Tom DaveyEditorial Comment

May 1997

May Day ­ now a requiem for lost environmental opportunities

When the Iron Curtain rang down it exposed both a collapsed Soviet economy and a hideously ravaged environment. The sad thing is that few countries could match the bounties that nature had bestowed on the former USSR, a country with the largest land mass in the world, with far more water resources than Canada. Lake Baikal, for example, is the largest and deepest lake in the world containing a water volume which perhaps exceeds that of the combined Great Lakes. The Soviet Union also had vastly more timber than Canada, including one single forest which could blanket our landmass; and for many years the USSR was the world's biggest producer of oil, gas, coal and iron ore.

Soviet human resources were equally impressive. This was the nation which fought the German Army to a standstill at Moscow, then carried on with the war until its army took Berlin. The Soviets also pioneered space travel when they blasted Sputnik into orbit, followed by Yuri Gagarin, the first man to orbit the earth. This was years before Allan Shepard made America's first sub-orbital space penetration from Cape Canaveral. Russia also bred literary giants such as Tolstoy, Pasternak, Pushkin and Solzhenitsyn, as well as composers such as Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Borodin who, incidently, held a doctorate in chemistry.

Changing of the guard at Lenin's tomb.

As the Soviet Union was driven by socialistic idealism that labour was for the benefit of the people, not profit, one might have thought that its citizens would enjoy increasingly high living standards following World War II. Some expounded that the people under this regime could now reap the rewards of new industries which would also have had stringent environmental controls.

Alas, it never happened. Glasnost revealed a highly educated but forlorn and impoverished population whose record of environmental disasters stretched right across the former Soviet Union and its satellite Warsaw Pact countries. Widespread air, water and soil pollution emerged as a macabre legacy, with Chernobyl topping it off as the ultimate environmental horror story.

It will take an army of philosophers, historians and political scientists to analyse everything that went wrong in the Soviet Union but a few things are certain. The system repressed human initiative, replacing what Adam Smith called, the invisible hand of self interest with collective farms and centralized bureaucracies. Moscow told farmers when to sow and how to reap, oblivious to local weather and soil conditions. Bureaucrats set industrial production quotas where quantity took precedence over quality and consumer preferences and style were dismissed as capitalist frills.

Germany, devastated by WW II, then divided in two for decades, provides an almost perfect laboratory to monitor the economic and environmental records of two distinct political regimes. When The Wall came down decades later, West Germany had become one of the most prosperous countries in the world with workers' benefits unmatched anywhere in the socialist Eden. This opulence was largely achieved initially by the excellence of its automobile industry whose environmental standards are among the most stringent in the world.

When the Iron Curtain fell, West Germany was confronted with East Germany's answer to the Volkswagen ­ the twin cylinder, 2 cycle Trabant. Derisively known as 'the blue smokers', the Trabants were slow, unreliable, expensive and uncomfortable. They were also significant polluters until 4 cylinder VW engines and other improvements were installed in 1990.

Amazingly, in spite of this dismal record, our political left has managed to assert a territorial imperative over environmental issues, commanding a moral high ground over market economies which is quite unsubstantiated by the facts.

The collapse of the Iron Curtain has revealed hunger, poverty, lawlessness and a corrupted environment which is unmatched in the West. All are legacies of Soviet rule, yet many activists and bureaucrats seem to ignore this record as they seek to redress our environmental problems with left wing nostrums. Many have stated that the market forces are incompatible with environmental goals and seek a structured economy in order to protect the environment.

The same cries were heard when poverty and hunger were the pressing problems of the day and socialism was hailed as the only antidote. Today, hunger is not a problem in Western countries. To the contrary, the West has a billion dollar industry of weight watching, dieting and health clubs, simply to control eating habits, a situation arising from an abundance of food unprecedented in human history.

Santayana's warning that: those who ignore the mistakes of history are doomed to repeat them might be an object lesson to Canadian environmental activists.


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