This is the third part of a three-part essay.
In Assignment in Utopia (1937), Eugene Lyons offers what were at the time perhaps the best eye-witness accounts of Stalinism as a state religion. He was UPI's journalist in Moscow during the early years of Stalin's rule (1928-34), which coincided with Stalin's first Five Year Plan, and, despite all we have learned since then, his first-hand observations remain both vivid and strange to this day. Among several websites that I chose at random, for example, all give 1928 -1932 as the official dates of the plan, but none comments on the transformation of five years into four. Lyons literally saw how it happened. In his chapter "Two Plus Two Equals Five," he describes the frenzied proclamations of the arithmetic that would later appear as an instrument of psychological torture in George Orwell's 1984:
Optimism ran amuck. Every new statistical success gave another justification for the coercive policies by which it was achieved. Every setback was another stimulus to the same policies. The slogan "The Five Year Plan in Four Years" was advanced, and the magic symbols "5-in-4" and "2+2=5" were posted and shouted throughout the land... . Under their pseudo-scientific exterior of charts and blueprints the planners were mystics in a trance of ardor.
Even this "trance" was centrally planned, and it was set in motion by Stalin himself several years after the death of Lenin, when he took control of the state. The public declaration of his ascendancy, as Lyons witnessed it, took place during the May Day celebrations in Moscow in 1929. From that point on, he writes, Stalinism became the official religion of the regime. Lyons notes that "Russia is a nation of icon-worshipers. Symbols have a potency beyond anything in the West," and on this May Day "The great shaggy head of Karl Marx receded in the ... decorations," while images of Stalin were "lifted to a place of equality with Lenin in the outward symbolism of the faith."
After the wreckage of the First World War, the Bolshevik seizure of the state, and the civil war, the process of environmental devastation, coupled with the human cost, would now be raised to untold levels of horror. Two forces were now combined in one: "Stalin - and industrialization. Those were the two ideas from this time forward. They were blended. They became interchangeable. Stalin's dark, fleshy visage came to mean smokestacks, oil derricks, scaffolding, tractors, and each of these things came to mean Stalin." The celebrated "workers' state" lost whatever reality it might once have had now that "The last pretense that the workers owned the state was dropped - the state frankly owned the workers." The prisons of the Gulag turned ownership into servitude, and, in the wake of the first show trial (1928), which was aimed at engineers dubbed "wreckers," Stalin's grip on the nation became absolute. In Lyons' words, "The population of the slave-labor camps was now estimated in the millions, and thought control was made increasingly rigid."
To enforce what Lyons calls "a conquest of the peasantry," Stalin initiated a similar reign of terror over the countryside:
Hell broke loose in seventy thousand Russian villages... . A population as large as all of Switzerland's or Denmark's was stripped clean of all their belongings - not alone their land and homes and cattle and tools, but often their last clothes and food and household utensils - and driven out of their villages... . The total was beyond reckoning. Forcible migration of millions could not be organized or provisioned, but must proceed in fearful confusion. Tens of thousands died of exposure, starvation, and epidemic diseases while being transported, and no one dared guess at the death rate in the wilderness where the liquidated population was dispersed.
These and even earlier reports were swamped by decades of Soviet propaganda until they were corroborated in Alexander Solzhenitsyn's epic study The Gulag Archipelago (1974).
It was only in the mid-1980s, however, under Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms, that detailed information on the ecological catastrophes in the USSR began to emerge. The sheer scope of destruction, both in time and space, roughly corresponds to the duration and geographical dimensions of the Gulag; yet even a well-informed researcher such as Paul R. Josephson has found a way to describe the industrial world, the American scene in particular, as though it corresponds to what happened in Russia. He does this by viewing the world in light of "brute force technologies," a catch-phrase that he calls his "analytical tool" for examining the "worldwide" transformation of nature. What was once an organic phenomenon has now become a scientifically engineered resource factory, in which the mass production of food, electricity, etc. is depicted as a kind of "Fordism" in the natural world. Like other environmentalists, Josephson claims a deep and special expertise, so much so that nations which have come under the spell of "big technology," be they as different as the former Soviet Union, Japan, Germany, Norway, the United States, and Brazil, "share more than they can truly fathom." As he writes in his prologue to Industrialized Nature: Brute Force Technology and the Transformation of the Natural World (2002): "In most cases, the economic and political systems, whatever form they may take, and nature itself matter less than the way in which brute force technology is embraced, developed, and diffused." The term thus serves the same purpose as "the rape of the earth," "The Plunderer," and "the matricidal spirit," which is to advance a one-world concept that trumps every consideration except saving the planet.
