The state-capitalist mode of accumulation which first arose in the Soviet Union and then spread, in the name of "socialism", to other parts of the world (China, Eastern Europe, Cuba, etc.), was adopted because of the very significant advantages centralized control provided the new class of capitalist bureaucrats. Not the least of these has been totalitarian political structures which have prevented the working class people in these countries from expressing any criticism of state-imposed heavy industrial development. People couldn't complain when they were moved off their lands and turned into industrial or agricultural workers. They also didn't dare respond to the signs of steadily worsening environmental conditions around their workplaces and homes. The state's controls on information and research made it impossible for people to know what was happening to the air, lands and waters outside of their own locales. Increasingly over time, however, the promised bounties of the industrial state were seen to have been so many lies, and the destruction of public and environmental health could no longer be tolerated in silence.
Over the last two decades information about environmental conditions within the state-capitalist sphere has slowly leaked out to the West. Now with glasnost, perestroika and the breakdown of Soviet hegemony in Eastern Europe the leaks have turned into a flood. Environmental destruction there is severe: massive air, water and soil pollution, radioactive contamination of food, mysterious epidemics affecting whole regions, dying lakes and rivers, extinctions of plants and animals, and all the other forms of ecocide we are familiar with from other parts of the world. People in the Soviet Union, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and elsewhere in the region are organizing militant responses to damage and threats (in some cases much more militant than any that have ever occurred in the U.S.). Their militancy over environmental and health issues, in fact, is partly responsible for the major political changes taking place there today, and holds much liberatory potential for the future. They have seen through the industrial con act and won't be silent just because the new managers are German, Japanese or American. Here's a brief sampling of some of the worst environmental problems in Eastern Europe and how people have responded. You'd be militant too!
Life Goes On, or, Death & Profits in the USSR
The explosion and fire at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine in April 1986 sent more than seven tons of radioactive material into the atmosphere, contaminating land, water and food through much of Europe. In addition to the 31 people who died within the first 75 days and the 300 treated for intense radiation exposure, more than 135,000 people were evacuated from the surrounding area and 2,500 square kilometers of land became "officially" uninhabitable. Medical experts predict that tens of thousands of people will die prematurely of radiation-caused cancer.
Despite glasnost the Soviet authorities still closely restrict information about the aftereffects of the disaster; in April 1989 on the third anniversary of the meltdown the government issued strict curbs on press reporting of accidents at nuclear and conventional power plants. "The directive comes at a time when the government has been trying to promote the use of atomic energy amid the growth of an anti-nuclear movement born of fear that the full truth of Chernobyl is yet to be revealed". Last November thousands of people demonstrated in the streets of Minsk in Byelorussia demanding that a half-million people be evacuated from villages that are contaminated by radiation in the Gomel and Mogilyov regions. Similar demonstrations have taken place in Ukraine, organized by the group Green World. In the Poleski district west of Chernobyl, residents, especially children, suffer from swollen thyroid glands, sluggishness, cataracts and a rise in cancer rates. Infants born there now exhibit increased congenital cataracts, impaired vision, lowered immunity, and higher levels of anemia and myocardial infarction. The conditions in the Narodichi region southwest of Chernobyl are similar; Moscow officials "sometimes visit the area and then blame the health problems there on 'radiophobia', the psychosomatic fear of radiation." Farm animals in the region, starting in 1987, are increasingly born with serious deformities: "calves without heads, limbs, ribs, eyes; pigs with abnormal skulls." Food grown in the large contaminated area, both meat and vegetable products, is sold all over the Soviet Union, much of it with radiation levels 10 times normal. (All quotes in paragraph from the San Francisco Chronicle, Nov. 24, 1989 and Feb. 14, 1990).
Chernobyl of course was not the first nuclear accident to occur in the Soviet Union; it was merely the worst, and the first that was not covered up by the government (they tried but failed). Recently the government admitted for the first time that an accident occurred in 1957 at a nuclear waste dump in the Ural Mountains, in which, according to the CIA (not necessarily a reliable source!), hundreds of people were killed and a 400-square-mile area was turned into a radioactive wasteland. Thirty villages were wiped off the map. Although finally admitting the explosion occurred and that 10,000 people were evacuated, the authorities insist that no one actually died (SF Chronicle, May 17, 1989).
