Greening of the USSR Central Planning Doesn't Control Environmental Harm Any Better Than It Promotes Economic Efficiency, as Soviets Are Learning to Their Horror

By Raphael Vartanov. Dr. Raphael Vartanov is an environmental scientist . | The Christian Science Monitor, August 12, 1991 | Go to article overview

Greening of the USSR Central Planning Doesn't Control Environmental Harm Any Better Than It Promotes Economic Efficiency, as Soviets Are Learning to Their Horror


Raphael Vartanov. Dr. Raphael Vartanov is an environmental scientist ., The Christian Science Monitor


WHY in the 1980s did environmental problems get so out of hand in the USSR, Eastern Europe, and other countries where centrally-controlled economic systems prevailed? At first glance, this failure seems strange. Social and economic systems based on centralized planning and management possess in principle a number of tools to achieve environmental protection goals efficiently, to identify priorities, and to manage the quality of the environment.

Eastern-bloc political leaders and scholars long persuaded themselves that their environment was no worse than that in market-economy countries. It could not be worse, they reckoned, since the main purpose of the market economy is to maximize private profit, even if that means overexploitation of natural resources. However, the actual state of environmental affairs in the Soviet Union raised doubts about the Soviet economic model.

For decades, Soviet policy on use of natural resources was dominated by the simple approach: "The more we take from nature, the better." During various periods in their history, other industrialized countries were typified by this postulate as well. It was an inherent feature of economic development. However, starting from the 1960s, an important shifting of accents in the treatment of the environment became apparent in some industrialized countries, especially:

*-Introduction of innovative and more socially efficient methods of economic management;

*-Substantial heightening of environmental quality in the range of popular values.

In the Soviet Union, however, despite worthy declarations and even several practical steps, neither of these changes occurred.

The solution to environmental problems requires institutional mechanisms for control and pressure, encouraging environmental protection or rewarding reductions in eventual damage. It also depends on a legally-enforced determination of responsibility or liability for environmental harm.

When political power and authority are tightly controlled, however, there is little basis for checks and balances among different interests in the decisionmaking process. The situation in the Eastern bloc was even more severe because of state ownership of the means of production, land, and resources. Under such conditions, the state becomes responsible both for the promotion and expansion of the country's economic activity and for the control of spillover damages.

BUT it was absurd to expect the state to control itself. That is why the 1988 decree establishing a State Committee for Environmental Protection of the USSR, which raised high hopes for radical reforms in ecological policies and practices, in fact led to practically no positive change. The newly created committee depended in its operation on the existing system of governmental agencies. These agencies inflict considerable harm to the environment in seeking to achieve maximum production regardless of this harm. …

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Greening of the USSR Central Planning Doesn't Control Environmental Harm Any Better Than It Promotes Economic Efficiency, as Soviets Are Learning to Their Horror
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