As in Governor Nelson's incessant repetition of "sustainable" (see Part 1), Josephson's "brute force technologies" and its minor variants appear twenty-three times in his fourteen page prologue. Although he is critical of the politics behind their promotion and use around the world, the term itself is ideologically loaded and serves as a modernized "rape of nature" to express the old antipathy to the industrial revolution. Josephson even combines the two terms in a single passage when he says that "brute force" equipment continues to generate a "rapacious harvest" of forests and fish. One extended sentence, in particular, seems calculated to make the reader feel agitated, if not guilty, about having consumed anything that was produced and delivered by the use of machines:
The hydro power stations that turn the seasonality of rivers into a regulated year-round flow for agricultural irrigation, power generation, and transport; the railroads, roads, and highways that enable penetration of the so-called wilderness or frontier; the extraction of mineral wealth; the harvesting of wood, fish, fruit, and vegetable products and the transport of these raw materials to cities for processing and consumption; and the machines that repetitively grind, level, move, push, power, snip, cut, de-bark, prune, pulverize, grade, terrace, dig, drill, pump, open, close, puree, mix, seal, snip, behead, de-scale, and freeze have all contributed to the illusion—ultimately fleeting—of inexhaustibility of natural resources.
Strictly speaking, Josephson's list of industrial processes only contributes to an exaggeration, for "the illusion" he speaks of has been "ultimately fleeting" in America for over a hundred years. There is also no way to differentiate this collective illusion from anything else on earth, since everything is "ultimately fleeting," including "the great globe itself," as Shakespeare's Prospero says.
"The notion of brute force technology," writes Josephson, was inspired by E. F. Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful (1973), which figures in his own contrast between "small scale approaches to resource management" and "brute," or large-scale industrial "nature transformation" in Brazil, China, Norway, the former USSR, "and above all in the United States." Hence, the parallel "development of the Columbia River basin" and the Volga's, in which the hydroelectric stations of the "Big Volga" project, "displacing perhaps a half million people and destroying homes, churches, and schools," become conflated with the Bonneville and Grand Coulee dams, whose political advancement, technology, and the entire mindset of the project are supposedly comparable to the Soviet experience, with a hint of racism thrown in for good measure:
Like the Volga, the Columbia held significant historical and cultural meaning for local people, in this case Indians, but this fact was not taken seriously by settlers of European descent who were eager to overrun any obstacles to the generation of wealth in the Columbia’s great drop and huge volume of flow.
America's celebrations of its industrial achievements in the 1930s become the equivalent of Soviet praise for Stalin's far-sighted genius, and the appalling conditions of Soviet industrial labor become linked to whatever Josephson can glean from the dark side of the American project:
The "working stiffs" lived in Grand Coulee, a town that had all the features of Hollywood's Wild West: gambling, prostitution, murder, and syphilis... . The government paid Woody Guthrie $3,200 to write and perform serenades to the dam. For thirty days, he and his government chauffeur drove up and down the river between Grand Coulee and Bonneville while he wrote lyrics for twenty-six songs, none of them referring to syphilis.
Presumably, therefore, had FDR favored what Josephson calls "small scale approaches to resource management," Guthrie might have covered shorter distances on his own and stopped along the way to write songs about "small is beautiful," which would not have been tainted either by money or the omission of syphilis.
Josephson also sees "no difference between getting Woody Guthrie to pen songs about the Columbia and getting writers in the USSR such as Maksim Gorky to glorify water projects through their prose." In reality, there was all the difference in the world. As Solzhenitsyn notes in The Gulag, there was "a nest" of labor camps named for Gorky, one coal mine bearing his name in the Kolyma, the Gulag's "pole of ferocity," and the inescapable threat: "Yes, Alexei Maximovitch Gorky ... You say one reckless little word, and look - you're not in literature any longer."
Josephson devotes many pages to the promises made in the name of "big technology," yet, for all his examples of their horrific consequences under Stalin's regime, he acknowledges only glancingly that the real "brute force technology" employed was brute force itself through the machinery of the state. Subordinating all differences between the two nations to his central theme, he claims that "American engineers of nature have much more in common with their Soviet counterparts than is commonly assumed," as though the technics of science and engineering could override the consequences of living and working in two opposite societies, one free, the other enslaved.
