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The Toxic Legacy of Environmental Neoliberalism

The Toxic Legacy of Environmental Neoliberalism

A look at Poland’s growing ecological disaster — and its polluted past — shows how green ideals can wither on the vine.

At December’s Katowice Climate Change Conference, Polish President Andrzej Duda proudly opened the proceedings by declaring that coal “does not contradict the protection of the climate and the progress of climate protection.”

This bizarre and ecologically immoral statement, and the conference’s general embrace of coal, comes from a country whose history deserves greater attention, especially since it echoes so much of the world’s present situation — and possibly our future.

Since joining the European Union in 2004, the Polish state has doggedly pursued the neoliberal policies of Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman. The “free” market and finance were liberated from state intervention on behalf of the commons and the environment. Limitless economic growth and hyperconsumerism became a mantra. State industries and services were privatized. The economy boomed, and according to Western trade analysts, Polish consumers “are used to doing their shopping seven days a week and at any time of day or night.”

However, this recent history can make it easy to forget that Poles lived under communism for 44 years until 1989. This was an era mostly marked by economic recessions, severe consumer shortages and an absolute condemnation of capitalism. For better or worse, citizens accepted their meager material conditions with stoic resignation, and a few embraced a minimalist lifestyle. Simply put, Polish culture was not driven by mass consumption and materialism. Those were unattainable.

But at the same time, Polish Marxists in the immediate aftermath of a destructive World War were convinced that communism would quickly usher in a proletarian utopia of progress and plenty. Steel mills, aluminum smelting facilities, shipyards and cement plants were constructed in an initial spasm of modernizing dynamism.

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