April 4, 2021 Reading Time: 4 minutes

According to a Gallup poll from 2019, around 50% of young Americans aged 18-39 view socialism favorably. Nothing captures this “socialist” zeitgeist better than the narrative surrounding climate change, so vociferously promulgated by youth movements around the Western world. When Senator Ed Markey, one of the original Green New Deal co-sponsors, jokingly said at an event that the right “call it socialism,” the audience of Sunrise Movement youth activists burst out in raucous cheers and applause. As Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s 34-year-old former chief of staff once admitted about the proposal, “It wasn’t originally a climate thing at all.”

My guess is that they don’t know what socialism is. After all, we’ve witnessed a gradual popularization of socialism, now disguised with an emotionally manipulative, environmental facade. For example, the website of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), prominently featured on Bernie Sanders’ own presidential campaign website, proclaims a mission to “advance an ecosocialist perspective.” 

Surely this worldview must be rooted in some basis of fact or empirical evidence, right? Maybe the ecosocialists are right after all, and capitalism is the root of our planetary crisis. So let’s look at socialism’s environmental track record – and what better place to do so than the Soviet Union? 

It’s not a pretty picture. One year after the fall of the Berlin Wall, as information about the East slowly trickled to the West, Time Magazine published an article entitled “Where the Sky Stays Dark,” outlining the rampant environmental tragedies exposed by the collapse of the Soviet Union. Estimates from the late 1980s show that particulate air pollution was thirteen times greater in Eastern Europe than in Western Europe, per unit of GDP. Meanwhile, gaseous emissions were twice, and wastewater pollution thrice, as high as in the West.

The Aral Sea, which at one point was the 4th largest inland body of water in the world, dwindled to nearly half its original size as a result of Soviet water mismanagement. Poland and Czechoslovakia lost a combined 150,000 acres of forestland, with half of the remaining trees surviving severely damaged. As Time put it: “Many lakes and streams are fishless, forests are dying, and blackened cities are decorated with pollution-eroded sculpture.”

The truth is that the Soviet Union neither cared for the environment nor bothered to use its resources efficiently. In 1991, economic demographer Mickhail Bernstam published The Wealth of Nations and the Environment, showing that socialist economies used three times more steel and energy per unit of GDP as did market economies. Similarly, the socialist East emitted more than twice as many carbon emissions for the same unit of economic output as the capitalist West. Nor are these statistics exclusive to the Soviet Union. In Venezuela, for example, the socialist government of Nicolás Maduro is destroying the environment in equal measure, with preventable oil spill nightmares, accelerating deforestation, and dangerous levels of pollution

Indeed, the fact is that socialist governments have been both environmental and economic disasters. The Soviets attempted to pollute their way to global competitiveness, yet even trashing the environment didn’t save their economy from collapse. In a 2019 piece for The Huffington Post, an activist wrote: “An irony is that although the USSR took hundreds of thousands of environmental shortcuts while industrializing, it never did catch up.” It turns out that market competition is more powerful for both environmental protection and industrialization.

The evidence is striking: environmental progress is most advanced in richer, developed countries. As countries have grown more prosperous, air pollution has drastically been reduced, we have reached ‘peak carbon emissions,’ populations of endangered species are rebounding, and there is more green land than in the Middle Ages. Indeed, our carbon emissions per unit of economic output are on the decline; the consumption of 66 out of 72 raw resources as tracked by the U.S. Geological Survey has peaked and is now going down in absolute terms, the U.S. economy was using 40% less copper, 32% less aluminum, and 15% less steel as of 2015 compared to their peaks in the 1990s, and deforestation has U-turned to the extent that European forest area has now grown by the size of Portugal since 1990. 

This is not only because developed countries have reached a level of prosperity that brings with it environmental awareness and social pressure, but also simply because capitalism is a system that promotes efficiency and using more with less. As the Environmental Performance Index, published yearly by the universities of Yale and Columbia, overlaid with the Heritage Foundation’s Economic Freedom Index, indicates: the countries with the most economic freedom also have the best environmental outcomes, metric by metric. 

This doesn’t mean that there aren’t still problems with the current system. There are. Too many regulatory barriers still exist to the emergence and competition of innovative technologies such as renewable energy, next-generation nuclear, artificial intelligence, and GMO-crops. Meanwhile, governments around the world continue to prop up fossil fuels through subsidies to the tune of $10 million per minute and perpetuate rampant environmental degradation when it suits them. However, this does not mean that what we need is the overthrow of capitalism. Indeed, government is very often the problem when it comes to the environment. 

Capitalism may be imperfect and often suffers from rent-seeking and cronyism, but its track record on the environment is certainly better than that of socialism. The perpetuated myth of more government control meaning more environmental protection is not only misguided, but dangerous. “When historians finally conduct an autopsy of the Soviet Union and Soviet Communism,” concludes environmental economist Murray Feshbach in his 1992 book, “they may reach the verdict of death by ecocide.” How’s that for ecosocialism?

Ultimately, protecting our environment deserves more attention than a prefix in a campaign slogan for a complete political and economic revolution. Especially one that has caused so much untold misery for both humans and the planet.

Christopher Barnard

Christopher Barnard

Christopher Barnard is the National Policy Director at the American Conservation Coalition (ACC).
Christopher  is the Founder of the British Conservation Alliance.
He studied International Relations at The London School of Economics and Political Science.

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