Confusingly enough, Josephson is aware of these differences and, in a passing observation, notes that, "in a series of show trials, perhaps 30 percent of the 10,000 engineers in the Soviet Union were arrested; few of these survived." Since nothing in the history of American science and engineering resembles either the terror or "mystic trance of ardor" that was the norm under which our "Soviet counterparts" worked, "brute force technologies" serves the exact contrary purpose of an "analytical tool" by conflating political and economic systems that have nothing in common with each other.
Mute, unconscious nature thus becomes the world-victim of man in plundered planet doctrine:
The trees cannot tell whether the machines that fell them are produced under a free market or a centrally planned economy. They do not care where the technology of harvesting, transporting, and processing is more advanced. They do not comprehend whether the profit motive in the United States or planners' preferences in Soviet forestry trusts have increased pressure on them to grow and replace themselves faster than biology allows.
If trees could talk, one wonders what Russian forests would say after they had "comprehended" that, in the absence of the profit motive, "Loggers across the USSR discarded a reported 60 million tons of wood as waste at felling sites, and the timber industry scrapped 100 million cubic meters of wood yearly in the 1980s, bringing total losses in processing to 40 percent."i
In an interview with Paul Kobrak at the University of Michigan in 1996, the outspoken Russian environmentalist Alexey Yablokov had the following exchange, which concerned a falsification of the record regarding "an environmental impact report" that he had submitted as chairman of a government commission to the minister for environmental affairs:
I responded with a letter denouncing the Environment Minister to Russia’s Attorney General. I sent one to Chernomyrdin too, telling him he has no right to pressure me or the Minister. I asked him to meet with me and discuss this problem but I never got an answer. This is the real situation of environmental law in Russia.
PK: Was this a political scandal in your country?
AY: In your country this would be a political scandal. But in my country it is normal practice.ii
The last remark speaks to the larger differences between the two nations that Josephson fails to confront: "In your country this would be a political scandal. But in my country it is normal practice."
For Josephson, however, it is the exploitation of "brute force technologies" that is "normal practice," and, in the overall scheme of the book, his Soviet examples play a part that recalls Vogt's Europeans, who ravaged the earth "with the seemingly calculated inexorability of a Panzer division." In effect, Josephson's "analytical tool" is a highly perfected technique for hiding an outrageous proposition in plain sight; for, just as "Stalin - and industrialization," in Lyons' words, "became interchangeable," the human face of "brute force technologies" is the face of Stalin.
This identification begins on the first page of Industrialized Nature, which opens with Stalin's postwar "Great Plan for the Transformation of Nature," the very term that figures in the subtitle: Brute Force Technology and the Transformation of the Natural World:
IN OCTOBER 1948, loyal members of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union assembled in Moscow to decide the fate of their country’s natural resources. For too long, climate and geography had played cruel tricks on the worker and peasant. Droughts and famine, floods and pestilence, energy shortfalls, long winters, and short summers were enemies of Soviet power no less than the capitalist nations that surrounded the country. Unanimously, the party loyal voted to adopt the Stalinist Plan for the Transformation of Nature.
As an aside, one notes the euphemisms "loyal" party members (as though there were any other kind) and "Unanimously, the party loyal voted" (as though they had any choice in the matter). In the very year that they "voted," in fact, Stalin arrested the wife of Molotov, one of his right-hand men, and three years earlier threw the wife of "President" Kalinin into the Gulag.
Soon after the scene of the party faithful rubber-stamping Stalin's decree, Josephson writes that the promised "taming of nature" gave way to ecological "devastation." The first two pages of the prologue thus set the stage for the ensuing chapters, in which the science, politics, and propaganda behind "big technology" projects everywhere become identified with the decree: "In the end, we must understand that the Stalinist plan for nature transformation was under way for much of the twentieth century ... above all in the United States." The entire book is framed on the lines of this template, so that American industry looks all the worse in light of the Soviet experience.
Gone is Osborn's measured praise for the plans of the Big Volga project and his hopes for the Tennessee Valley Authority, which he describes as a model "social experiment" and "an effort to harmonize human needs with the processes of nature." Gone too is Josephson's own "long-term affection" for large-scale public works, which has now "been replaced by dismay at the great social, public health, human, and environmental costs" of "big technology" projects around the world. Turning from Stalin's Great Plan to the TVA, the "irrigation systems of California's Central Valley," and "the Grand Coulee hydroelectric power station in Washington State," he outlines the scope of his work, and on the last page of the prologue he returns to the original promise of the dams in the Pacific northwest, whose "vast quantities of electricity ... could be used to irrigate the fertile but arid land of eastern Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, creating an agricultural wonderland." In the end, however, "the forces of modern agribusiness" overwhelmed "the small family farmer," and the Bonneville Power Authority now subsidizes "huge agribusinesses that produce 6o percent of the frozen potatoes in the United States, those same potatoes consumed in fast-food restaurants."