As a result of their history and the prospects of more of the same in the future, Soviet citizens near (and not so near!) nuclear facilities live lives of constant and well-grounded fear. Not only of power plant and waste dump accidents; nuclear weapons testing has also caused militant demonstrations. Coal miners in Kazakhstan have threatened to strike to prevent nuclear tests at the Semipalatinsk test range (can you imagine that happening here?); spokespersons for their organization, Nevada-Semipalatinsk, say the people fear that the explosions "have contaminated the region, poisoning drinking water and food and increasing the incidence of cancer" (SF Chronicle, Oct. 6, 1989). The name of their group indicates that they view their problems from a global perspective.
Radiation poisoning is by no means the most widely threatening of the environmental problems in the USSR. Industrial pollution pervades the country. "Last year , the Soviets identified 102 cities, with a total of 50 million residents, where maximum permissible levels of pollutants had been exceeded by 10 or more times. Even worse, 43 million Soviets lived in cities where such norms had been exceeded by 15 or more times" (SF Chronicle, Feb. 14, 1990). In December, 1987, Pravda stated that the industrial city of Ufa in the Ural Mountains, the capital of the Bashkir A.S.S.R., with a population of nearly one million, had become "barely suitable" for human habitation. Ufa is the site of more than 400 industrial enterprises, mostly chemical factories and oil refineries. Air pollution is several times above permissible levels and fruit and vegetables are grown in poisoned soils (SF Chronicle, Dec. 3, 1987).
The newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda reported in 1988 "that thousands of families in the Khmelnitskiy region of the Ukraine were issued military gas masks because emissions from the local meat combine had reached alarming levels" (SF Chronicle, Feb. 14, 1990). The free issue of masks was advertised as part of a long term program called "Life Goes On" (SF Examiner, Dec. 11, 1988).
A mysterious epidemic of baldness and neurological problems (hallucinations and extreme irritability) has struck more than 125 children in western Ukraine; acid rain laced with the metallic element thallium, perhaps emitted by automobiles, is suspected as the cause (SF Examiner, Dec. 11, 1988).
Water pollution in the USSR is, if anything, even worse than air pollution. "In the Siberian city of Kemerovo, stray dogs that are not sent to research laboratories or converted into fur boots and hats are simply tossed into a lake filled with toxic phenols from a local chemical plant, Komsomolskaya Pravda reported. 'After several days, no trace is left', the newspaper reported" (SF Chronicle, Feb. 11, 1989). In 1988 beaches along the Baltic and Black sea shores were declared unsanitary and off-limits due to industrial waste discharges and high concentrations of pathogenic organisms, including those carrying typhoid and dysentery (SF Chronicle, July 27, 1988).
Infant mortality in the Soviet Union is extremely high, averaging about 25 deaths per 1,000, similar to that of Panama. In Soviet central Asia the rate is 60 per 1,000 infants born, comparable to Guatemala or Cameroon. In the Karakalpak Autonomous Republic the rate is 111 per 1,000. "It is no accident that Karakalpak has the worst infant-mortality rate in the Soviet Union. This region, which has a population of 1.2 million . . . hugs the southern part of the Aral Sea. Soviet authorities have diverted its waters to irrigate the cotton fields of Uzbekistan, Turkmenia and Karakalpak. As a result, the sea has been shrinking and its pollutants have been condensed. The rivers that feed it . . . have been turned into little more than sewers. This contaminated water, often the only water for residents here, spreads infection and disease. Moreover, the chemical pesticides and defoliants used in cotton growing here are absorbed by the men and women who work the fields and are washed into the river water they drink" (New York Times, Aug. 14, 1989). Health officials in the republic report increases in intestinal illnesses among children and throat cancers in adults (SF Examiner, Sep. 25, 1988).
