Sometimes you see an argument that communist or socialist approaches to environmental protection are doomed to fail. They say: “Just look at what happened in the Soviet Union.”
Then a communist might say: “Well, they did it wrong in that instance.” Implying that in a re-run they could get it right.
There is a similar argument about communism itself. People point to the dismal lives people had in Central and Eastern Europe and say that shows that communism doesn’t work. And to that a communist might say: “Well, they did it wrong. The ideas were right, but the implementation was bad. Like Christians who did inquisitions and so forth.”
Are these two arguments similar? The fact that communism didn’t work out over 40 years or more in many countries is very good evidence that there is something seriously wrong with communism. The defence that it was poorly practised is stretched. There must have been someone who practised it accurately among all those country-wide experiments in the 20th century.
Does the fact that communists really messed up the environment prove that communism is not the right way to deal with environmental questions? Probably, but there are two important things to consider: the leaders and the type of economy you have.
Leaders: If Stalin and Brezhnev and their chums had been really keen on nature and abhorred the destruction of nature, then he would have had all the polluters lined up and shot. That would have created an incentive not to pollute more powerful than any property right.
Type of economy: the Soviets were obsessed with industrialisation. So they built massive factories which polluted. If they had been more into gardening than industry, we would have seen a lot more gardens and significantly less pollution.
So we can say that communism implies environmental destruction, but that destruction will be much less or more depending on the character of the leaders and the nature of economic activity.
This is important because the same goes for the modern, post-communist world, which has no right to be smug. The most significant political questions for environmental protection are not to do with left or right. They are: Do the leaders care and what do we dream of?
I don’t think that many of our political leaders – left or right – do care seriously about nature. If they have a philosophy, it is entirely anthropocentric. And as long as they and we dream of speed and convenience and steaks and huge, energy-hungry infrastructure made out of cement and steel, then there is no hope for nature.