The prologue thus traces a journey from Stalin to Burger King and McDonald's, and what is stranger yet is the final discussion in the last two pages of the book, which Josephson begins with the following remark: "There are, surprisingly, a few lessons to be learned from the former Soviet Union, that epitome of brute force approaches to resource development and state-sponsored destruction of nature." With the right punch line, these "lessons" could be the basis of a Soviet joke:
First, the Soviet citizen consumed little packaging material, requiring only some old newspaper and some string. The idea of using only newspaper and string may be too much for most people, but it reminds us that we can easily consume less. There is really no need for all the shrink-wrap, Styrofoam, cardboard, and paper that envelops the Western world. Every citizen in the USSR had a mesh bag that could be pulled out of briefcase or handbag for the chance purchase of watermelon, shoes, or other item,
"chance" being the operative word for shopping in a nation that queued up for anything that was available for barter when needed goods for direct consumption were not. Moreover, the regime did the planet no special favors by producing "little packaging material," since spoilage of food alone was one of several ruinous consequences of Soviet processing, transportation, and distribution. Hence "the large share of Soviet waste classified as food products, despite perennial food shortages," as Peterson writes.
The second surprising lesson from "that epitome" of environmental destruction is recycling, which Josephson follows with a long qualification in the best tradition of inflated prose:
... the Soviet citizen recycled everything that could be recycled; a national law mandated deposits on bottles. Bottle deposits and the like will not save the environment, but they represent a willingness to consider resource scarcities and consumption patterns and a readiness not to fob off on future generations all difficult choices.
One wonders what to make of this wall of words, since recycling is a commonplace in American towns, cities, and states, which also have to comply with regulations on the disposal of hazardous and non-hazardous materials under the mandate of the Environmental Protection Agency.
In a turn of phrase that recalls earlier western apologies for the regime, Josephson's last lesson is an exercise in word spinning that translates communist rule into an accidental force for the good: "Finally, the Soviet citizen had a vision of the future, albeit state-sponsored," which means that the average Russian was constrained by law and scarcity to have a care for the environment, however inadvertent his "vision of the future."
These passage are immediately followed by a litany of falsehoods about America that is breathtaking in its unreality:
What vision do Americans have about the future? Somehow, American political leaders have developed the misconception that citizens are unwilling to pay for their future and instead insist on living only for the moment, that they shy away from laws that will keep both today and tomorrow clean. Yet most Americans are shocked to discover when they retire or become ill that the safety net does not exist for them, and they are shocked to learn that no safety net exists for the environment. A step in the right direction would be not to mortgage the future to meet the needs of brute force technologies.
Historically, our political leaders have had no such "misconception," since Americans for decades have largely supported sound conservation policies and environmental cleanups of one kind or another. On the the contemporary side, a year before Josephson's book was published jihadists drove two hijacked American jetliners into the Twin Towers, thousands of people were vaporized, smoke, dust, and pollutants enveloped lower Manhattan, and over sixty billion dollars disappeared from the economy, yet every "safety net" that Josephson says "does not exist" held good. We now live under an administration that caters to an environmentalist lobby whose economically ruinous goals are supported by new policies and regulations on top of those that were already in force and whose failed "eco-friendly" projects, together with unprecedented levels debt on entitlement programs, are mortgaging the future in the literal sense of the word.
What Josephson calls the Soviet citizen's "vision of the future" is itself an exercise in recycling, in which he hearkens back to the old belief in the "workers' state" that was promoted by Moscow and echoed in the west, most famously by the American reporter Lincoln Steffens, who liked to repeat, as he did on many occasions, "I have seen the future, and it works."