Beyond its health effects on the human population, the shrinkage of the Aral Sea from fourth-largest lake in the world to its current position as sixth-largest (and counting) has created a vast ecological disaster, typical of the kinds of multifaceted devastation created by industrial modes of production dedicated to capital accumulation. Native plant communities have been seriously damaged; shrubs and grasses have disappeared, leaving only desert. Salinity has increased in the lake waters, wiping out 20 of 24 native fish species. The desertification of the region has eliminated 135 of 173 native terrestrial animal species. Severe and huge salt and dust storms deposit salt (more than 47 million tons per year) over the surrounding agricultural areas, damaging crops and soil fertility. The regional climate has changed; summers are warmer, winters colder, and the growing season is shorter; some areas can no longer grow cotton as a result (SF Examiner, Sep. 25, 1988).
Environmental conditions across the country have developed into a crisis for the Soviet government. At a time when the Soviet Union's very survival as a state depends on the competitiveness of its national economy, the working population has been struck by "chronic disability, premature invalidism and death". Soviet authorities see the problem of the "underproductivity of an unhealthy workforce" resulting from ecological damage as the country's biggest problem (SF Chronicle, Feb. 14, 1990).
But the government's hands are tied; it cannot afford to install even the minimal kinds of environmental protections some parts of the West bloc employ. At the same time, the working people in the Soviet Union are mobilizing in defense of their homelands and waters. Demonstrations have reversed a planned nuclear power plant at Krasnodar near the Black Sea in the southern Russian S.F.S.R., and a huge chemical plant at Kazan, capital of the Tatar Autonomous Republic (SF Chronicle, Feb.1, 1988).
When Latvians during their energetic pursuit of independence from the Soviet Union forced authorities to shut down a polluting pulp mill in the coastal city of Jurmala in January of this year, the government retaliated by refusing to supply newsprint from pulp mills elsewhere, effectively shutting down all three Latvian daily newspapers. The only dailies available in Latvia were the national Pravda and Izvestia, mouthpieces of factions of the central bureaucracy. "In all, according to a Latvian journalist, the cutoff of paper supplies will force about 30 newspapers to close, and 1,300 journalists will lose their jobs. Karlis Streips, an editor at the newspaper Atmoda in the Latvian capital of Riga, called Moscow's refusal to supply paper to Latvia indicative of how the Kremlin intends to treat the Baltic republics under the limited autonomy it has granted them" (SF Chronicle, Jan, 25, 1990). Such petty, even pathetic, forms of harassment won't stop the demonstrators. The State giveth and the State taketh away; so much for glasnost. But a growing part of the Soviet working class knows that what they really want--healthy lives in a healthy environment--the Industrial State can't provide.
Satellites Out of Orbit
The story, unfortunately, is much the same in the central and eastern European parts of the former Soviet empire. For some countries there is as yet relatively little information to go on, but what there is sounds familiar. For others, especially Poland, there is vast documentation of extreme environmental destruction. According to French scientist Jean-Pierre Lasota, "environmental devastation has become a feature of everyday life" for Poles (The Sciences, July/Aug. 1987). One quarter of the country's agricultural soil is unfit for food production due to industrial contamination, and only one percent of the water is safe for drinking. Life expectancy for men between the ages of 40 and 60 has fallen back to the level of 1952. Medical authorities expect 13 million of the 40 million residents to develop "at least one environmentally induced illness--respiratory disease, cancer, skin disease, or afflictions of the central nervous system" (State of the World, 1988).
Most cities and villages in Poland have no sewage treatment facilities, and just dump raw sewage into surrounding lakes, rivers and ocean. Ninety percent of the water in lakes and streams is so deficient in dissolved oxygen that no forms of oxygen-breathing life can live in them. Poland holds the world records for acid rain and particulates in the atmosphere; in nearly every major city air pollution is 50 times worse than officially permissible levels. The brown high-sulfur coal used in power plants and industry has damaged over a quarter of the country's forests, extending over an area of 1.25 million acres. The Polish government recently declared Bogomice and four other villages "unfit for human habitation" due to the extremely high levels of heavy metals in the air and soil deposited by emissions form nearby copper-smelting plants.
Poland was heavily bombarded by fallout from the meltdown at Chernobyl. The disaster had a "galvanizing" effect on the people, setting in motion a massive environmental movement. There are now some 2,000 environmental organizations in Poland; one, the Polski Klub Ekologiczny, is said to be the largest grassroots ecological group in the (former) Soviet bloc. Despite censorship and heavy repression (which persisted until late 1989) Polish environmental groups have maintained a high level of activity, holding imaginative demonstrations, establishing information centers, and organizing seminars and petition campaigns. The ecological movement has been a major element in the popular upheavals in Poland in recent years. A statement of the major organization Freedom and Peace explicitly links their efforts for social change to environmental damage: "Threatened with the ruin of the biosphere, pollution of air, water and soil, we realize that freedom should also be the possibility to live in non-devastated surroundings."
