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In al most all modern totalitarian governments, environmental policy is used as an instrument to control society and economic development for the benefit of those in power. Social theorists like Max Weber believe that the roots of totalitarian power can be found in specific environmental conditions of society. These conditions will have a direct impact on rule, necessitating a totalitarian state. Thus, according to this theory, nature itself determined the nature of government.
Alluvial societies (societies based on river irrigation like Egypt) were based on highly-centralized, and most often totalitarian systems of government since the dawn of civilization. The pharaohs ruled Egypt and the great Sumerian and Assyrian kings ruled Mesopotamia for millennia because only a strong ruler could guarantee the effective and efficient maintenance of canals and river irrigation. Recent genetic and archaeological research indicates that throughout most of human evolution, people lived in small bands and roving tribes; it was the growth of river agriculture that transformed this pattern of human existence into vast, centralized civilizations. The totalitarian ruler represented the maintenance of a predictable environmental order. Totalitarian rule is almost always supported by the ruler’s actual or even mythical ability to manipulate nature and the environment.
The powers of even the most influential or charismatic rulers of the ancient past were pale in comparison to the potential power of rulers to harness the environment in modern totalitarian states. Yet, even as the methods are different and potentially far more devastating, the objectives of modern totalitarian environmental policy are almost identical to those of ancient regimes: To prove that the totalitarian ruler not only has power over people but power over nature itself, making resistance to the totalitarian system as futile as resistance to nature itself. By taming the Nile River with the Aswan Dam, Gamal Nasser of Egypt not only tamed a mighty river, but he tamed and controlled a society historically dependent on the Nile for its existence. By draining the marshes of Southern Iraq and fundamentally altering an entire ecosystem, Saddam Hussein eliminated much of the resistance from Marsh Arabs who were resisting his rule.
Often, however, modern totalitarian environmental policies have resulted in disastrous consequences. During the Cultural Revolution, Chairman Mao of China commanded peasants to kill all of the country’s small birds as they were eating grain and crops. This mass culling of birds, however, only led to an even more massive infestation of insects. Gamal Nasser’s Aswan dam has upset the natural balance of flooding, silted up portions of the Nile and has made much of the river undrinkable and dangerous even to touch. The construction of the enormous Three Gorges Dam in China shows that centralized and environmentally risky projects can still be pursued in China’s hybrid command capitalist system. The taming of rivers was also one of the major objectives of Stalin’s rule. Dams and other massive centralized projects not only allowed the efficient, domestic production of electricity and the centralized control of resources, but they also provided the totalitarian ruler with a great deal of prestige. Unlike the pharaohs and kings of the past who called on the gods to bring down the rains, the modern totalitarian need only flip a switch.
Unlike democratic societies, in which environmental policy is often shaped by popular movements to preserve human welfare, totalitarian systems have little regard for long-term environmental consequences. The primary concern of the totalitarian ruler is how environmental policy can enhance the regime’s grip on power.
- Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (London, 1986);
- Juan Linz, Totalitarian and Authoritarian Regimes (London, 2000);
- Max Weber, The Agrarian Sociology of Ancient Civilizations (London, 1976).