By the late 1980s, the Soviet future had worked so well that it could have become the model for nearly all subsequent doomsday predictions of man-made planetary death:
- "vast areas of decimated landscape" in Ukrainian and Siberian industrial centers -
- 90 percent of the Black Sea's "near-surface" volume lacking "enough oxygen to support life" -
- "severe water pollution" in the Caspian Sea, the Sea of Azov north of the Black Sea, Lake Baikal, and the Volga River Basin, "where about 60 million people live" -
- an overall pollution level of "75 percent of Russia's surface water" -
- "as much as 1.5 billion tons of topsoil" lost to erosion "every year" -
- contamination "by industrial toxic agents, pesticides, and agricultural chemicals" in "an estimated 74 million hectares of agricultural land" (roughly 183 million acres) -
- "radioactive dumping in the Kara Sea north of western Siberia and adjacent waters," yielding perhaps "two-thirds of all the radioactive materials that ever have entered the world's oceans" -
- the "staggering" cost of rectifying the disasters at Chernobyl, the Aral Sea, and northern Kazakhstan, "dwarfing the cost of cleanups elsewhere, such as the superfund campaign to eliminate toxic waste sites in the United States" -
- environmental degradation in every one of Russia's "natural zones": tundra, permafrost, "taiga, or forest," "forest-steppe," and "semiarid and arid territories"iii -
According to Peterson, the main causes of widespread devastation included high concentrations of large-scale industrial enterprises "in compact geographical regions," secrecy and lack of attention to "the most important environmental concerns" by "the military-industrial complex," an emphasis on output over quality controls, bureaucratic bungling, and the condemnation of so-called "selfish interests" associated with "the capitalist world." The last was particularly destructive, for, without the benefit of the profit motive, the system "lacked the guide of market prices to assist its planners and project designers in their decision making." Given state control of the economy, natural resources "were allocated to enterprises at virtually no real cost to the user, eliminating any incentive to use them wisely." The ensuing distortions gave priority to new projects over modernizing "existing plants and equipment," so much so that "More than half the blast furnaces in the Soviet Union were over fifty years old," as were "many antiquated and inefficient open-hearth furnaces." Similar conditions obtained in large numbers of other "industrial plants," which dated back "to the heyday of Soviet industrialization in the 1930s":
A survey conducted by the Moscow city environmental committee revealed that not one enterprise in the capital "complied with contemporary environmental regulations" - a result of numerous plants having been built "decades and centuries ago," noted TASS [September 6, 1991]. One decrepit Siberian soap factory built by a cooperative in the early 1920s was described in Izvestiya as "looking like a museum in the history of technology."
In the 1980s, an official of the State Planning Committee (Gosplan) made the following comment on land reclamation that reads like an unintended satire on the entire subject of Soviet central management: "The improved state of a significant portion of these lands is constantly worsening."
Question: are the words of the Gosplan official any more absurd than the notion that "we're toast" if we don't rescue the atmosphere, that "we are disabling the planet like a disease," that overpopulation has allowed man to inherit the earth as foretold in the Sermon on the Mount, that the industrial revolution tore into the planet like "a Panzer division," that the west can take a lesson from Soviet Russia on how to be earth-friendly, or that an alien force in the form of thinking consciousness broke into "the sphere of life" from the other side of the universe?
Even the inflated dinosaur and Judgment clock that I saw somewhere in Tennessee or Virginia make more sense than these pronouncements.
i Peterson, Chapter 5, "Solid and Hazardous Waste," 131.
ii Paul Kobrak, "An Interview with Alexey Yablokov: The Politics of the Post-Soviet Environment," The Journal of the International Institute, University of Michigan (Summer, 1996).
Additional Works Cited or Consulted
Thomas F. Bertonneau, "Gnosticism from a Non-Voegelinian Perspective, Part I," The Brussels Journal (May 27, 2010).
Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair, Al Gore: a user's manual (London and New York: Verso Books, 2000).
Pierre Desrochers and Christine Hoffbauer, " The Post War Intellectual Roots of the Population Bomb. Fairfield Osborn’s ‘Our Plundered Planet’ and William Vogt’s ‘Road to Survival’ in Retrospect," The Electronic Journal of Sustainable Development, Vol 1, issue 3 (Summer 2009).
John Haaga, "High Death Rate Among Russian Men Predates Soviet Union's Demise," Population Today (April 2000).
Louis Proyect, "Food imperialism: Norman Borlaug and the Green Revolution," Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist (September 20, 2009).
Thomas Malone, "A Plan for Preserving Civilization," American Scientist (May-June 2006). William Shakespeare, The Tempest (London: Methuen & Co. Ltd, 1954). Albert Szymanski, reply by Nick Eberstadt, "The Health Crisis in the USSR: An Exchange," The New York Review of Books, (November 15,1981).