From the June 1975 issue of the Socialist Standard
“Despite the large amount of work being done throughout the country to protect the atmosphere against pollutants, the pollution level in a number of cities and industrial centres still exceeds permissible norms, due to the constant growth of industry and motor transport, and to the inadequacy or low effectiveness of the measures taken”.
Sounds a very familiar line doesn’t it? It could have been taken from almost any of the flood of books, reports and articles that have, over the past ten years or so, turned pollution from a concern of cranks into a major world problem.
In fact the quotation comes from an official Russian publication Nature Protection in the Soviet Union (Novosti Press Agency, Moscow, 1974). The fact that Russia and the so-called socialist economies suffer from pollution and environmental degradation just as much as the capitalist west may cause some puzzlement to those who believe implicitly that state capitalist economies are somehow different from the avowedly capitalist nations. This is certainly one line of Russian propaganda. For example B. Gorizontov writing in Soviet Weekly says
In the socialist countries, where economic advance is based on public ownership of the means of production and natural resources and on planned management, it is much easier to protect the environment and natural resources — but they, too, have their problems.
(Soviet Weekly 14 December 1974.)
And what problems! In Poland only 20 per cent of the rivers have water fit for communal use. The Oder is unusable throughout its entire length. In 1967 8,400 of the countries 14,000 industrial plants discharged refuse directly into rivers and more than a third of the largest plants (accounting for 80 per cent, of all effluent) had no effluent treatment equipment. (New Scientist 6 July 1972). Air pollution is also a problem for the Poles. Anthony Sylvester, a frequent visitor to Poland, reported last year on a visit to Katowice the centre of Poland’s coal and steel industry.
Contamination here is about twice the level normally tolerated in Poland or for that matter in the West. Again, 100 miles East of Warsaw I saw trees destroyed or badly damaged for twenty miles by nitrogenous fumes from a huge fertilizer plant.
(Daily Telegraph 11 July 1974).
To combat this the Polish Government has bought £2.5 million worth of Western-made equipment for monitoring and measuring so as “to establish the most economical ways of reducing the evil”.
Other East European countries have fared no better. The Bulgarian Black Sea resort of Varna was closed down in 1971 because of contaminated water. The Hungarian Ministry of Health have been battling with an increasing air pollution problem since 1952. In the German Democratic Republic the chemical industry centred on Bitterfeld releases 180 tons of ash into the air each day. Bitterfeld has been described as having a dust fallout twenty times higher than the permitted 15 grammes per square meter per month. “Bronchitis and breathing difficulties are 5 times as frequent in Bitterfeld as in towns with relatively pure air.” The reason given was that the district produced two per cent, of the national income of the GDR and the question which had to be faced was: What comes first? In Bitterfeld the answer had to be, for a very long period: production. (Democratic German Report 31 July 1974).
Doctor Jan Cerousky, a Czech biologist has also exposed the profit motive as the cause of “socialist” pollution. After describing “Environments so badly destroyed by coal mining, industry and many-sided pollution that they are almost impossible for people to inhabit”, he (possibly unwittingly) pointed out that a state capitalist economy works under exactly the same constraints as do the free enterprise ones.
Even the most socialist country will certainly find it impossible and dangerous to go far beyond its economic capabilities. To solve existing environmental problems and prevent new, even worse ones, from emerging is clearly a long-term matter, while economics, instant needs, building capacities and technological equipment create pressure for short-term solutions.
The state as law maker imposes on itself limits to the capacity of industrial undertakings. As decision-maker the state can also permit exceptions from its own anti-pollution laws to state owned enterprises because it needs their products without the cost being increased by expensive anti-pollution measures.
(New Scientist 16 April 1970).
As in the West improvements that are carried out are done so for hard-headed economic reasons. The question “does it pay” enters into any capitalist equation. Two East German dailies investigated the problem of noise at work and found that production costs for noise-reduced machines were between five and ten per cent, higher than “non-silenced” machines.
. . . but the larger investment is soon made up: there is no need to pay a “noisy-work” supplement, or even a disablement pension. Equipping a noisy work-place with anti-noise devices costs an average 800 marks, but every case of sickness or disability caused by excessive noise costs at least twice as much every year.
(Democratic German Report 10 April 1974).
This is an argument which would sway any capitalist boardroom!
The existence of these problems has been excused as a hangover from the days of capitalism. In the Soviet Union itself which (it is falsely claimed) has had socialism for over sixty years these problems should have been well and truly licked. The facts show this to be untrue. Even though Lenin set up the first nature reserve in 1919 the rape of earth continues. In the USSR some 400 million acres of arable land plus 350 million acres of pasture land are affected by soil erosion. The average yearly loss of fertile soil is a staggering 500 million tons. Forests are felled with little or no regard to the future and in many places replanting is only sporadic or even non-existent.
The Times correspondent David Bonavia reported that the Caspian sea level had fallen by more than six feet in the past two decades and that the White Sea was being used as a dumping ground for oil and industrial waste products.
Some Russian scientists are already preoccupied with environmental problems which, they complain, the industrialists and city planners do not take seriously enough.
(The Times 4 February 1970).
One such scientist is the “dissident” nuclear physicist Andrei Sakharov. Among the world problems threatening the existence of humanity (e.g. nuclear war and weapons testing, by Russia and others, has caused fallout damage which is as yet incompletely assessed) he includes environmental pollution. He is convinced, as are many others, that “The salvation of our environment requires that we overcome our divisions and the pressure of temporary, local interests. Otherwise, the Soviet Union will poison the United States with its wastes and vice versa”. After a brief, if all too familiar catalogue of environmental ills he refers to the tragedy of Lake Baikal. This mile-deep 400 mile long lake (the largest single body of fresh water in the world) of remarkable purity has become yet another dumping ground for waste from wood-milling and paper making plants which pour their poisonous sulphurous wastes into this biologically unique stretch of water. Sakharov puts the blame for this “senseless despoilation” on "local, temporary, bureaucratic, and egotistical interest and sometimes simply by questions of bureaucratic prestige.” (Progress, Coexistence and Intellectual Freedom (1969) p.44)
But the problem has now been recognized as a serious one by the state capitalist bosses themselves. Vice-Chairman of the Council of Ministers of the USSR Deputy V. A. Kirillin addressed the USSR Supreme Soviet in September 1972.
The shortage of clean fresh water, air pollution and the erosion of the soil have unfortunately become a reality today . . . for the socialist countries, too, these problems are today of extremely great importance.
(Nature Protection in the Soviet Union p.4)
So after years of supposedly rational planning for the benefit of all, people in Russia suffer exactly the same environmental problems as the rest of us. By 1980 the level of air pollution will be double that of 1970. Yet it is recognised that
Desulphurization of . . . fuel burned is a radical means of reducing the discharge of sulphur dioxide. However, economically acceptable methods of such fuel purification have not yet been sufficiently developed.
State ownership of the means of production does not remove the basic drive of capitalism — the need to make a profit in order to accumulate capital. Only with the removal of this by the conversion of the means of life from class ownership into common ownership will the problem of pollution be resolved.