A New Environmental History of Socialist States

Review of: Salvatore Engel-Di Mauro, Socialist States and the Environment: Lessons for Ecosocialist Futures (London: Pluto Press, 2021), 288 pages, $26.95, paperback.

Starting in the late 1970s, a narrative emerged about the extreme levels of environmental damage in the Soviet Union and, by implication, most state-socialist countries. The explosion and initial cover-up at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in 1986 did much to crystallize this image of the environmental record of socialist states as being worse than those of their capitalist counterparts.

Instead, over the past twenty years, environmental historians of the Soviet Union have largely come to the opposite conclusion.

As severe as the environmental problems were and as much as the efforts at environmental management proved ineffective, the world’s first socialist state mostly resembled industrialized capitalist countries on this front. This move to re-evaluate strictly negative visions of the USSR’s environmental legacy has even been applied to the Stalinist era, which, as it turns out, possessed surprisingly robust forest protection policies.

View on River Angara with the Shaman Stone and on Lake Baikal from Chersky Stone. Trees are Larix × czekanowskii (natural hybrid). _Photo: Brücke-Osteuropa – Own work, Public Domain.

Ecosocialist thinkers have started to take note of this shift in the historical scholarship. For a long time, discussion of the environmental legacy of the Soviet Union on the left was characterized by hasty dismissals of the irrelevance of the experience for contemporary struggles or suspicion of anyone raising the question as a mouthpiece for capitalism. The recent openness to rethinking non-capitalist environmental efforts of the past has been a welcome development. In a spirited 2015 article on Soviet ecology, John Bellamy Foster argues that “the USSR can be seen as a society that generated some of the worst ecological catastrophes in history but that also gave birth to some of the most profound ecological ideas and practices, based on materialist, dialectical, and socialist intellectual foundations.” He focuses primarily on ecological thinking in the late Soviet era to highlight the fresh, innovative, and under-appreciated contributions of Marxist scientists and philosophers, who were grappling intellectually with environmental problems. While seeing positive trends in environmental performance at the very end of the Soviet period, he also echoes a claim of historians that the ecological revolution in environmental consciousness came to an abrupt and tragic end with the collapse of the country in 1991.

Monthly Review states:
This article will be released in full online September 26, 2022 in Volume 74, Number 04 (September 2022)

Source: Monthly Review Online, https://monthlyreview.org/2022/09/01/a-new-environmental-history-of-socialist-states/

Author: Andy Bruno is an associate professor of history and environmental studies at Northern Illinois University, USA, and the author of The Nature of Soviet Power: An Arctic Environmental History and Tunguska: A Siberian Mystery and Its Environmental Legacy.

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