When I lived in Waterbury, Vermont, in the late 1980s I attended a bluegrass concert in the park one summer evening. The band (its name escapes me) had recently returned from a Vermont Arts Council/ State Department-type cultural exchange trip to the then Soviet Union. During a break in the music, a couple of the musicians told the assembled crowd of Boomer hippies about the trip; the bass player showing off a souvenir, which was a lapel pin fastened to his shirt pocket. It was small, gold-colored, and bore the likeness of Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, known to history by the notorious nom de guerre of “Lenin.” The bass player told the crowd, “Lenin was their original leader. He was the Russian George Washington.”
I’m always reminded of this when yet another Earth Day approaches (always on April 22). Most people, especially school kids, participating in the annual green fetish don’t know that it only dates to 1970, the first one held on the centenary of Lenin’s birth (April 22, 1870). The Earth Day back-story is that the Lenin anniversary was purely coincidental, at least according to the occasion’s two founders, the late Senator Gaylord Nelson (D-Wisc.) and environmental activist Denis Hayes. Fine, it’s a coincidence.
But if indeed there is even a subtle connection, I wonder how many of the millions worldwide participating in Earth Day festivities actually know who Lenin was? Do the ones who do have an inkling know that he was one of history’s great monsters, a cold-blooded nihilist whose minions and successors were responsible for the deaths of scores of millions, and the sufferings of many more? But Earth Day as a holy-day-of-obligation of the Left (like May Day) has its ironies even if you put aside lethal political expediencies.
The Soviet Union under the green thumb of Joseph Stalin in the 1920s and ’30s collectivized agriculture, thus starving millions of Russian and Ukrainian peasants who up until then had solid reputations as, well, organic farmers. With his infamous “Five Year Plans” Stalin also forced the rapid industrialization of Russia that left it with a legacy of belching smokestacks, dirty skies, fouled rivers, and — in a Soviet version of “smart growth” — thousands of those dreary gray apartment buildings known for poor plumbing and lousy electrical service.
Following Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev gave his tyrant-numbed people the infamous “Virgin Lands Campaign” (1954-1962), when he “relocated” 300,000 Russians and Ukrainians to Soviet Central Asia (mostly present Kazakhstan) to plow the vast steppe and grow wheat. After one good harvest, drought and Soviet agricultural policy combined to produce windblown erosion on a grand scale, turning the region into a Dust Bowl. By the early 1960s the Soviets were importing grain, mostly from Canada.
In China, Chairman Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” (his own second “Five Year Plan”: 1958-1963) aped the Stalinist model and starved tens of millions of those pesky peasants, as industrialization accelerated. Maybe “A Hundred Flowers” bloomed, but not much else. Mao remedied these excesses with the discipline of the subsequent Cultural Revolution, when he sent academics, intellectuals, and Communist Party higher-ups into the countryside as farm laborers. I’ve always liked this aspect of the Cultural Revolution. Imagine Ivy League professors spending their summers in Iowa shucking corn at gunpoint. Mao was on to something. But sadly, part of the Great Helmsman’s monstrous legacy is that much of China today suffers hideous pollution problems, so much so that it famously shut down factories weeks before last year’s Olympic Games to clear the skies, and athletes wearing surgical masks commonly appeared in the media. Lately — and to the chagrin of international greenies — the Chinese have completed the infamous Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River, where they removed 1.25 million people elsewhere, and flooded archaeological sites and 13,000 farms to do it.
In Cambodia in 1975, those admirers of Maoist agricultural methods, the Khmer Rouge, sent much of the population of Phnom Penh and elsewhere hoe-in-hand to the boonies, and in the end 1.5 million didn’t come back, notably university-educated French-speakers who wore glasses.
All of the above should tell us that you don’t have to be the late Milton Friedman to know that free market capitalist economies have cleaner environments. Private property rights encourage it. If you own a backyard, there is a built-in incentive to keep it clean because it’s yours.
So, Happy Earth Day, Vladimir Ilyich. Maybe President Obama and the Democrat Congress will get around to proclaiming your Earth Day Birthday a national holiday sometime. It’s an ersatz one anyway.