Is Communism Good for the Environment?

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Is communism environmentally friendly? At first glance, one might be tempted to answer “yes.” A powerful central government with a collectivist philosophy might be just the thing necessary to combat pollution, climate change, and modern society’s rampant disregard for nature. It could, quite literally, save the world.

True, a heightened focus on the environment goes all the way back to the Communist Manifesto. Yet the attitude toward the environment found in that document is one more of extraction than of stewardship: Marx and Engels argue for the “abolition of property in land and application of all rents of land to public purposes.” If land is a source of wealth, it can and should be under the total control of the state.

But this level of power inspires a dangerous sense of recklessness. Any designer can confirm that, given a seemingly unlimited number of resources to work with, planning and implementation becomes sloppy. With wastefulness no longer a concern, one is free to barrel forward, to make new attempts if the first do not succeed, and to forget about cost consideration. When this attitude is applied to the environment and to human lives, death and destruction result.

One need not dwell too long in the realm of the hypothetical, however. The environmental track record of communist regimes like East Germany, the Soviet Union, and the People’s Republic of China is a matter of historical fact.

In 1984, a UN report named East Germany Europe’s most polluted country. In the same year, the German Economic Institute in West Berlin reported that East Germany’s sulfur dioxide emissions “have reached at least 46 tons annually per square kilometer”—well beyond any acceptable level. Acid rain, polluted water sources, and sewage leakages were just a few of the environmental issues that ravaged the country during its time under communist leadership.

In another example, a 1990 article from the Multinational Monitor reported that “40 percent of the Soviet people live in areas where air pollutants are three to four times the maximum allowable levels,” and that “in Leningrad, nearly half of the children have intestinal disorders caused by drinking contaminated water from what was once Europe’s most pristine supply.” Other issues included deforestation, metal poisoning, and eroding topsoil—although the Soviet Union itself reported almost none of this.

Or consider Central Asia, which the Soviet Union treated as a blank slate for grandiose industrial and military projects. Massive canals like the Karakum (originally “Lenin”) Canal and the Fergana (originally “Fergana Stalin”) Canal irrigated new cotton fields in the arid lands of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. The Fergana Stalin Canal was built in 1939 in only 45 days—by 180,000 forced laborers, that is. But the diversion of existing rivers resulted in the near-disappearance of the Aral Sea, once one of the world’s largest lakes. It has left behind a basin of salt and pesticide-infested dust, swept across the landscape in giant storms.

Both the Soviet Union and China undertook open-air nuclear tests in Central Asia as well, at the Semipalatinsk Test Site in Kazakhstan and Lop Nur in Xinjiang Province, respectively, with little concern for the health of local people. High levels of cancer and disease have resulted.

China’s Great Leap Forward campaign offers perhaps the most chilling example of communism’s irresponsible and deadly relationship with nature. In 1958, Mao Zedong’s regime turned an entire nation toward one goal: capturing and killing the “four pests”—rats, flies, mosquitoes, and sparrows. When it became clear that the sparrows were not guilty of eating the grain harvest but were, in fact, the main predators of locusts—the real threat—the damage was already irreversible. Between deforestation, failed irrigation schemes, and the Four Pests Campaign, the Chinese ecosystem was horribly skewed. Thirty to forty million died during the resulting famines.

One of the slogans for the Great Leap Forward was “Humans Must Conquer Nature.” In her book Mao's War Against Nature: Politics and the Environment in Revolutionary China, Judith Shapiro describes the belief that human will was “more powerful than objective scientific law" and that "the earth could be miraculously transformed through ideologically motivated determination." In a sense, the belief was entirely correct—but the “transformations” effected were nightmarish rather than miraculous.

Centrally-planned regimes have repeatedly brought once-flourishing communities to unprecedented states of starvation, illness, and decay. This should come as no surprise; communism’s inability to cooperate with the natural environment can be explained by three different aspects of its very ideology.

First, because of its undivided focus on party goals, communism takes an instrumental attitude towards all elements of the surrounding world: the environment is no exception. Yet humans have known for thousands of years that nature must be treated with respect. While it is necessary for our own sustenance, it also has the power for mass destruction when it is mistreated or disregarded.

Second, through adopting a narrative of complete unity, communism has no reliable method for identifying and correcting its own mistakes. To admit internal conflict would be to contradict the Party’s claims of omniscience. Yet flexibility and self-correction are exactly what is required to respond to nature’s ever-changing demands.

Finally, communism is notorious for a misallocation of resources. In striving for a world of perfect equality, it ignores the fact that human beings have individual talents, backgrounds, and interests. For a healthy society, individuals must be paired with the undertaking most suited to their abilities. Communism, by contrast, puts doctors and teachers in rice fields and expects them to be able to produce a greater harvest than the farmers before them.

A quick analysis of communism’s environmental footprint throughout history reveals that the ideology is a serious threat to our shared home. At every level of the system, one finds goals and attitudes which can only result in chaos, not just with regard to the economy or the fabric of society, but to the planet as well. If you want to protect the environment, say no to the genocidal disaster of communism.