[OPE] Anitra Nelson, "Fictitious Capital and Real Compacts"

From: Jurriaan Bendien <adsl675281@tiscali.nl>
Date: Sun Oct 19 2008 - 07:58:41 EDT


You are correct that the debates about this are distorted by ideological hate campaigns and demonization. Americans are taught from birth to hate China and Russia, even although the vast majority of them will never go there and are often geographically clueless about where these countries are. With the largest military budget in the world, Americans are always finding new "enemies" in the world, there has to be an enemy somewhere, to justify such a large budget. The theories of who the enemy is, are usually very bad, and can change at the drop of a hat without rhyme or reason. This has cost the lives of millions of people.

The Netherlands where I live, historically one of the birthplaces of capitalism, has a high population density (circa 395 people per km2, compared to circa 246 in the UK, 138 in the PRC, 53 in Mexico, 31 in the US, and 8 in Russia) and the Netherlands has one of the highest proportions of people affiliated to environmental organisations anywhere in the world; Dutch engineers and scientists are helping many other countries to solve environmental problems, especially water management. The Dutch Socialist Party takes a very active role in environmental debates, from the perspective of the concerns of ordinary working folks. This has had many good results, and it shows that greater public awareness can make a great difference.

I referred you not to the Irvine article as such, but rather to the bibliography (sources) mentioned in it, which contains quite a bit of perfectly valid scientific documentation on the topic (as well as more philosophical-ideological observations). Like I say, I have not yet immersed myself in the latest scientific literature on this. A specific "example" I gave was of Khruschev's Virgin Lands Campaign. If you were to study the modern history of Kazakhstan carefully for example, you would easily concede my point.

It appears that any large population growth and industrialization will cause ecological problems regardless of social organization, i.e. it is hardly possible to have this growth without that effect, but this does not tell us anything about its severity, which depends on whether that effect is recognized for what it is, and steps are taken to minimize it. A lot of ecological damage is preventable in that sense; the effects of some kinds is reversible, with others it is not, or prohibitively costly.

The costs of overcoming ecological devastation in Kazakhstan are so large, that the government is actually very limited in its ability to clean things up. For example, by the 1990s, the Aral Sea had lost three-fifths of its water, and that is not something you can easily reverse. High infant mortality in the region is attributed directly to toxicity. By contrast, the water level in the Caspian Sea is rising, and it is projected that parts of the Atyrau region will be submerged under water in the future, including many oil fields.

In the former Soviet Union, there was much more awareness of environmental issues from the 1960s onwards, and gradually an extensive environmentalist lobby developed. A prime reason for that was that people were literally dying from pollution. Industrial development is fine and good, but if people are dying because of it, sane people have to think again about its methods and merits. In the end, the Institute of Marxism-Leninism of the CC of the CPSU published some philosophical reflections on environmental issues, claiming that the USSR was a world leader in environmental stewardship, but the reality was different.

Why did massive environmental damage occur in the USSR, wreaking havoc on people's health and habitats? Obviously, plain ignorance played a role - even if the problem was recognized, it was thought that it was a rather minor one, and that the benefits of development would outweigh the costs; the same people who complained about environmental damage were obviously also quite happy to consume the new wealth produced. But Marxist-Leninist modernization ideology and top-down bureaucratic management also played a very important role I think - the proof is that many scientists, activists, dissidents and engineers who are on record as having pointed out important aspects of the problems in advance, or as they developed, were simply silenced, or not taken seriously.

The inherent problem of environmental discourses is that most often you need to have considerable technical and scientific understanding in order to evaluate what the problems are, and how big they are. Because most people do not have that knowledge, they become dependent on experts and specialists to guide their opinion. In addition there often is, as I said, a difficulty in relativising the problems in an objective way in order to evaluate the costs and benefits of development correctly. This opens the door to all kinds of wild speculations, exaggerations and extrapolations, in which one set of development ethics and interests is pitted against another. Thus, these discourses can be a real political quagmire in which people try to appropriate the benefits of development for themselves, and shift the costs to someone else. The only way out of that, is active political participation by the citizenry affected, and freedom of speech, so that all viewpoints can be aired and evaluated on their merits. To the extent that those were lacking in the USSR and the PRC, it contributed directly to increasing the ecological problems which might have been prevented otherwise.



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Received on Sun Oct 19 08:00:49 2008

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