Gale Warner, along with her husband, David Kreger, compiled “An Anthology of Ecological Writers from the West” in 1991. It was translated into Russian by 5 GOLUBKA (Soviet-American Humanitarian Initiative) friends and was dedicated to Gale’s memory. Gale—author, poet, activist, and environmental educator—wrote this introduction as she approached the end of a 14-month struggle with cancer, two weeks before she died at age 31. It was the last essay she wrote.
We created this anthology because of a deep love for the land and the peoples of the former Soviet Union, and a passionate hope that it is possible for you, our Russian readers, to learn from our small environmental successes, but even more importantly, to avoid repeating our serious environmental mistakes. You now have, in this time of great flux, transformation, and even chaos within your society, unprecedented opportunities to choose the course of your country’s future environmental policies—and, on a deeper level, to shape the moral attitude of your peoples toward the living Earth. Sometimes, we in the United States feel that our policies and attitudes toward nature have become so ossified, so rigidly embedded in every aspect of our economy and culture that it is a very slow and painstaking process indeed to try to change anything. Millions of people work on these issues, and progress is made in some ways, but American society and Americans themselves, tend to be sleepily comfortable with the status quo, and not eager to wake up to the need to change our relationship to the Earth. Whatever else can be said about the current situation in the former Soviet Union, a surplus of stability and comfort with the status quo is not, at the moment, a problem. While this presents great dangers and hardships, of course, it also presents enormous opportunities for a major transformation.
Some well-educated and skeptical Russians have told us that they believe it is impossible for Russia and the other sovereign states to “leapfrog” over the environmental mistakes made by the industrialized West. If Russia is going to join the modern world, enter the global economy, raise its standard of living to a level comparable to the West, and so on, then it is going to have to pay the same environmental price as all the other countries. There is no way to avoid the commercialism of a free market society, no way to halt the billboards and domination of advertising; no way to avoid the pollution of new factories; no way to avoid the immense problems of becoming an automobile-dependent society; no way to cut down on the sacrifice of natural resources, such as forest, free-flowing rivers, and open land. We have heard this argument, but in our opinion it is untrue. There is no reason to believe that the building of a successful economy and a comfortable life should require blindly repeating the mistakes of the West. You have the opportunity, for example, to take advantage of all we have painfully learned about the automobile, and to do everything you can to preserve and improve your mass transit systems and develop alternatives, such as inexpensive community carpools and reliable taxi and car rental businesses, that still allow people the convenience of a private automobile when necessary, without requiring a society whose dependence on the automobile is literally fixed in concrete, as it sadly has become in the United States. Another example is energy use. You can now choose to build your new society on the heels of a host of new, inexpensive energy-efficient and renewable energy technologies—and avoid the technology and patterns of the rapidly industrializing America of the 1990s, with its emphasis on energy production instead of efficiency—heedless of the costs in lost resources and pollution.
The list can go on, and this anthology will repeatedly point out these mistakes and these opportunities. No pattern of development if fixed. It is absurd to argue that simply because this is the way it was done once, this is the way it must always be done; that “you must take the bad with the good.” The 1990s offer many different possibilities and options. You can choose intelligently from among them.
Of course, this is not the song you will hear from many Western business people who will flock to you trying to convince you that the current Western way is the one and only way. Those business people see opportunities in Russia and the other sovereign states; opportunities to build gas-guzzling cars that are being outlawed in the West; opportunities to build factories with fewer environmental and energy efficiency restrictions; opportunities to quickly and cheaply extract minerals and timber to feed Western overconsumption; opportunities, in short, to go the way they preferred to do them 10 and 20 years ago before “those damned environmentalists started to interfere.” They are coming hoping to make extra profits using outdated technology and equipment that can no longer be used legally in the West. Their song is a seductive one and it will take all of your awareness and citizen power to prevent them from using the former Soviet Union as the last place to live out their conventional beliefs in unlimited growth and disregard for the environment.
