Post-Communist Nations: Growing Again--But Hardly Greening

Washington, D.C.—Investment in human and environmental well-being in Europe's post-communist nations is as important for long-term prosperity as economic reform, reports a new study from the Worldwatch Institute. While the collapse of communism offered an unexpected chance for these nations to reorganize their economies and societies according to new principles, the window to take an ecologically-friendly path is rapidly closing, says Worldwatch Senior Fellow Viktor Vovk, author of Sustainable Development for the Second World, released today.

"Instead of focusing solely on economics," says Vovk, "we need a new political structure that seeks to balance the drive for personal freedom with society's necessary role as trustee for the interests of the public at large, future generations, and the global ecosystem."

Environmental issues have often been ignored as nations in transition—or the Second World—struggle to find their place and compete in a global market, and populations fight to survive. The fall of the old communist order and the many unanticipated difficulties associated with it—a massive decline in economic output and living standards, the loss of markets, and severe financial shortages—triggered a difficult period of change and adjustment, Vovk writes.

"It is naïve to simply impose democratic structures and market mechanisms and expect them to work seamlessly, " says Vovk. "Swapping formulaic communism for formulaic capitalism—which has been the strategy of the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and other international institutions—is simply the substitution of one kind of flawed industrialism for another that is also out of touch with the ecological demands and limits of the real world."

While the local environmental movement, spurred by tragedies like the 1986 accident at the Chornobyl nuclear plant, grew in strength and even shared credit for ending the Soviet empire, immediate economic concerns overrode the need for environmental reforms. As a result, the region's environmental health generally remains poor.

"Now, what people generally lack is the vision of an appealing future, one that is not only better than their troubled present, but better than what any present course might lead to," Vovk says. "A sustainable society could fulfill that vision and the turmoil of transition offers an opportunity to shape expectations and steer development toward sustainability."

In Ukraine, Vovk's home country, the fall of communism leaves open the option of reprogramming society according to the principles of sustainable development, which alone of all economic paths can offer long-term promise for improving general human and environmental well-being. Vovk says that restructuring should begin with a three-part foundation:

  1. Stressing the idea that sustainability means making life better in general, not just enhancing environmental protection;
  2. Making government widely transparent, participatory, and accountable;
  3. Employing incentive systems in preference to the command-and-control approaches that echo the reviled communist past.

Once this foundation is laid, he says, a suite of additional policies to advance the sustainable development agenda could be put in place, including:

  • Public education campaigns to convince people that the current economic strategy of growth in heavy industry and commodity exports cannot restore previous standards of living, much less ensure long-term well-being;
  • An ecological taxation system that taxes pollution and resource depletion, rather than jobs and income;
  • Improvements in energy efficiency, including technical improvements, structural economic shifts to less energy-intensive activities, and changes in energy-use patterns;
  • Development of renewable energy resources;
  • A regime of fair international trade, which will allow environment and economic protection from the downside of globalization; and
  • A general principle of financial self-reliance to protect against constraints and conditions tied to external investment capital.

"In order to develop modern nations and secure national interests, Second World countries need to become aware of the ecological challenges and trends that are shaping the future of human civilization and become proactive in their search for adequate responses," Vovk argues.

"Just as communism succumbed to the failure to see the economic and ecological truth, capitalism—whether predatory or enlightened—can be destroyed by the same blindness."