When pressed by Twitter critics earlier this month over the horrendous human rights record of his chosen ideology, Jesse “#FULLCOMMUNISM” Myerson struck back with this tweet:
If I have to answer for Soviet gulags, these market/capital twits have to answer for climate collapse, the greatest genocide in history.
— Jesse A. Myerson (@JAMyerson) January 4, 2014
In addition to being an advocate for an ideology directly responsible for tens of millions of non-war deaths and untold human misery, Myerson has revealed himself as something of an ignoramus concerning communism’s shocking record on environmental issues. Not only a blight on the human condition, communism’s impact on the planet’s ecology has proven consistently ghastly.
When the Berlin Wall came down and the Iron Curtain was finally lifted to expose the inner workings of communism to Western eyes, one of the more shocking discoveries was the nightmarish scale of environmental destruction. The statistics for East Germany alone tell a horrific tale: at the time of its reunification with West Germany an estimated 42 percent of moving water and 24 percent of still waters were so polluted that they could not be used to process drinking water, almost half of the country’s lakes were considered dead or dying and unable to sustain fish or other forms of life, and only one-third of industrial sewage along with half of domestic sewage received treatment.
An estimated 44 percent of East German forests were damaged by acid rain — little surprise given that the country produced proportionally more sulphur dioxide, carbon dioxide, and coal dust than any other in the world. In some areas of East Germany the level of air pollution was between eight and twelve times greater than that found in West Germany, and 40 percent of East Germany’s population lived in conditions that would have justified a smog warning across the border. Only one power station in East Germany had the necessary equipment to clean sulphur from emissions.
Sten Nilsson, a Swedish forest ecologist who was kicked out of East Germany in 1986 for his efforts at collecting data on the health of its forests, said in April 1990 that many forests were “dead, completely” and described the country as “on the verge of total ecological collapse.” The environmental policy of the communist government, according to then Environment Minister Karl-Hermann Steinberg in 1990, “was not only badly designed but didn’t exist.”
Perhaps nowhere suffered more grievous environmental harm than the town of Bitterfeld. Translated as “Bitterfield” in English, its name under the communist regime would prove apt. Pronounced by Der Spiegel as Europe’s dirtiest town, Greenpeace as well as government statistics suggested it may have been the filthiest in the entire world. Home to a variety of manufacturing facilities which spewed a witch’s brew of chemical and industrial byproducts into the air and water, Bitterfeld was nothing less than an environmental horror show. This is how the Washington Post’s Marc Fisher described the town in the spring of 1990:
Here, rivers flow red from steel mill waste, drinking water contains many times the European Community standards for heavy metals and other pollutants, and the air has killed so many trees — 75 percent in the Bitterfeld area — that even the most ambitious clean-up efforts now being planned would not reverse the damage. East Germany fills the air with sulfur dioxide at almost five times the West German rate and more than twice the Polish rate, according to a recent study. One chemical plant near here dumps 44 pounds of mercury into the Saale river each day — 10 times as much as the West German chemical company BASF pumps into the Rhine each year.
Writing for The New York Times in September of that year, reporter Marlise Simons said of Bitterfeld that “[t]he air stings, and the water in brooks and rivers has turned to syrup[.]” And a 1994 article in the UK newspaper The Independent recalled that in communist times the town’s leaves would turn brown by June, a local guest-house featured “gas-masks lining the walls of the lobby,” and that in the years since reunification “Bitterfeld’s children were sent for up to a month each year to the coast or the mountains” to give their lungs a break from the relentless assault.
East Germany was hardly the exception to the rule, with environmental degradation being the norm throughout the communist countries of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Sourcing from articles in Time and Business Week, a 1992 Cato Journal paper noted that “[c]hildren from the Upper Silesia area of Poland have been found to have five times more lead in their blood than children from Western European cities,” while half of the region’s children suffered from pollution-related illnesses. Some areas of Romania, the paper added, experienced such heavily polluted air that horses were only allowed to stay for two or three years.
