Magazine article Monthly Review

Late Soviet Ecology and the Planetary Crisis

Magazine article Monthly Review

Late Soviet Ecology and the Planetary Crisis

Article excerpt

Soviet ecology presents us with an extraordinary set of historical ironies. On the one hand, the USSR in the 1930s and '40s violently purged many of its leading ecological thinkers and seriously degraded its environment in the quest for rapid industrial expansion. The end result has often been described as a kind of "ecocide," symbolized by the Chernobyl nuclear accident, the assault on Lake Baikal, and the drying up of the Aral Sea, as well as extremely high levels of air and water pollution.1 On the other hand, the Soviet Union developed some of the world's most dialectical contributions to ecology, revolutionizing science in fields such as climatology, while also introducing pioneering forms of conservation. Aside from its famous zapovedniki, or nature reserves for scientific research, it sought to preserve and even to expand its forests. As environmental historian Stephen Brain observes, it established "levels of [forest] protection unparalleled anywhere in the world." Beginning in the 1960s the Soviet Union increasingly instituted environmental reforms, and in the 1980s was the site of what has been called an "ecological revolution." A growing recognition of this more complex reality has led scholars in recent years to criticize the "ecocide" description of Soviet environmental history as too simplistic.2

From the 1960s on, Soviet ecological thought grew rapidly together with the environmental movement, which was led primarily by scientists. In the 1970s and '80s this evolved into a mass movement, leading to the emergence in the USSR of the largest conservation organization in the world. These developments resulted in substantial changes in the society. For example, between 1980 and 1990 air pollutants from stationary sources fell by over 23 percent.3

More significant from today's standpoint was the role the Soviet Union played from the late 1950s on in the development of global ecology. Soviet climatologists discovered and alerted the world to the acceleration of global climate change; developed the major early climate change models; demonstrated the extent to which the melting of polar ice could create a positive feedback, speeding up global warming; pioneered paleoclimatic analysis; constructed a new approach to global ecology as a distinct field based on the analysis of the biosphere; originated the nuclear winter theory; and probably did the most early on in exploring the natural-social dialectic underlying changes in the earth system.4

Soviet ecology can be divided into roughly three periods: (1) early Soviet ecology, characterized by revolutionary ecological theories and key conservation initiatives from the 1917 revolution up to the mid1930s; (2) the middle or Stalin period, from late 1930s to the mid-1950s, dominated by purges, rapid industrialization, the Second World War, the onset of the Cold War, and aggressive reforestation; and (3) late Soviet ecology from the late 1950s to 1991, marked by the development of a dialectical "global ecology," and the emergence of a powerful Soviet environmental movement-responding in particular to the extreme environmental degradation of the decade following Stalin's death in 1953. The end product was a kind of negation of the negation in the ecological realm; but one that was to be superseded finally by the wider forces leading to the USSR's demise.

Although much has been written about the early and middle periods of Soviet ecology, relatively little has been written about late Soviet ecology. Western ecological Marxism emerged largely in ignorance of rapidly developing Soviet ecological science and philosophy. Yet late Soviet ecology remains of extraordinary importance to us today, representing a valuable legacy that can potentially aid us in our efforts to engage with the present planetary emergency.

Soviet Ecology under Lenin and Stalin

Early Soviet ecology was extraordinarily dynamic. Lenin had strongly embraced ecological values, partly under the influence of Marx and Engels, and was deeply concerned with conservation. …

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