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Greening of the USSR

Central planning doesn't control environmental harm any better than it promotes economic efficiency, as Soviets are learning to their horror

WHY in the 1980s did environmental problems get so out of hand in the USSR, Eastern Europe, and other countries where centrally-controlled economic systems prevailed? At first glance, this failure seems strange. Social and economic systems based on centralized planning and management possess in principle a number of tools to achieve environmental protection goals efficiently, to identify priorities, and to manage the quality of the environment.Eastern-bloc political leaders and scholars long persuaded themselves that their environment was no worse than that in market-economy countries. It could not be worse, they reckoned, since the main purpose of the market economy is to maximize private profit, even if that means overexploitation of natural resources. However, the actual state of environmental affairs in the Soviet Union raised doubts about the Soviet economic model. For decades, Soviet policy on use of natural resources was dominated by the simple approach: "The more we take from nature, the better." During various periods in their history, other industrialized countries were typified by this postulate as well. It was an inherent feature of economic development. However, starting from the 1960s, an important shifting of accents in the treatment of the environment became apparent in some industrialized countries, especially: * Introduction of innovative and more socially efficient methods of economic management; * Substantial heightening of environmental quality in the range of popular values. In the Soviet Union, however, despite worthy declarations and even several practical steps, neither of these changes occurred. The solution to environmental problems requires institutional mechanisms for control and pressure, encouraging environmental protection or rewarding reductions in eventual damage. It also depends on a legally-enforced determination of responsibility or liability for environmental harm. When political power and authority are tightly controlled, however, there is little basis for checks and balances among different interests in the decisionmaking process. The situation in the Eastern bloc was even more severe because of state ownership of the means of production, land, and resources. Under such conditions, the state becomes responsible both for the promotion and expansion of the country's economic activity and for the control of spillover damages. BUT it was absurd to expect the state to control itself. That is why the 1988 decree establishing a State Committee for Environmental Protection of the USSR, which raised high hopes for radical reforms in ecological policies and practices, in fact led to practically no positive change. The newly created committee depended in its operation on the existing system of governmental agencies. These agencies inflict considerable harm to the environment in seeking to achieve maximum production regardless of this harm. In the process of democratization of the Soviet Union, particularly as manifested in mass "green" movements and in a newly born ecological glasnost or "transparency," many instances of egregious environmental pollution by industry came to light. However, attempts to remedy even some of these problems through the centralized planning process have led to considerable disruption in industrial linkages. Monopolization of information is one of the most ecologically fatal consequences of totalitarianism. If monopolization of authority results in governmental inefficiency, the monopolization of information results in ignorance and misinformation. The withholding of ecological data makes the selection of environmental policy options difficult. With glasnost, the first steps to publish ecological information have at last been made. The First Governmental Report on the State of the Soviet Environment was published in 1989. In spite of some shortcomings, it contains much useful information and provides a foundation and baseline for expanded coverage and enhanced accuracy in the future. Some Soviet officials have argued that ecological transparency could contribute to economic destabilization. In fact, the reverse is true, and Chernobyl is not the only fact proving it. For example, Arguments and Facts, a well-known Moscow newspaper, in 1990 published a list of 33 Soviet cities where air pollution considerably exceeds the existing standards. Readers sent a torrent of letters to the newspaper to express surprise that their cities, similarly polluted, were not included in the list. The newspaper later reported that more than 100 cities should have been included. And recent polls by the Soviet Institute of Public Opinion indicated that, in several regions, environmental re storation has the highest popular priority, surpassing even problems such as food shortages, housing, and public health. For a state overcoming its totalitarian regime, positive results are possible for environmental protection as part of the trend toward democratization. Optimism is supported by three factors: widespread public recognition of the need for action, an emerging if sometimes naive mass environmental movement, and the tremendous potential of Soviet scientific capabilities. However, taking into account the social and economic handicaps that have accumulated - shortage of food, goods, etc. - it is evident that formulation of an efficient environmental strategy will demand time, and will entail near-term investment in exchange for remote, though vital, benefits. Yet Soviet decisionmakers bear a global responsibility to solve these domestic environmental problems; and people of all nations share a stake in the outcome.