French scholars put together The Black Book of Communism, which carefully documents that international communism during the 20th century was responsible for the deaths of something like 100 million people. A number of years ago, however, we heard that a UD professor thought that communism nonetheless had a silver lining–protecting the global environment. The professor was telling his students that a downside of the demise of communism was that the newly capitalist countries would produce more pollution. The professor’s idea is an interesting one. Interesting because no one with even a casual acquaintance with the facts of reality could take it seriously for even a nanosecond. Colin Grabow, in a new article at thefederalist.com, shows that communism was in fact much worse, and capitalism much better, for the environment.
When the Berlin Wall came down and the Iron Curtain was finally lifted to expose the inner workings of communism to Western eyes, one of the more shocking discoveries was the nightmarish scale of environmental destruction. The statistics for East Germany alone tell a horrific tale: at the time of its reunification with West Germany an estimated 42 percent of moving water and 24 percent of still waters were so polluted that they could not be used to process drinking water, almost half of the country’s lakes were considered dead or dying and unable to sustain fish or other forms of life, and only one-third of industrial sewage along with half of domestic sewage received treatment.
An estimated 44 percent of East German forests were damaged by acid rain — little surprise given that the country produced proportionally more sulphur dioxide, carbon dioxide, and coal dust than any other in the world. In some areas of East Germany the level of air pollution was between eight and twelve times greater than that found in West Germany, and 40 percent of East Germany’s population lived in conditions that would have justified a smog warning across the border. Only one power station in East Germany had the necessary equipment to clean sulphur from emissions.
East Germany even had a town in the running for the title of Most Polluted Town in the World.
Pronounced by Der Spiegel as Europe’s dirtiest town, Greenpeace as well as government statistics suggested it may have been the filthiest in the entire world. Home to a variety of manufacturing facilities which spewed a witch’s brew of chemical and industrial byproducts into the air and water, Bitterfeld was nothing less than an environmental horror show. This is how the Washington Post’s Marc Fisher described the town in the spring of 1990:
“Here, rivers flow red from steel mill waste, drinking water contains many times the European Community standards for heavy metals and other pollutants, and the air has killed so many trees — 75 percent in the Bitterfeld area — that even the most ambitious clean-up efforts now being planned would not reverse the damage. East Germany fills the air with sulfur dioxide at almost five times the West German rate and more than twice the Polish rate, according to a recent study. One chemical plant near here dumps 44 pounds of mercury into the Saale river each day — 10 times as much as the West German chemical company BASF pumps into the Rhine each year.”
Writing for The New York Times in September of that year, reporter Marlise Simons said of Bitterfeld that “[t]he air stings, and the water in brooks and rivers has turned to syrup[.]” And a 1994 article in the UK newspaper The Independent recalled that in communist times the town’s leaves would turn brown by June, a local guest-house featured “gas-masks lining the walls of the lobby,” and that in the years since reunification “Bitterfeld’s children were sent for up to a month each year to the coast or the mountains” to give their lungs a break from the relentless assault.
The problem was not confined to East Germany. All the other East Bloc countries were polluted too.
[A] 1992 Cato Journal paper noted that “[c]hildren from the Upper Silesia area of Poland have been found to have five times more lead in their blood than children from Western European cities,” while half of the region’s children suffered from pollution-related illnesses. Some areas of Romania, the paper added, experienced such heavily polluted air that horses were only allowed to stay for two or three years.
A similar story was found in the Soviet Union. Writing for the now-defunct (and Ralph Nader-founded) Multinational Monitor in September 1990, James Ridgeway noted widespread pollution of both the air and drinking water:
“40% of the Soviet people live in areas where air pollutants are three to four times the maximum allowable levels. Sanitation is primitive. Where it exists, for example in Moscow, it doesn’t work properly. Half of all industrial waste water in the capital city goes untreated. In Leningrad, nearly half of the children have intestinal disorders caused by drinking contaminated water from what was once Europe’s most pristine supply.”
A 1996 Russia country study published by the Library of Congress’ Federal Research Division described the country’s air as “among the most polluted in the world,” and found that 75 percent of its surface water was polluted and 50 percent of all water not potable according to 1992 quality standards.
The Soviets trashed the environment.
The author of this article not only did a superb job summarizing the evidence of environmental destruction, he even put his finger on the economic reason why communism was so bad for the environment: the lack of property rights.
[C]ommunism means an absence of property rights, having all been surrendered to “the people,” which is to say the state. As that which belongs to everyone in fact belongs to no one, who is to be confronted over the factory sending toxic plumes into the sky which then descends on the cornfield, or the dumping of waste into the river plied by tourists on cruise boats? And who really owns the cornfield or the boats?
Property rights are in fact the single most important reason why capitalism is better than communism at protecting the environment. So long as property rights are enforced, nobody can pollute someone else’s resource without compensating them.
In any event, the idea that communism was good for the environment is so ludicrous that the UD professor who espoused it became a laughingstock on campus, so that he was embarrassed to even show… Oh, who are we kidding. As far as we know, nobody on campus ever expressed disagreement with him. Except us. We ran into students who believed him, and when we tried to set them straight, a lecturer from finance told us we were wrong. A lecturer with a PhD.