The Polish government, however, regardless of the skin it wears, continues in its pursuit of profit at the expense of people and the environment. For some time it has been trying to attract Western venture capital to help raise industrial productivity and profitability, and to take advantage of the potential profits to be made from recycling or use of Polish industrial wastes. The current Solidarity-led government has paid lip-service to environmental protection while instituting economic changes which guarantee the opposite: among the first people laid off in the effort to make the Polish economy more competitive have been environmental scientists: "Marel Jakubczyk, a 41-year-old geologist and environmental engineer, is one of the new white-collar unemployed. He formerly advised a mining company in Silesia about how to minimize environmental damage, but was dismissed in a cost-cutting program" (New York Times, Jan. 30, 1990).
The environmental crisis in Poland is just a part of a broader area of identical impacts, which includes much of East Germany and Czechoslovakia as well. The region, long known as "the heart of Europe", is now called "the sick heart of Europe" by its inhabitants. The great bulk of Eastern Europe's heavy industries--power plants burning high-sulfur lignite, steel works, and chemical plants--are located in the area which stretches from Leipzig in East Germany to Krakow in Poland and across northern Czechoslovakia. Czech foresters have dubbed the 350-mile-wide area of forest destruction due to acid rain the "Bermuda Triangle of Pollution". The director of nature conservation in Czechoslovakia's new Ministry of Environment, Frantisek Urban, has called the area an "ecological catastrophe" (NY Times, March 19, 1990). In the Erz, Riesen and Tatry mountains, industrial pollution has gone far beyond simple killing of trees by acid rain. Soil acidity is extreme (pH between 3 and 4), allowing aluminum bound in clay particles to be released into groundwater, where it poisons tree and plant roots and drinking supplies. Animal populations have been affected; raptors have died off and rodent populations have skyrocketed. On the barren sites which have replaced the formerly dense forests, winter snow now melts with the first sunshine and runs off the land in a much shorter period of time than before, causing erosion and flooding in spring and water shortages in summer (NY Times, March 19, 1990).
The energy source for the industrialization of the region is lignite, extracted from open-pit mines which have obliterated fields, forests and villages. In Czechoslovakia alone, 28 villages were destroyed and 80,000 people evicted from their homes in the last 30 years to make way for open-pit coal mines. "Bulldozers have turned towns, farms and woodlands into coarse brown deserts and gaping hollows. The smokestacks of the power plants that turn the coal into electricity now mark a skyline thick with soot. On days when the smog is heaviest, the radio warns people to keep their children indoors. The scene is repeated throughout the Central European coal belt. . . . Across this basin, the quest for fuel has razed villages and ravaged the land and is making people nauseated and asthmatic with sulfur-loaded air. . . . East Germany . . . meets 70 percent of its energy needs with coal, and its open-pit coal mines tear up the equivalent of 8,000 football fields worth of land each year" (NY Times, March 1, 1990). In Czechoslovakia, "stripping of the soil is expected to go on. The rich fields of Bohemia have already yielded 1.5 billion tons of brown coal, and with reserves of a further 5 billion tons . . . six more villages [have been] slated for destruction. Earlier this year, when President Vaclav Havel visited Most [one of the villages, already partly destroyed] he told the miners that the country would need their coal for many years to come" (NY Times, March 1, 1990).