A similar story was found in the Soviet Union. Writing for the now-defunct (and Ralph Nader-founded) Multinational Monitor in September 1990, James Ridgeway noted widespread pollution of both the air and drinking water:
40% of the Soviet people live in areas where air pollutants are three to four times the maximum allowable levels. Sanitation is primitive. Where it exists, for example in Moscow, it doesn’t work properly. Half of all industrial waste water in the capital city goes untreated. In Leningrad, nearly half of the children have intestinal disorders caused by drinking contaminated water from what was once Europe’s most pristine supply.
A 1996 Russia country study published by the Library of Congress’ Federal Research Division described the country’s air as “among the most polluted in the world,” and found that 75 percent of its surface water was polluted and 50 percent of all water not potable according to 1992 quality standards.
While the explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear reactor probably counts as the country’s best-known environmental disaster, it was but one of numerous episodes of serious environmental damage which plagued the Soviet nuclear sector. Wikipedia describes a 1957 explosion at the Mayak nuclear reactor as resulting in “long-term contamination of an area of more than 800 to 20,000 square kilometers” with 10,000 people forced to evacuate and an unknown number of deaths related to the accident. Unsurprisingly, it also notes during the plant’s construction that “[e]nvironmental concerns were not taken seriously.”
This casual approach to nuclear issues extended to the country’s military, where the Soviet fleet — the largest nuclear-powered navy in the world — opted to sometimes dispose of reactors by simply dumping them into the ocean:
A Russian government report acknowledged in March 1993, that “during the period of 1965 to 1988 the Northern Fleet had dumped four reactor compartments with eight reactors (three containing damaged fuel) in the Abrosimov Gulf in 20 to 40 meters of water.” Six other compartments, containing nine reactors in all, had also been dumped into the water in the 1960s and 1970s.
Wikipedia also notes that the improper removal of control rods on board a Victor-class submarine outside Vladivostok in 1985 led to an explosion, the “release of large amounts of radioactivity,” and ten deaths, while a 1961 nuclear accident on board the K-19 submarine — later immortalized in a 2002 movie starring Harrison Ford — resulted in the contamination-related deaths of 22 crew members within two years of the incident and radiation poisoning of the environment. After the vessel’s nuclear reactors were removed and replaced, the Soviets predictably decided to dispose of the original compartment used to house them by dropping it into the Kara Sea.
The sea was also a favored method for the disposal of nuclear waste as noted by this 1992 New York Times article:
Of possibly greater concern [than the nuclear reactors disposed in the ocean] is the radioactive waste dumped at sea. Russian authorities told Dr. Charles Hollister [of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution] that 11,000 to 17,000 waste containers, holding 61,407 curies of radioactivity, were dumped off Novaya Zemlya from 1964 to 1990. In addition, 165,000 cubic meters of liquid waste were dumped in the Barents Sea west of Novaya Zemlaya from 1961 to 1990. For comparison, the Chernobyl accident released about 86,000,000 curies of radioactivity.
[In addition], Dr. Hollister reckons the amount of nuclear material within some of the [four Soviet submarines lost at sea] at seven times that in the ill-fated Chernobyl reactor.
A Fortune magazine story from the same year adds some additional color to the issue:
Last year a Russian scientist from Murmansk disclosed that contrary to official denials, the Soviet navy had been dumping nuclear waste in the Barents Sea for nearly 30 years. The dumping site, he claimed, was several hundred miles from the Norwegian coast in a known fishing area. Even worse, the barrels of nuclear waste at first floated. So what did the Russians do? They punctured the protective containers, apparently so the highly toxic barrels of radioactive waste would fill with sea water and sink.
