For my write-up today on Al Gore’s Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit, I’ll start with something that Gore says on page 179:
“…men and women who care must be politically empowered to demand and help effect remedies to ecological problems wherever they live. As the dramatic environmental problems in Eastern Europe show, freedom is a necessary condition for an effective stewardship of the environment. Here in the United States, a hugely disproportionate number of the worst hazardous waste sites are in poor and minority communities that have relatively little political power because of race or poverty or both. Indeed, almost wherever people at the grass-roots level are deprived of a voice in the decisions that affect their lives, they and the environment suffer. I have therefore come to believe that an essential prerequisite for saving the environment is the spread of democratic government to more nations of the world.”
A while back, I wrote a post about Newt Gingrich’s argument that capitalism is better for the environment than socialism and communism. I’ve heard a similar argument from other right-wingers: “Oh, so capitalism is bad for the environment, huh?”, the argument runs. “What about the damage that was done to the environment in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe? Chernobyl, anyone? And how about China’s pollution of the environment?”
I disagree with this argument if it’s point is that a laissez-faire economy is best for the environment. In my opinion, it would be comparing apples and oranges to liken the government imposing environmental regulations to the sort of system that Communist countries had or have. Communist countries were collectivist, but my impression is that they were willing to disregard the environment when they felt that doing so would increase productivity. Saying that Communist countries have hurt the environment does not mean that laissez-faire capitalism is right.
At the same time, I do think that capitalism can generate the wealth and productivity that are necessary for cleaner technology to be developed, and for companies to be able to financially bear environmental regulations. And please keep in mind that many countries that have been called socialistic—-such as certain nations in Western Europe and Scandinavia—-actually have a solid capitalistic element.
I also think that Gore does well to point out that democracy can be conducive to good environmental stewardship. In a democracy, if I don’t like for my neck of the woods to be polluted, I can make my will known on this and perhaps effect change. My understanding is that, in a number of Communist countries, people had no say about what their government did, and so they couldn’t do much if the government contributed to the pollution of where they lived. And yet, democracy may not be fool-proof, for polluters are also part of a democracy, and they have a significant amount of power and influence on the government. And even everyday people may not like rigorous action on the environment, fearing that this could cost them their jobs. Moreover, even in our democracy, there are people who lack power, and their neighborhoods especially suffer environmental degradation, as Gore notes. That needs to be taken into consideration, and somehow rectified.