Many attribute environmental degradation and pollution to free market enterprise, an economic system in which corporations routinely operate aberrant of the law. However, this type of reckless behavior is not limited to capitalism. As the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) points out, “profit motive” is not the primary cause of pollution.
If this were true, socialist countries such as China, the former Soviet Union, and the former communist countries of Eastern and Central Europe would not have pollution. But they do, and it’s some of the worst and most widespread pollution on earth.
In socialist countries where “property is communally or governmentally owned and treated as a free resource,” those resources inevitably become over-and-misused “with little regard for future consequences,” reports FEE.
Though the Soviet Union enacted an abundance of environmental laws and regulations, they had little effect, causing the nation to suffer from an enormous “tragedy of the commons,” as biologist Garrett Hardin refers to it in his classic 1968 article.
“The Soviet government’s imperatives for economic growth, combined with communal ownership of virtually all property and resources, caused tremendous environmental damage.”
Economist Marshall Goldman traveled and studied in the Soviet Union before concluding that the nation’s production ethic is based on the idea that “nature is there to be exploited by man.”
Damaged the most by this ideology is the Black Sea.
“To comply with five-year plans for housing and building construction, gravel, sand, and trees around the beaches were used for decades as construction materials. Because there is no private property, no value is attached to the gravel along the seashore. Since, in effect, it is free, the contractors haul it away.”
The result is massive beach erosion that reduced the Black Sea by 50 percent over four decades. Now, the area experiences up to 300 landslides per year.
Industrial pollution also ran rampant, as Russian factories dumped unclean, toxic waste into the rivers and seas, causing widespread fish kills and water pollution. Cities with poorly functioning or non-existent sewer systems dumped sewage into the Aral and Caspian Sea.
Water levels in the Aral and Caspian Sea have been severely reduced due to irrigation and its fish populations nearly decimated. Additionally, more than 50 percent of marine life has been destroyed in some areas.
The Volga River, which flows into the Caspian Sea, is so full of industrial waste, including oil, that steamboats have signs warning passengers not to throw their cigarettes overboard.
The impacts of pollution in the former Soviet Union go on and on, and it’s not much different than other socialist nations such as China. “[A]s in Russia, putting the government in charge of resource allocation has not had desirable environmental consequences,” FEE reports.
Acid rains, air pollution, and declining fish populations haunt China greatly. Almost all of the “trees in the pine forests of China’s Sichuan province have died because of air pollution.” And acid rain has contributed to large-scale crop loss.
Fish migration has largely been impacted by waterworks and landfill projects, while fish breeding “[i]s so seriously neglected that fish has largely vanished from the national diet.”
Poland, also plagued with declining fish populations and acid rain, is yet another example of mismanaged resources in a socialist society.
About 33 percent “of the nation’s 38 million people live in areas of ecological disaster,” according to the Polish Academy of Sciences.
In its most industrialized regions, “people suffer 15 percent more circulatory disease, 30 percent more tumors, and 47 percent more respiratory disease than other Poles,” all of which are believed to be attributed by pollution.
So much waste from mining operations, as well as untreated sewage, has been dumped into rivers and streams that “95 percent of the water [is] unfit for human consumption.”
Around 65 percent of Poland’s “water is even unfit for industrial use because it is so toxic that it would destroy heavy metals used by industry.”
“With Communism’s collapse, word has begun to seep out about Eastern Europe’s environmental disasters. According to the United Nations Global Environment Monitoring Program, ‘pollution in that region is among the worst on the Earth’s surface,’” reports FEE.
“Jeffrey Leonard of the World Wildlife Fund concluded that ‘pollution was part and parcel of the system that molested the people [of Eastern Europe] in their daily lives.’ Evidence is mounting of ‘an environmental nightmare,’ the legacy of ‘decades of industrial development with little or no environmental control.’”
As illustrated, mass environmental pollution is not strictly a result of free enterprise, otherwise “the socialist world would be environmentally pristine. The heart of the problem lies with the failure of our legal institutions, not the free enterprise system.
“Under communal property ownership, where no one owns or is responsible for a natural resource, the inclination is for each individual to abuse or deplete the resource before someone else does.
“Common examples of this ‘tragedy’ are how people litter public streets and parks much more than their own yards; private housing is much better maintained than public lands but maintain lush pastures on their own property; the national forests are carelessly over-logged, but private forests are carefully managed and reforested by lumber companies with ‘super trees’; and game fish are habitually over fished in public waterways but thrive in private lakes and streams.
“The tragedy of the commons is a lesson for those who believe that further nationalization and governmental control of natural resources is a solution to our environmental problems.”