Socialist states’ environmental records

To counter pervasive capitalist ideology, one can start by educating oneself and others about the superiority of socialist states’ environmental records. This has been demonstrated empirically for decades, but the data are presented in scandalously biased form, often scattered across the sciences and at times requiring technical knowledge for proper interpretation. Here, the main findings reported my recent book are summarised with respect to the USSR, as a main illustration.

The first socialist state, the USSR, was at the forefront of ecologically sustainable development. Environmental issues were priorities even during the Russian Civil War. Under Bolshevik rule, ecology as a science thrived and became the most advanced in the scientific world. Environmentalist currents were intrinsic to state socialism, at times shaping national policies if not putting up successful grassroots pressures against environmentally destructive plans. Over a roughly seventy-year period, the net effects of such currents were constructive not only for the USSR, but for most of the socialist states that arose since.

Many species were saved from the brink of extinction or protected by means of large preserves. Preserves were or have been expanded in number and areal extent over time, with some exceptions, and this enables the protection of entire ecosystems along with their diverse soils and surface waters. To make this possible, millions of people were or have been mobilised to environmental causes and educated formally and informally on the importance of environmental protection, leaving lasting legacies of environmental literacy and sensibility.

Soil conservation measures were applied as much as feasible and were, on the whole, successful, given severe economic constraints and inherited low levels of productivity. A late 1980s Food and Agriculture Organisation study on soil degradation ranked the USSR 28th in the world compared to the US’s 52nd place (for a critical appraisal of that FAO study, see Engel-Di Mauro 2014). Logging was mainly kept to within the limits of forest regeneration. There were many instances of major afforestation efforts as well that reduced soil erosion and protected waterways, as well as the safeguarding of habitats for many species.

Collective consumption infrastructure

Prioritising the development of collective consumption infrastructure was another important aspect of the USSR. Public transportation was privileged in urban centres over individual motorised vehicle use, consequently always highly attenuated. City planning included provisions and actualisations of ample green spaces. Internal travel and internal population migration tended and tends to be restricted, while housing was and is often centrally planned and largely guaranteed, all of which contributes to reducing if not preventing urban expansion and to keeping air pollution in check in areas between cities. Per capita resource consumption was low, and materials recycling was well developed and highly encouraged.

Early on after the Revolution in 1917, major efforts were dedicated to developing basic sewerage collection and water purification plants, which was lacking in most of the former Russian Empire. This vastly improved public hygiene and health. There were also little-known yet crucial early advances, like the banning of leaded petrol and paint in the USSR already by the 1940s. Rapid industrialisation, especially during the 1970s, brought much air and water pollution, though delimited geographically. But measures were adopted that led to substantial improvements in reducing pollutant output and remediating polluted sites (in capitalist countries, instead, it took organising millions of people into environmental movements in the 1960s and outside state institutions to achieve what then turned out to be largely temporary gains). Measures to tackle pollution included switching to natural gas where feasible and retrofitting industrial plants with less polluting equipment.

Thanks to productivity gains from industrialisation, cutting-edge environmental monitoring programmes and stations were developed. Monitoring was distributed as densely as possible even over vast territories. Spearheading several international environmental treaties, the USSR promoted biodiversity protection, the reduction of transboundary air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, desertification containment, and soil conservation worldwide. The ecologically constructive impacts of the USSR, within their borders as well as globally, are in part traceable to the environmental sensibility pervading sections of what became the ruling party. That sensibility endured even at the height of civil war and the internal, mass-murderous repression of the 1930s.

Countering omission and denial

Most indicators on the USSR point to, on balance, better track records than even the wealthiest capitalist democracies, whose higher living standards and technological advances are predicated on ransacking much of the planet. These should be reasons enough to re-evaluate, rather than dismiss state socialist environmental practices and policies. It should be relatively easy to point out the ecocidal nature and results of free-market democracies and capitalism generally, but we are instead usually presented with an inversion of reality. This includes the omission, if not outright denial of any ecologically constructive outcomes from state-socialist systems, an omission exacerbated by the erasure of the diversity of practices and effects among the more than 20 state-socialist countries that have existed and that, by the 1970s, included about a third of humanity. In this light, socialists’ main political task should be to learn about the problems faced and errors made by socialist states and to build on their achievements.

The net positive environmental record of socialist states, including the USSR, is even more impressive when considering the enormous historical challenges. These can be summarised into three inter-related processes. One is the effects of the shifting context in a capitalist world economy. Another is the changing interconnections between socialist states and imperialist capitalist (often neo-colonial) powers. A third is the pre-existing and newly formed internal social conflicts (class struggles) faced within and between state-socialist countries following successful revolutions or systemic changes.

These three processes underlie the overarching quandaries that need to be considered and planned for by any current socialist formation: building the necessary defences to survive capitalist belligerence, while bringing sufficient material well-being to all and, in the process avoid environmental harm, all with the aim of eventually creating a communist society (that is, a state-free, classless society). Addressing these quandaries involves two forms of inter-related but different struggles: a social and an ecological one. Socialist states like the USSR exemplified this combined struggle. They still offer much not only in terms of signposts about what to prevent, but also of potentials to overcome capitalist relations in ecologically sustainable ways.

****

This text is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s BLACK BOX EAST text series; its German translation is available on Berliner Gazette. You can find more texts, artworks, and conference information on the English-language BLACK BOX EAST website. Have a look here: https://blackboxeast.berlinergazette.de

Salvatore Engel-Di Mauro
Salvatore Engel-Di Mauro is Professor at the Geography Department of SUNY New Paltz. His research includes critical physical geography, dialectical and historical materialism, gender-environment processes, socialism and environment, socialist histories, and soil acidification and contamination. He is chief editor for the journal Capitalism Nature Socialism. His publications include “Socialist States and the Environment. Lessons for Eco-Socialist Futures” (Pluto Press, 2021 ).

Le Club est l'espace de libre expression des abonnés de Mediapart. Ses contenus n'engagent pas la rédaction.