BOOK TALK: Socialist States and the Environment with Salvatore Engel-DiMauro

by 1804 Books

During our talk on his most recent book Socialist States and the Environment, author Salvatore Engel-Di Mauro presented the content of his new book, unpacking the way the environmental impacts of socialist states have been compared to the impact of capitalist ones. Salvatore argues that socialist states have a historically better, although still mixed, environmental record. They must confront the challenge of  simultaneously building defenses to fend off capitalist powers, while also providing sufficient material well-being to their people, which in many cases requires urgent improvement of the standard of living. Here are a few takeaways from Salvatore’s presentation that can help us better understand the relationship between socialist states and environmental crisis:

  1. Debunk the “absolutist comparison”, in which socialist state projects are assumed to have the worst impact on the environment out of all other forms of state projects. Salvatore dispenses with this method by citing a few examples of landmark environmental catastrophes that have taken place under liberal democratic, capitalist governments, such as the Union Carbide Bhopal disaster in India, the dioxins disaster in Seveso, the destruction of the Everglades in Florida, the dead zone off the coast of Louisiana, the pollution of the Niger Delta, the Green Run experiment in Washington, and the number of Superfund sites across the U.S.
  2. Criticize “synchronic comparison”, or comparing socialist states with capitalist ones across the same time period. This kind of comparison does not take into account the disparities of wealth and productive development between some of the richest nations on earth and socialist countries in the beginning stages of industrialization.
  3. Advocate for “diachronic comparison”, which looks at a state’s historical sequence and context. For example, in analyzing the environmental record of a place like Laos, we must consider that it is the most bombed country on the planet–during the U.S.-Vietnam War, the U.S. dropped more than two million tons of ordinances. We must look at the history before the system of government was established, the circumstances in which it obtained power, and its relationship to neighboring states and its geopolitical conflicts.

Overall, it is still difficult to make concrete comparisons between states when almost all are enveloped or forced to compete within the global capitalist system. Most socialist states have had to contend and fend off continuous attack from imperial powers since their inception. Salvatore encourages us to think of state-socialism as a system that is transitional and a contradictory state of being to avoid some of the historical pitfalls of expecting too much too soon from what is possible under a specific set of circumstances. 

We also heard from Guillermo Barreto, ecologist, retired professor of Simón Bolívar University, and currently part of the Simón Bolívar Institute for Peace and Solidarity Among Peoples, who reminds us:

  1. Climate change is a fact and it is the dominant economic model, capitalism, that is causing it. He brings to our attention the latest report published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which makes clear that the cause of climate change is the result of an economic model based on the burning of fossil fuels and the increasing and sustained consumption of the Earth's resources. 
  2. There is no monolithic definition of a socialist state. Why is Chernobyl considered a consequence of socialism but Fukushima is not a consequence of capitalism? Why is there no mention of the policies on reforestation in Burkina Faso or on protected areas in Cuba? Why is it not publicized that Venezuela banned trawling, freeing square kilometers of seabed from one of the most destructive fishing techniques in existence?
  3. The path to a more just world is socialism, but a socialism that breaks with the Eurocentric colonial, racist and patriarchal vision. A socialism that takes ideas from our native peoples, ideas of good living, of African ubuntu. A socialism that upholds a vision of humans as part of nature and not separated from it. The ownership of the means of production can change hands, but the modern vision that separates humans from nature and sees history as linear processes that lead from backwardness to progress, from barbarism to civilization, from underdevelopment to development, is the basis of the problem. 

The talk concludes with a presentation from Professor Zhun Xu, of John Jay college, CUNY. He begins by emphasizing that all socialist projects coming out of revolution were forced to undergo rapid industrialization to provide adequate living conditions for the working people. Yet, these contradictions can still be moderated, since, unlike capitalism, no one profits from environmental destruction under socialism. 

Salvatore closes his presentation with this quote from Amilcar Cabral:

“We must constantly be more aware of the errors and mistakes we make so that we can correct our work and constantly do better in the service of our Party. The mistakes we make should not dishearten us, just as the victories we score should not make us forget our mistakes.”

Salvatore's work reminds us that we have to understand the greater context of imperialism and capitalism that stifles socialist states around the world, and that criticism should not be wielded as a weapon to block processes of socialist construction, but rather to support and bolster them–in the service of the people, and the earth.

This book and the research it presents are essential contributions to ongoing and urgent debates on the true causes of today’s environmental crisis and the paths that will lead us to a solution. We must not allow misinterpretations of economic and environmental data to become weaponized as evidence against the socialist and progressive projects of the Global South. It is up to us to collectively build the societal structures that will ensure our survival into the future.