Less information has been available about conditions in Bulgaria and Romania. Heavy metal poisoning from industry has devastated many cities in both countries. "The gradual poisoning of Bulgaria matches the enormous pollution and environmental disaster now being recognized throughout Eastern Europe" (NY Times, March 28, 1990). Here's a description of a part of Transylvania in central Romania, from a review of a recent book by Georgina Harding, In Another Europe: a Journey to Romania: "The name of the little town of Copsa Mica in southern Transylvania has become synonymous with life under a blanket of industrial filth. There is a blacking factory there whose product is advertised by the dense cloud rising from its chimneys and countless leaking pipes. The local supply of natural gas and other elements is degraded in some unimaginable way to produce carbon black for rubber tyres and ink, but lead and zinc are also refined in the once pretty valley of the Tirnava. The by-products of non-ferrous metal production contribute to the pall over the valley on the sunniest summer day. There, in the middle of the carpet of black dust, Harding saw 'a flash of yellow. Someone had planted a flowerbed with sunflowers.'. . . The owner of the sunflowers explained that 'I spray them with water or they would not be yellow for long.' Her vegetable patch was as black as the crops in the fields around. A couple of hours in Copsa Mica leave a film of grime on the exposed flesh of visitors or worming its way into the fabrics of their clothes. Doctors in the city of Sibiu, not far to the south, estimate that more than 60 percent of the people in the Tirnava Mare Valley suffer from slow lead poisoning, respiratory or other illnesses caused by breathing the atmosphere in the valley or eating contaminated food grown there. What makes Copsa Mica so shocking is the contrast between the beauty of the landscape, dotted with charming Saxon villages, and the foul exhalations of the factories. But every town in Romania has its peculiar local producers of pollution" (Times Literary Supplement, January 19-25, 1990).
Bankruptcy on the Left and the Right
One of the funniest acts on the world stage these days is the response of the Leftists in the West to the changes in the Soviet bloc. They have a hard time extricating themselves from the habit of Orwellian doublethink they have practiced and promulgated for so many years in their Leninist, Stalinist and post-Stalinist support of "actually-existing socialism", that is, the most brutal, totalitarian state capitalism yet on record. Leftists are especially comical in their interpretation of the environmental effects of (their) "socialism". As one particularly mystified Leninist academic at U.C. Santa Cruz, James O'Connor, has explained, environmental destruction in "socialist" countries is not an unavoidable, built-in consequence of economic development there (as, he implies, it is in capitalist countries), because there is no operating compulsion to accumulate. "Growth" is desirable not because it is required for the maintenance of a capitalist system, but because with growth more human needs can be provided for. He even believes that no surplus value is extracted from the working class (there isn't even a working class!) and that industrial development is not capital accumulation. He explains environmental degradation in the Soviet Union, China and elsewhere in the "socialist" world as the result of "inefficiencies" imposed by the concerns that state planners have for providing employment for all the people! The obvious conclusion to be drawn from his analysis is that a little unemployment and homelessness are needed. A good, thoroughly modern Leftist who won't have to worry about tenure! He could always get a job at the IMF, anyway (see Zeta Magazine, February, April and June, 1989).
When such mystifications are penetrated and swept aside, the East bloc is seen clearly as not socialist at all, but state capitalist, subject to the same imperatives of capital accumulation and environmental destruction as the "private capitalist" West bloc, and contributing to both processes at a comparable rate. Leftists, with their allegiance to industrialism and "progress", can convince themselves that socialist principles underlie industrial monstrosities such as the Soviet regime--funny how nicely that suits the "private" capitalists! The Left lies exposed for all to see as just the left pillar of global capital.
But it's necessary to penetrate the right-wing mystifications too. The changes in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union are for the most part attempts by previously dominant bureaucratic elites to maintain some vestiges of their power as their economies are ripped open by the superior strength of the West bloc and as massive popular unrest begins to express itself. With the assistance of their new masters in the West, the governments are trying to find a new equation, a new combination of political forms and ideology to buy more time in the saddle. They now use the rhetoric of "freedom" and "democracy" to cover the massive penetration of Western capital and the reduction of their countries to essentially Third World status as markets and sources of materials and cheap labor. The celebrations in the Western media and boardrooms are understandable and real, but should not lead people to think that the world will be a nicer place or that anything other than a change in the global capitalist balance of power is occurring. The biosphere and working people are still the losers, at least so far. Changes once underway, however, may not be controllable. We live in an age of continuous crisis, and along with the risk comes opportunity. As the people in Eastern Europe now are showing us, it's time we start thinking for ourselves, for Earth's sake!
(posted March 12, 2014; published originally in Anarchy: a Journal of Desire Armed, no. 25, Summer 1990, 19-21.)