Politics & Policy

Capitalism Is Clean(er)

Government-planned climate change: The Aral Sea in Uzbekistan (Daniel Prudek/Dreamstime)
Red isn’t green.

Strange thing about Flood Wall Street, the financial-district protest that followed the People’s Climate March: Nobody had much to say about the climate — what they came to talk about was capitalism. “Stop Capitalism,” “End Capitalism,” “Capitalism Kills,” the placards read. Kshama Sawant, the socialist Seattle city-council member who funds her crusade against capitalism by being married to a man with Microsoft money, called for a “radical, militant” movement linking environmental concerns to such traditional socialist enterprises as heavy government intervention into targeted industries, including energy and transportation.

Question: What happened to the environment the last time people with radically anti-capitalist views had access to real power?

The fullest and most comprehensive attempts to impose socialism on a society happened in the twentieth century in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the People’s Republic of China, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and like-minded enterprises. “Communism” is what socialists call socialism that they do not want to talk about, but in the interest of fairness I should emphasize that I do not believe that the USSR is what Ms. Sawant et al. have in mind when they talk about socialism. But the USSR wasn’t what the Russian revolutionaries had in mind, either, and it probably is not really what Lenin or even Stalin desired. Almost nobody sets out to impoverish, oppress, starve, and murder millions of people, but that is what happened, and that it happened is not a mere coincidence deriving from defects within Russian culture or Mao’s management style. It probably is not the case that the Russians failed socialism, but that socialism failed the Russians.

Under a system that imposed heavy government regimentation upon the economy, direct government ownership of the “commanding heights” of the economy (and the commanded heights, too), a socialist vision of property, etc., the environmental results were nothing short of catastrophic. Setting aside the direct human costs of socialist environmental policy in the twentieth century — the famines, the deformations, the horrific birth defects — socialism was a disaster from the purely environmental point of view, too.

Consider the Aral Sea disaster, in which one of the world’s largest lakes was converted into a toxic desert, with the husks of ships still floating upon the sand dunes — not by accident, but as a matter of government policy, implemented not by the famous monster Stalin, but by Nikita Khrushchev, by comparison a reformer. Like our contemporary socialists, the Soviets of the Khrushchev era hoped to fundamentally transform the economy with a series of careful “investments” and infrastructure projects, in this case by turning a great deal of marginal land into a cotton-producing powerhouse that would substantially raise exports. Water headed for the Aral Sea was diverted in the service of this government infrastructure investment, and the seabed became a desert. But not just any desert: Salt and toxins that had drained into the sea turned the dust that remained into poison, which was blown by the winds across an area amounting to thousands and thousands of square miles. Most of the water diverted from the Aral was wasted, simply soaked up by desert land that would never grow anything, while the Aral’s connections with other bodies of water ensured that they became poisoned, too, many rendered sterile. There was localized climate change, the melting of glaciers, and more. Entire ecosystems were wiped out, and the human toll was horrifying.

There were many others. Chernobyl is a famous one, but others are, if anything, more terrifying. The famous “Door to Hell,” a gas fire lit — intentionally — by Soviet engineers, was intended to burn off some excess gas in a defective storage facility, with the assumption that the fire would burn itself out in a few months. That was before I was born — and it’s still burning. It’s not just the fire that gives this gaping hole in the Earth its name — it’s the smell of burning sulfur.

#page#

I could list many more, from China to East Germany and beyond. If you want to see what anti-capitalist environmental policy looks like, look up images from Semipalatinsk — though I cannot in good conscience recommend that you go through with it. Not if you ever want to sleep again.

I hear you already: “Fine, commies bad! Bad commies! We get it!” But consider another case, one that more closely resembles the vision of the world put forward by our so-called democratic socialists: state-run oil companies.

The contemporary Left is very friendly to the idea of state-run industries. Many of our contemporary progressives have suggested nationalizing banks and financial institutions, for example, while the government-run utility is still a thing that is with us, and nationalized health care is a longtime dream of that special breed of farsighted progressive with his eyes firmly fixed on 1944. Many progressives have enthusiastically greeted the idea of nationalizing oil companies: Representative Maxine Waters (D., Calif.) once threatened to nationalize oil companies in response to increased gasoline prices. Daily Kos writers have endorsed the idea; even Cleveland.com has got in on the action.

What do actual national oil companies look like?

We might consider the case of Chevron’s alleged environmental crimes in Ecuador, which the evidence suggests had nothing to do with Texaco (later acquired by Chevron) but were in fact perpetrated by Petroecuador, the state-run oil company, abetted by a series of Ecuadorian governments. In a particularly perverse twist, the American “human rights” lawyer suing Chevron over the case persuaded the government of Ecuador not to clean up Petroecuador sites — the more damage there was, the more could be attributed to Chevron, which has never in fact drilled for oil in Ecuador. State-owned Sinopec has a fairly horrific environmental record, and has occasionally been sanctioned for it — but when the same state that employs the regulators owns the oil company, regulation is basically futile. Mexico’s state-run Pemex caused what was at the time the largest oil spill in history; in another episode, an explosion at one of its facilities killed more than 500 people. It wiped out the fish in the Coatzacoalcos River by dumping chemicals in it; the few fish that survived were polluted so badly that locals reported smelling ammonia when they cut them open.

The history is much the same for state-run coal companies and similarly socialized industries.

ExxonMobil, Chevron, et al., have their sins, a notable one of which is partnering up with state-run oil companies. Everybody has a theory about what the future could look like, but if we look at the actual record — the record of history — capitalism wins, hands down, over socialism and other state-run economic models when it comes to environmental measures. There is no contest. And at the moment, many of the most interesting ideas about environmental protection are coming from explicitly free-market thinkers. It wasn’t socialism that saved the white rhino.

There isn’t any clean energy, and most significant industrial enterprise will impose some costs on the environment in the best of circumstances. The question is how to minimize the damage and mitigate the inevitable effects. The best line of defense against environmental damage is property rights, and the lack of property rights is one of the reasons that environmental devastation has been so severe in those unhappy parts of the world in which socialism has prevailed: If nobody owns the land or the water rights, then nobody can sue for damages when Big Socialist Oil dumps chemicals in the river. If the polluters and the regulators are on the same side — in the same party — expect narrow self-interest to trump everything else. You can sue Exxon; the people behind Sinopec have nuclear weapons.

And Exxon has never operated a gulag of which I am aware.

— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent at National Review.

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