Soviet Sustainability

Quite frequently, our analysis of environmental issues and their history concentrates on social and ecological protection in the face of liberal capitalism. As if that were the only system to cause the need for (or confront) sustainability. In a fascinating essay on the foibles of sustainable development in The Wealth of Nature, Donald Worster notes that “the sustainability ideal rests on an uncritical, unexamined acceptance of the traditional world-view of progressive, secular materialism.” Real environmental salvation is attainable without having to forego the amenities that are so environmentally costly to produce. This is a serious problem that requires further investigation, but I’m especially interested in a side issue that relates to the monolithic nature of the western, capitalist environmental cause.

At the 24th Soviet Communist Party Congress in March 1971 (in the build-up to the UN Stockholm conference), Leonid Brezhnev offered an intriguing (if somewhat vague) articulation of the Soviet awareness of the global environmental crisis:

Our country is prepared to participate together with the other states concerned in settling problems like the conservation of the environment, development of power and other natural resources, development of transport and communications, prevention and eradication of the most dangerous and widespread diseases, and the exploration and development of outer space and the world ocean.

The above was quoted in the March 31, 1971 issue of The New York Times (p. 14). There’s a lot to interpret here, not least whether his reference to “other states concerned” is simply “the rest of the world,” or a more loaded criticism of “some other states.” And an interesting reference to the development of outer space as part of a larger environmental/sustainability initiative, though it suggests a rather important connection between science, technology, economy, and nature. Further, Brezhnev’s excerpted quotation above also seems to situate the Soviet Union’s environmental concerns very much in the same spirit as the developing world’s, wherein economic development remained as central (and likely more so) as environmental protection.

A growing literature to draw on to explore this further from Douglas Weiner, Paul Josephson, Loren Graham, and others…

One thought on “Soviet Sustainability

  1. It is an interesting idea, that a non-capitalistic society could be more willing to limit growth due to environmental protection. Sadly, the Soviets were not a society willing to do so, as shown by the damage they caused: The Aral Sea is probably the most striking visual example; http://www.artificialowl.net/2009/04/disasters-of-aral-sea-part-1-shipwrecks.html

    I’m not saying it can’t work, just that the Soviets are really not a good example of a non-capitalistic society preserving the environment. A more practical model might be some of the European Social Democracy nations that keep most primary industries nationalized, so as to regulate the amount of environmental exploitation performed.

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