“This may be easy for you to say, from the perspective of your comfortable American lives, but who are you to tell us to choose to save our environment at the cost of our standard of living, to virtuously sacrifice, when this is not what you have done?” This response is very often heard from developing countries, who resent what they perceive as a preaching attitude toward them—“don’t do what we have done—stay poor and pure.” Brazilians, for example, sometimes complain that Americans and Europeans unfairly berate them for cutting down their primary forest in the Amazon basin while, a hundred years ago, Americans ruthlessly destroyed nearly all of the primary forest on the North American continent, and Europeans destroyed their forest even longer ago, all for the sake of economic development. “Who are you,” they say, “to tell us to forsake material wealth for the sake of trees?”
We have heard Russians speak similarly, and that’s why it is important to say from the outset that we do not at all wish for you to continue to live with the economic hardships and poverty with which you have lived for so long. It is our sincere belief that it is possible for you to build a comfortable, sustainable, healthy, materially satisfying and morally rich society while at the same time avoiding environmental catastrophe and avoiding our tremendous mistakes. Your society would be unlikely to look like ours; it is quite possible that it could look much better! You have the opportunity to structure a society that would have less pollution, less asphalt, fewer traffic jams, less waste of all kinds, including toxic waste, more open space, more forests, more wildlife…and still live comfortably, enriching lives with your needs met and more. If this sounds like an impossible dream, remember that if the entire globe, including the industrialized West, does not soon figure out how to make the transition to this type of society, the planet will soon be unable to bear the load of the over consumptive and poison-producing societies any longer, and true catastrophe will emerge. This unique opportunity that now exists in Russia and the other sovereign states is that your chaos also gives you flexibility and the ability to start fresh on the right foot—end even to lead the way in showing the world how to build a humane and sustainable society.
We are familiar with all the discouraging factors that at times make this seem like an impossible task—your poverty, your disorganization, the lack of empowerment and awareness among peoples, and so on. But you also have certain advantages, certain strengths that it may be easier for us to perceive than for you. On the practical level, you do have a working rail system and systems of mass transit in cities; you have not literally built in concrete, as we have, a dependence on the automobile; and so you are far ahead of us in your ability to develop a sensible mix of transportation technologies. You also are not yet burdened with the sprawl of energy-inefficient, automobile-dependent, single-family homes in suburbs, which ecology-conscious city planners agree are the least environmentally practical type of housing. You are not yet infiltrated by massive commercialism that encourages consumption for its own sake, far beyond any real needs; you do not yet have many billboards or intrusive television ads. (In some parts of Europe, television ads are concentrated on the hour, at the beginning or end of programs, so that viewers are free to switch them off or ignore them; in the United States, ads are insidiously inserted throughout the program, so that it is almost impossible to avoid watching them. If you accept the growth of television advertising – and this too is a choice; some countries simply ban it—will you choose the European or American way? A simple decision, such as this, passed by law and enforced by regulations, can have enormous practical and spiritual consequences for your society. But you must make it sooner rather than later; trying to budge the gigantic and enriched American television industry now, at this late date, seems nearly an overwhelming task.) You also do not yet have a huge packaging industry, meaning that you produce much less garbage than the West. Instead of having to dismantle this wasteful and useless packaging industry one slow step at a time, and convert to a “reduce-reuse-recycle” mentality, you can jump far ahead by never developing a wasteful packaging industry in the first place.
Another myth we have frequently heard goes like this: “The environment will be okay once we have a free market system. Since communism clearly destroyed the environment, its opposite—capitalism—will restore the environment.” If there is one thing we hope the articles and book excerpts that follow will demonstrate, it is that a free market alone will not preserve the environment, but rather destroy it. This is clear both from economic theory, involving concepts such as “externalities” and “the tragedy of the commons,” and from painfully learned experience. A “free market” on the Western model is not the solution, but will bring with it a whole new set of environmental problems when can only be solved through an ingenious mix of governmental regulation, community organizing and individual moral choice.
Why do we believe it is possible to build an ecologically sustainable society in the former Soviet Union? Because we have seen so much potential in your people. We have seen such ingenuity, resourcefulness, and inventiveness. We have seen the passionate love for nature embedded in your spirits, the beautiful flourishing gardens at your dachas, the deep appreciation for your wild places and pain at their destruction. The pain you feel for the environmental destruction now taking place in your country is evidence for your deep connection and caring to your part of the planet. All of this gives us great hope, and belief in your possibilities.