Environmental Politics in Poland

A Social Movement between Regime and Opposition

by Barbara Hicks. New York. Columbia University Press. 1996. xvii + 263 pages. Paper. $15.50.

Thomas C. Jagiella

Professor Hicks' analysis of the Polish environmental movement is ambitious. She attempts to address three somewhat disparate aspects of the problem. First, she examines the role of the environmental movement as the Polish state attempted to control grass roots activism. Second, she analyzes the role of the independent environmental movement in the postcommunist Polish state. Third, she provides a running commentary of Polish environmental politics.

As is often the case when an author addresses disparate topics in a short work, Professor Hicks does greater justice to some at the expense of others. Her greatest success is her compilation of a large set of facts regarding Polish environmental organizations, legislation, demonstrations, and controversies. She provides a useful taxonomy of these facts.

In Chapter Three, "The Structure of Environmental Protection: Legal Provisions and Administration," Hicks details the milestones in Polish environmental protection. She rightly observes that in Soviet-occupied Poland, as well as in other Soviet-occupied countries, a fundamental lack of the rule of law rendered any official acts directed at environmental protection futile. So long as the ruling oligarchy did not see environmental protection as a worthy goal, any environmentally motivated obstructions to economic or military objectives were swept aside. Rather than protect the environment, central planning 'actually coalesced the forces against regulation and control of environmental destruction.'

In Poland and elsewhere, public support for environmental protection typically wanes when the public recognizes the economic costs.

Another significant contribution is Hicks' adumbration of theories relating to the process of 'normalization', or a process by which the state attempted to restore state socialism in the face of public unrest, with particular emphasis on the role of independent environmental groups.

While Hicks does cite a number of specific instances of environmentally motivated political unrest, she fails to make the case that environmental activism was a major consideration in either the motivations or strategies of the Polish political opposition. She does cite the Chernobyl nuclear accident as an event which helped galvanize opposition not only from without, but also from within the state. However, it is not clear that the reaction to Chernobyl was in the interest of environmental protection as much as it was one of the many manifestations of hostility toward Soviet inefficiency and lack of regard for public well-being.

This lack of a clearly identified connection between the Polish environmental movement and unofficial or official state policy continues through her analysis of postcommunist Poland. One example is provided of opposition to the construction of an aluminum smelter, but this smelter was not on Polish soil, and it would not have provided direct economic benefit to the affected Poles. Hicks lists polling data which purport to show widespread public support for greater environmental protection. However, such polling data are not uncommon. As anyone who has been involved with implementation of environmental policy can attest, public support for environmental protection typically wanes when the public recognizes the economic costs.

The conclusions Hicks draws from the large collection of facts she accumulated are somewhat unsatisfying. Perhaps it is my background as an environmental engineer which biases my reaction to her arguments. She asserts that the causes of environmental degradation in both communist and capitalist countries stem from the same root, 'a general ideology of unlimited economic growth.... [a belief in] human ability to conquer and tame nature for human purposes... [and] a belief in technological solutions.' Professor Hicks does acknowledge the irony that state socialism would appear to be well-suited to protect the environment, yet utterly failed to do so. She also observes that such ecological destruction in a socialist economy indicates that private property is not the root cause of such destruction. However, she claims that it was the state's need to achieve legitimacy through economic development, and not any inherent flaw of state socialism relative to other systems of government, which causedwidespread economic degradation in former communist nations such as Poland. Even more remarkably, Professor Hicks alleges that the Western capitalist countries have similarly failed to protect the environment.

It is unfortunate that such an excellent exposition of historical fact would be burdened by the usual indefensible pablum of environmentalist ideology. Nevertheless, Hicks book is important as an exposition of key facts about the Polish environmental movement and the history of environmental protection in Poland.

Thomas C. Jagiella, PE, is Environmental Engineer/Director of Compliance Republic Group, Inc. in Hutchinson, Kansas, and a PhD candidate in Environmental Engineering at Rice University.

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