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Transforming human/nature relations –
lessons from the past and the present

By Penny Cole and Corinna Lotz

A World to Win’s contribution to Cochabamba did not address the history of the Stalinist regimes of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe because they don’t exist any more and we were trying to look at what we face today and advance some propositions about how to challenge profit-driven globalisation. It alone is responsible for soaring greenhouse gas emissions over the last three decades, for growing inequality (including in Russia and Eastern Europe) and it has brought the eco-system close to destructive tipping points.

However, it is always good to have an opportunity to discuss important historical questions when we are thinking about the future, in order that we learn the lessons of the past. But if the lesson we learn is that ‘communism was as bad as capitalism’ then we really have not progressed very far and it doesn’t help us much.

It has been stated that ‘communism’ treated nature as a free gift for exploitation just as capitalism does.

Of course there is a sense in which nature IS a gift free for exploitation. Surely we cannot suggest that the relationship between human society and nature can only ever be a money and market exchange? The challenge is to overcome the alienated relationship with nature and use our evolved understanding. Nature doesn’t want hard cash – just for us to use our heads and take as a starting point the idea that nature provides everything we need in order to live – so we must also protect and restore it.

If a communist future is NOT what we are fighting for – then what is the framework for our future relationship to nature? If not a communist relationship, then a capitalist one?

It is in any case far too broad a generalisation to describe what happened in the Soviet economy as “communism”, as some contributors to this list suggest. There were distinct periods in the history of the Soviet economy and science. Immediately after 1917, the country – which had not even reached capitalism in large areas – suffered from the aftermath of World War I.  The 1917 October revolution abolished capitalist property and economic relations, but that did not guarantee automatic progress towards socialism. The Bolsheviks withdrew from World War I, but the new state was forced to fight a devastating civil war.

Nonetheless, despite the extremely harsh conditions that prevailed in those years, Soviet science made pioneering contributions in many fields of science, including biology and psychology. Right up until the mid-1930s, the USSR was on the cutting edge of theory and practice in the fields of ecology and “conservation” as it was then known. Today’s historians and writers including Douglas Weiner, Helena Sheehan, and John Bellamy Foster have drawn attention to the work of these pioneers.

Subsequently bureaucratic elites undermined the early socialist/communist innovations, and from then on, the ruling regimes in the Soviet Union and eastern bloc countries became even more anti-communist than even the most virulent capitalists. They increasingly adapted to capitalism, but refracted through the reactionary idea of ‘socialism in a single country’.

For decades, those who resisted the Stalinist approach to economy, science, technology, and philosophy from left, socialist and pro-communist positions – were murdered, sent to the Gulag and repressed and this continued right up until the Gorbachev era when perestroika and glasnost broke up the old order.

As a result of Stalinist dogmas, official philosophy in the Soviet Union was mechanical materialism, particularly in relation to science, technology and economy. An extreme form of positivism, a distorted mirroring of Western empiricism, prevailed. Those who opposed this approach were driven out of the country, underground or even to their deaths.

At the same time as sham Marxism was being taught in schools, the brutal regime was empirically swinging from one adventure to the next. Entire eco-systems and populations were ruined or destroyed as in Uzbekistan’s cotton monoculture, the transportation of the Chechen people from their homeland, the pollution of Lake Baikal and finally, the Chernobyl disaster. Economic 5-year plans were drawn up that had no relationship to reality and then the bureaucracy had to adapt to their failure. Needless to say, nature, the environment, ecology, did not feature in this mess – and the views of the workers and society as a whole, on what should be produced and how, were entirely absent.

But the suppression of early Soviet ecology and its attempts to restore human relations with nature are not just some “distant history”. These early attempts at a new approach are evidence that a non-capitalist non-utilitarian approach to nature was and is possible – and that not all economic and political systems are hopelessly noxious per se. Moreover, as Weiner notes: “By looking into the past and discovering there some pieces of ourselves we never knew, we can begin to regain the fullness of our humanity”. This is how we restore ourselves not only to “Mother Nature” but to our own human nature.

The break-up of Stalinism in the 1980s and 1990s has created new opportunities to learn from the past and, making use of advanced science and technology, approach the issues in a more conscious way. The World People's Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth in Bolivia and its proposals for a global referendum and the establishment of ecological rights in law are important steps in this direction.

Written and published as a contribution to the discussion in the UK about the Structural Causes of Climate Change and Mother Earth at the Cochabamba World Peoples Conference, 19-22 April 2012.

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