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The Environmental Movement and Environmental Politics

Feb 06, 2017

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  • 193

    7The Environmental

    Movement andEnvironmental Politics

    An ecologist is a healthy guy in boots who lies behind a knoll and through binocularswatches a squirrel eat nuts. We can manage quite well without these bums.

    Nikita S. Khrushchev

    The peoples growing ecological environmental awareness is one of the manifestationsof the democratization of society and a key factor of perestroika. . . .

    We must welcome this in every way possible.Mikhail Gorbachev

    Like a steady wind fanning a forest fire, the revelations of eco-glasnostin the 1980s fed the rage of a public long suppressed by the communistregime. In response to the states inaction, citizens formed hundreds ofenvironmental organizations to take matters into their own hands. Thepolitical impact of environmental interest groups has been augmented bythe demise of centralized authority and the natural affinity between en-vironmental and ethnic issues in the former Soviet context. As a result,environmental groups have evolved into an important catalyst forchange in the Soviet and post-Soviet era. In a society where the state onceattempted to organize and control virtually all social activities, the rapidmobilization of independent nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) isremarkable and indicates the rise of a civil society in the former SovietUnion.

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    Nevertheless, numerous obstacles remain: The dead hand of bureau-cracy discourages citizens initiatives, and authorities, threatened by therise of independent and powerful voices, often put up obstacles to theirnewfound challengers. Moreover, poor communications facilities thwartinteraction among groups, and their relative poverty prevents their un-dertaking any large-scale programs. Finally, the stresses of economic re-form and upheaval draw attention away from ecology. The effect is thatenvironmental groups have been slow to evolve beyond movements ofopposition into the types of grassroots self-help organizations that havebeen so effective at promoting local development and environmentalprotection in the United States, Latin America, Asia, and elsewherearound the world.

    THE MAGNITUDE OF CONCERN ABOUTTHE ENVIRONMENT

    With the revelations of glasnost, citizens became acutely aware thatenvironmental conditions in their neighborhoods were far from favor-able. Though crude by Western standards, local public opinion pollinghas revealed the magnitude of concern about the environment.1 In a 1989USSR Goskomstat survey, 1 in 10 people surveyed said the environmentwas the countrys most serious problem. Of twelve major problemsenumerated, cleaning up the environment was listed fourth, behind foodsupply problems, poor housing conditions, and inflation. Surprisingly, itsurpassed such pressing and visible issues as ethnic tensions, social injus-tice, poor healthcare, and crime.2 In 1990 and 1991, official surveys re-ported by USSR Goskomstat revealed that almost one-half of the urbanpopulation polled considered environmental conditions in their neigh-borhoods to be unsatisfactory.3 In July 1991, the Russian state statisti-cal agency reported that of those polled in another study, three-quartersconsidered environmental conditions in their hometown intolerable.4In a survey conducted in the Moscow region in spring 1990,environmental degradation was ranked as the most important socialproblem. Of those polled, 98.1 percent rated the issue important orvery important. Less pressing issues, by comparison, were crime (94.7percent), food shortages (94.4 percent), and consumer goods shortages(93.4 percent).5 In a 1989 survey conducted in Ukraine, environmentalproblems were the main concern of 26 percent of the population, be-hind economic problems (44 percent) but well ahead of political andcultural issues.6

    Of all environmental issues, citizens are most strongly antinuclear; sopowerful is their aversion, that the mood aptly has been labeled

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    radiophobia. Two nonbinding, unofficial referendums conducted in1990 illustrate the level of sentiment against nuclear power.7 In February,voters in the small Ural Mountains city of Neftekamsk went to the pollsto decide the fate of the Bashkir Atomic Energy Station, located 30 kilo-meters away. The referendum, organized by the Neftekamsk (population109,000) city government along the lines of a regular election, attractedan 80 percent turnout of votersa stunning 99 percent of whom voted tohalt construction of the plant immediately.8 Three months later in theRussian city of Voronezh (population 895,000), a local group calling itselfEcological Initiative prodded the city government into holding a refer-endum on the fate of a nuclear-powered citywide heating system. Of the82 percent of the voting-age population who went to the polls, 96 percentturned down the scheme.9

