Modern environmentalists often identify as socialists. Members of Extinction Rebellion, for example, often advocate tearing down capitalism and supplanting it with “eco-socialism”. Go to any “climate strike” or similar type of event, and you will see more hammer and sickle flags, raised fist symbols and Socialist Workers party posters than you can count.
Indeed, socialism and environmentalism are perceived by many as two sides of the same coin, and the idea that climate change is a “crisis of capitalism” has become conventional wisdom. It is now seemingly a contradiction to be both a capitalist and an environmentalist. This is not just a matter of rhetoric, but it is also reflected in the policy prescriptions of both environmentalists and socialists. Look at proposals for a “green new deal”, calls for large-scale nationalisation in the name of the environment.
But what is the story of socialism and environmentalism?
One only has to look back at the failed experiments of socialism to see just how environmentally catastrophic it has been. As the Soviet Union collapsed and the iron curtain was torn down, the rest of the world finally saw the environmental damage caused by socialist command economies. Economist Jeffrey Sachs stated that the socialist states had “some of the worst environmental problems on the entire globe” All of this, it is worth noting, occurred against a backdrop of a wide array of environmental laws and regulations that supposedly protected the public interest.
Air pollution provides an excellent example. Total greenhouse gas emissions in the USSR in 1988 equated to 79 per cent of the US total. However, the Soviet Union’s gross national product (GNP) was only 54 per cent of the USA’s, according to one very generous estimate (it was, in all likelihood, far less than that). This means that the USSR generated at least one and a half times as much pollution as the USA per unit of GNP (and again, in all likelihood, far more than that).
Accounts of those who travelled across the Soviet Union post-collapse recall swathes of the country where smog clung to the air. An article from Multinational Monitor in 1990 highlighted that 40 per cent of the Soviet people lived in areas where air pollutants, such as carbon dioxide, sulphur dioxide and nickel dioxide, were three to four times the maximum allowable levels.
The destruction of the Aral Sea, perhaps one of the worst environmental disasters, can be directly blamed on the process of socialist planning. In an attempt to make the USSR self-sufficient in cotton production, vast amounts of water were diverted to arid areas for irrigation. Much of the Aral Sea dried up, leaving port cities, Muynak for example, and fishing villages marooned miles from the shore. Worse, the exposure of the salty sea bed and extensive use of pesticides had catastrophic impacts on the health of the local population. Respiratory problems and lung diseases became widespread as people inhaled pollutants.
An even better example is East Germany, because here we have an obvious counterfactual in West Germany. In the late 1980s, CO2 emissions in the German Democratic Republic were almost twice the West German level, in per capita terms, which is astonishing if you bear in mind how much richer West Germany was. The concentration of sulphur dioxide in the air was more than ten times higher in the east, and it’s a similar story for the contamination of soil and water.
In modern day Venezuela, socialist policies continue to prove to be environmentally destructive. Deforestation and water pollution are rampant across the country. Oil spills are common – and a fault of the state-owned energy company. Meanwhile, the national government has opted to pump water from Valencia Lake (a lake so polluted that the water is unfit for human consumption) to the Pao-Cachinche regional reservoir, which supplies three million people.
But why do socialist states have such an appalling environmental track record?
One obvious reason is that socialist economies are grossly inefficient. The absence of market prices leads to a misallocation of resources, resulting in, among other things, weak incentives to minimise waste. Private property rights are also typically absent, preventing afflicted residents from stopping environmental damage or obtaining compensation for it.
State-owned land and sea suffer from the “tragedy of the commons”. Since no one owns the land, no one has the incentive to conserve its resources and sustain it. Moreover, socialist administrations have generally undermined non-government, community-based management of common resources (for example, arrangements of the type that Nobel prize laureate Elinor Ostrom described). The River Ob is an example of the tragedy of the commons. Firms and industries simply dumped radioactive waste into its waters.
Meanwhile, freer economies have proven themselves to be far more environmentally sustainable. Property rights provide companies and individuals with strong incentives for careful stewardship – after all, their livelihood and future prosperity may very well depend on maintaining their land and property. Terry L. Anderson of the Hoover Institute summarises this point: “Owners of land don’t overgraze. Owners of trees don’t overharvest.”
Under capitalism, there is a strong incentive to be competitive, ensuring resources are used as efficiently as possible. Such incentives are weaker under socialism because resource conservation may serve no benefit to production and achieving targets.
Of course, to some extent, the relatively good environmental track record of capitalist economies is also the result of strict environmental legislation, rather than “capitalism” per se. But even then, it is possible to do this in market-compatible ways and also in ways that imitate market processes (for example, tradable fishing quotas and tradable emission permits). And, needless to say, it is easier to impose costly environmental legislation in a prosperous economy than in an underdeveloped economy.
But the history of socialist environmentalism is one of failure. Environmental damage has long been attributed to capitalism, but socialist countries have consistently had worse environmental and health standards. Unsurprisingly, socialist environmentalists and green socialists claim that the only reason why the environmental track record of socialism is so terrible is that none of it was “proper” socialism, and that “their” version of socialism has just never been tried.
But this is always easy to say, and at some point, we have to judge different systems by their outcomes, rather than by the aspirations of their supporters. If we do that, the case is crystal clear. Capitalism may well have its faults, but private property, the use of incentives, and competitive markets are the foundations for strong environmental protections. As Extinction Rebellion and “Thunbergistas” continue to bash capitalism, they would do well to take a look at socialism’s dirty history.