Capitalism, communism and the environmental prize
Defense Wins Championships
by Rikki Hall
Ronald Reagan got the save in the nine-inning win that was the Cold War. He was on the mound when the last out was recorded. Environmentalists got the win.
America has passion for wilderness. We have state birds and state trees. We revere pioneering naturalists like John Muir and William Bartram. Our ethic toward nature grew from the tips of pens of men like Henry David Thoreau and Mark Twain, and it was made whole by conservationists like Teddy Roosevelt and Aldo Leopold, though it bears the gaping hole of the extinction of passenger pigeons.
The part of our culture that turned that bounty of squab into museum specimens is what killed the Soviet Union. Both nations shared this culture. When Europeans slaughtered all the squirrels and otters God gave them, they had to find new lands for fur and meat. It was trappers and whalers and fishermen that founded both the United States and the Soviet Union. What brought the Soviets down was their failure to tame the trapper’s arrogance with a love for nature.
The divergence in our cultures might best be represented by Teddy Roosevelt, who headed to North Dakota hoping to kill the last bison, only to fall in love with the prairies and work to save them. As President, he set aside 230 million acres nationwide and established land conservation as a noble pursuit for our nation’s leaders.
The part of America that protected bison from extinction and mourned the passenger pigeon is the part that won the Cold War. If you think wetlands should be protected, you are a winner. If you would rather see giant warehouses of mass-produced chickens than a square mile of forest darkened by a passenger pigeon sitting on a nest in every fork of every bough from floor to canopy, you may yet bring America down. Reagan was more of a corporate chicken kind of guy, but he played the hard-tack cowboy well enough to dispatch the Soviet Union.
In the war of economic showmanship between capitalism and communism, the communists made huge environmental blunders. Private property ownership kept our mistakes man-sized, and our environmental ethic steered us down a more sensible path.
Soviet central planners conducted economic experiments on grand scales. They tried to turn the steppes of Central Asia into a cotton belt by diverting huge amounts of water onto cropland. They knew this would damage the Aral Sea, but they figured the cotton would be worth more than fish. They used great quantities of fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides to maximize the yield. Instead of rich harvests, they reaped disaster.
The Aral Sea dried up to nearly a quarter of its size, killing everything living in it. At the time Moscow planners decided to sacrifice the fishery, it was yielding 150 tons per day. Now a town that once ran cannery ovens around the clock sits miles from shore amid wasteland. The dried seabed is salty and laden with chemical residues washed off the cotton fields. When the wind kicks up, it spreads salt and poison across adjacent lands.
The cotton fields themselves became saturated and saline, and farming is now impossible in many areas that had been farmed into antiquity. Birth defects and cancers are common in the region, as well as numerous other ailments. The same story played out to lesser degrees in other agricultural areas. In 1972, when the Soviets had to import wheat from the United States, we took a lead we would not relinquish.
While the Soviets were plotting their chemical-intensive collectivist farms, Americans were reading Rachel Carson and pondering ways to keep economic activity from killing the land. Most environmental legislation was adopted in the early 1970s while the Soviet economy faltered.
Chernobyl later rendered vast acres of farmland useless due to radioactivity. Nuclear testing in the Arctic left a similar legacy, spoiling fisheries for centuries to come. We made similar mistakes on smaller scales, but our environmental ethic checked our greed and the kept the economy churning for the full nine innings.
Poisoning cropland and destroying fisheries is no way to win an economic ballgame, and it was the spectacular errors of Soviet central planners that set them up to strike out when Reagan came out of the bullpen. Is it really fair to give the win to environmentalists? Roosevelt may have explained it best: “The conservation of our natural resources and their proper use constitute the fundamental problem which underlies almost every other problem of our national life.”
Rikki Hall is managing editor and publisher of Hellbender Press , a non-profit environmental education journal.