    The environmental movement has garnered great respect from thepublic, in part as a result of its efforts to discover the truth about ecologi-cal conditions. In the spring 1990 survey of Muscovites previously men-tioned, the Green movement had earned the trust of over 54 percent ofthe population. Only the Russian Orthodox Church (64 percent) and themilitary (56 percent) scored better. Far down on the list was the CPSU (39percent), the official trade unions (37 percent), and the government (28percent).10 Anatolii Panov, vice-president of the Zelenyi Svit (GreenWorld) environmental association, claimed his organization enjoyed thehighest trust rating of any group in Ukraine in 1991.11

    THE RESPONSE OF THE GOVERNMENT TO THEENVIRONMENTAL MOVEMENT

    The best way to gauge the strength of the environmental movement isto examine its impact on the government policy process. Responding tothe publics concern, many politicians make a point of showing theirawareness of environmental problems and their desire to resolve them.Officials and politicians frequently visit ecological hot spots to rendersome measure of political first aid. For example, in August 1990, BorisYeltsin, recently elected chairman of the Supreme Soviet in the RussianFederation, took advantage of this traditionally quiet period in Sovietpolitics to make a three-week tour of Siberia and the Far East; he wantedto assess environmental conditions. I received a very strong sense ofcolossal problems on my trip, he told Radio Moscow.12 One year later,campaigning for the Russian presidency, Yeltsin again made a point ofvisiting ecological hot spots such as Chelyabinsk oblast and Sakhalin Is-land.

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    Obsessed with bolstering its public image, even the KGB took pains todemonstrate its environmental awareness. In October 1990, the Sovietnews agency TASS noted that the KGB had prepared a report to chal-lenge the militarys plans to use a nuclear device to create an under-ground storage facility for high-level radioactive wastes near the UralMountains city of Chelyabinsk.13 On the occasion of the agencys seven-tieth anniversary two months later, Soviet television screened a programillustrating the KGBs environmental consciousness. The agency was sobold as to claim partial responsibility for the governments decision in1986 to cancel the Siberian rivers diversion project. Although concedingthe impact of scientific and cultural figures working in opposition to thescheme, Major-General Eduard N. Yakovlev of the KGBs analytical de-partment added: We spoke from an objective, unbiased position.14

    Local as well as national officials often turn to environmental groupsfor expertise and input. Sometimes the relationship goes beyond this;many environmental officials consider the public a helpful ally in bu-reaucratic battles against industry. Thus, although Ukrainian industrieswere required to submit an environmental impact statement (EIS) fordevelopment projects, they also were able to pressure the Ukrainian en-vironment ministry to waive its standards and to accept their plans. Ac-cording to one official at the environment agency, independent EISs con-ducted by environmental groups along with public pressure were wel-comed as an aid to the beleaguered agency in enforcing its regulations.15A deputy of the Latvian environmental agency told a local paper that hisagency must make a major effort to consolidate the various movementsand organizations of the Greens.16 The general director of Moldovasenvironmental agency went much further: We will utterly and com-pletely support any movement to protect the environment, includingthrough rallies, strikes and picket lines. Said I. I. Deyu, formerly a pro-fessor at Moldova State University, We are trying to do it in a way thatpeople trust us.17

    Evidence of a growing alliance between government environmentalofficials and the environmental movement also can be seen in theplethora of ecology-oriented newspapers that have sprung up. By jointlypublishing newspapers, environmental groups can gain access to statepublishing facilities, and officials seek to tap into the popularity and re-spect earned by these organizations. In 1991, the Moldovan environmen-tal agency announced that it was publishing an ecological newspaper,Abe natura, jointly with the Moldovan Green movement.18 The Kurganoblast Committee for the Protection of Nature joined with the localbranch of the All-Russian Society for the Protection of Nature to publishEkologicheskaya gazeta (The Ecological Newspaper). The RSFSR environ-

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    mental agency teamed up with the Ekopress information and publishingassociation to put out Zelenyi mir (Green World).

    ENVIRONMENTALISM STRIKES THE ECONOMY

    Rising protests in the 1980s had a strong impact on the regions econ-omy, as environmentalists began to demand a rapid solution t