The Environmental Record of Communism

The Environmental Record of Communism February 12, 2008

Via Darwin Catholic, I see that a couple of Australian professors have, after sober reflection, concluded that stopping climate change requires the abandonment of liberal democracy in favor of authoritarian dictatorship:

China has become, or is just about to become, the world’s greatest emitter of greenhouse emissions. Its economic growth suggests that it may soon emit as much as the rest of the world put together. Its environment is in a deplorable state, with heavily polluted rivers and drinking water, serious air pollution, both of which have a heavy burden of illness. Pollution and climate change are reducing productive land in the face of an increasing population which is compelled to import some of its foodstuffs. Its population centres will be candidates for early inundation by sea level rise and the melting of Himalayan glaciers will reduce its water supply.

All this suggests that the savvy Chinese rulers may be first out of the blocks to assuage greenhouse emissions and they will succeed by delivering orders. They will recognise that the alternative is famine and social disorder

Let us contrast this with the indecisiveness of the democracies which together produce approximately the other half of the world’s greenhouse emissions. It is perhaps reasonable to ask the reader a question. Taking into account the performance of the democracies in the reduction of emissions over the past decade, do you feel that the democracies are able and willing to reduce their emissions by 60-80 per cent this century or perhaps more importantly by approximately 10 per cent each decade?

We are going to have to look how authoritarian decisions based on consensus science can be implemented to contain greenhouse emissions. It is not that we do not tolerate such decisions in the very heart of our society, in wide range of enterprises from corporate empires to emergency and intensive care units. If we do not act urgently we may find we have chosen total liberty rather than life.

Much of the commentary I’ve seen has taken this article as evidence of an authoritarian impulse at the heart of the environmental movement. And no doubt there is some truth to this, at least in some cases. But what stuck me most about the article was its naivety. While the record of liberal democracies in dealing with environmental issues is less than stellar, the record of authoritarian countries, particularly communist ones, with regard to the environment is even worse. (I probably wouldn’t agree with most of what’s published by this site, but they are spot on in their conclusion that environmentalism is only possible in free countries).

The idea that a dictatorship might do a better job of protecting the environment than a democracy may initially seem quite plausible. While leaders in democratic countries are constrained in dealing with a problem both by public opinion (which is often uninformed), and by constitutional safeguards on liberty and checks on government power which limit the government’s authority. A dictator, by contrast, simply has to issue orders. He needn’t worry about the popularity of his decisions, nor is he constrained by constitutional safeguards.

Why, then, is the environmental record of authoritarian countries so awful? For a couple of reasons. The fact that a dictatorship is not limited by public will or constitutional safeguards certainly makes it easier to get things done if by “get things done” we mean passing laws or issuing government edicts. But as I’ve noted before, there is a difference between passing a law to do x, and actually doing x. Laws enacted by dictatorships tend to have less legitimacy than laws enacted by free countries, and are therefore less likely to be obeyed. Authoritarian governments also tend to be both inefficient and corrupt, staffed by people whose are more skilled at telling superiors what they want to hear and spouting the party line than at their actual jobs, and who are more than willing to bend, break, or ignore the orders from above if it means a nice bribe.

In addition, the fact that authoritarian governments are insulated from political pressures makes them less likely to provide for the pressing needs of its people, including their environmental needs. According to the article, the fact that China’s environment is already so badly damaged means that “the savvy Chinese rulers may be first out of the blocks to assuage greenhouse emissions and they will succeed by delivering orders. They will recognise that the alternative is famine and social disorder.” But while famine is almost unheard of in free countries, and social disorder is limited, in authoritarian countries they are quite common. When China’s policies caused famine and social disorder in the past, nothing was done about it, as there was no effective feedback mechanism to put pressure on the Chinese government to alter course, and high ranking party officials were protected by the system from the consequences of their actions. That China has already let its environment be degraded far beyond what would be acceptable in Western countries suggests that perhaps it is not the best model to follow.

I am not the biggest fan of democracy. The best that can be said about it is that it is the worst system of government except for all the others – and I’m not even sure that that is true. But if the alternative to liberal democracy is an authoritarian dictatorship, then I think I’ll take my chances with liberal democracy.

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  • Excellent.

  • Mr. Johns

    China =/= Communist
    China == Dictatorship
    Dictatorship =/= Communist