When the Soviets weren’t dumping nuclear waste or reactors into the ocean they busied themselves by declaring war against the world’s whale population, killing at least 45,000 humpbacks alone between 1946-1986. Sickeningly, according to Charles Homans, the slaughter was performed simply to satisfy the demands of central planners:
The Soviet whalers, [Russian scientist Alfred] Berzin wrote, had been sent forth to kill whales for little reason other than to say they had killed them. They were motivated by an obligation to satisfy obscure line items in the five-year plans that drove the Soviet economy, which had been set with little regard for the Soviet Union’s actual demand for whale products. “Whalers knew that no matter what, the plan must be met!” Berzin wrote. [A Soviet whaling ship] seemed to contain in microcosm everything Berzin believed to be wrong about the Soviet system: its irrationality, its brutality, its inclination toward crime. Berzin contrasted the Soviet whalers with the Japanese, who are similarly thought to have caught whales off the books in the Antarctic (though in numbers, scientists believe, far short of the Soviets). The Japanese, motivated as they were by domestic demand for whale meat, were “at least understandable” in their actions, he wrote. “I should not say that as a scientist, but it is possible to understand the difference between a motivated and unmotivated crime.” Japanese whalers made use of 90 percent of the whales they hauled up the spillway; the Soviets, according to Berzin, used barely 30 percent. Crews would routinely return with whales that had been left to rot, “which could not be used for food. This was not regarded as a problem by anybody.” This absurdity stemmed from an oversight deep in the bowels of the Soviet bureaucracy. Whaling, like every other industry in the Soviet Union, was governed by the dictates of the State Planning Committee of the Council of Ministers, a government organ tasked with meting out production targets. In the grand calculus of the country’s planned economy, whaling was considered a satellite of the fishing industry. This meant that the progress of the whaling fleets was measured by the same metric as the fishing fleets: gross product, principally the sheer mass of whales killed.
Central economic planning is also largely responsible for the devastation of the Aral Sea. Once the world’s fourth-largest lake, its massive decline can be directly traced to directives issued by top economic officials in Moscow:
In the early 1960, the Soviet government decided the two rivers that fed the Aral Sea, the Amu Darya in the south and the Syr Darya in the northeast, would be diverted to irrigate the desert, in an attempt to grow rice, melons, cereals, and cotton. This was part of the Soviet plan for cotton, or “white gold”, to become a major export.
…From 1960 to 1998, the [Aral Sea]’s surface area shrank by approximately 60%, and its volume by 80%…The amount of water it had lost is the equivalent of completely draining Lake Erie and Lake Ontario.
Further examples of Soviet carelessness and environmental destruction abound: The Guardian notes that nearly 250,000 tons of pesticides and farm chemicals from Soviet times have been “stored in ramshackle warehouses, land-filled or dumped” throughout the former USSR. Lake Karachay — a dumping ground for Soviet nuclear weapon facilities — was deemed the “most polluted spot on Earth” by the Worldwatch Institute, and a 1994 New York Times article noted that one of Russia’s most prized exports, caviar, had been placed at severe risk from “tens of thousands of tons of heavy metals, chemicals, raw waste and other pollutants” dumped annually into the Caspian Sea, as well as Stalin’s damming of the Volga River. Entire books are filled with accounts of the devastation wreaked by Soviet communism upon the environment.
The environmental destruction associated with communism is no coincidence or accident of history, but rather a perfectly logical outcome for at least three reasons. Perhaps most obviously, communism invariably means authoritarianism (how else would a New Soviet Man emerge to work towards the bright, shiny future prophesied by Marx and Engels without re-education camps and control over the levers of societal machinery?), with little tolerance for dissent or concerns about hazardous waste in the worker’s paradise. To voice the opinion that perhaps not quite all was well, or that the air smelled funny, was to invite suspicions being a saboteur, kulak or harboring bourgeois tendencies.
Second, communism means an absence of property rights, having all been surrendered to “the people,” which is to say the state. As that which belongs to everyone in fact belongs to no one, who is to be confronted over the factory sending toxic plumes into the sky which then descends on the cornfield, or the dumping of waste into the river plied by tourists on cruise boats? And who really owns the cornfield or the boats?
Lastly, communism also simply cannot compete with capitalism in the production of wealth and technology, both of which greatly assist in addressing environmental problems. Why should anyone be surprised that only one East German power station had the necessary equipment to scrub sulphur from its emissions? This, after all, was a country whose answer to Western automobiles — the Trabant launched in the late 1950s — did not even include a fuel gauge in its early versions, something first introduced decades prior (unsurprisingly the Trabant was also bad for the environment, emitting nine times the hydrocarbons and five times the carbon monoxide emissions of the average European car of 2007).
There is no society, nor has one ever existed, which featured zero pollution or harm to the environment. The only question is how best to manage it, and which system is best positioned to accomplish this. On that question the answer is surely capitalism, home to the world’s richest countries and cleanest environments. It isn’t even close.