Hippy. Tree hugger. Eco-fascist. All terms of abuse for people who care about the environment. A more inventive epithet is ‘water melon’ because environmentalism, while green on the outside, is supposedly red on the inside.

Admittedly, there is some truth to this. The Green Party, for instance, is well to the left of Labour. But anyone who thinks that socialism is good for the environment is deluding themselves.

There are many examples of how centrally planned economies trash the planet, but one of the strangest is the Soviet Union’s war on the whale. In a remarkable essay for the Pacific Standard, Charles Homans tells this previously unknown story, which stretches over decades of needless slaughter.

In the post-war period, the USSR like the other whaling nations was a signatory to “the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling, a 1946 treaty that limited countries to a set quota of whales each year”:

“By the time a ban on commercial whaling went into effect, in 1986, the Soviets had reported killing a total of 2,710 humpback whales in the Southern Hemisphere. In fact, the country’s fleets had killed nearly 18 times that many, along with thousands of unreported whales of other species. It had been an elaborate and audacious deception: Soviet captains had disguised ships, tampered with scientific data, and misled international authorities for decades. In the estimation of the marine biologists Yulia Ivashchenko, Phillip Clapham, and Robert Brownell, it was ‘arguably one of the greatest environmental crimes of the 20th century.’”

While one might suspect a straightforward economic motive, what actually went on defies common sense:

“Environmental crimes are, generally speaking, the most rational of crimes. The upsides are obvious: Fortunes have been made selling contraband rhino horns and mahogany or helping toxic waste disappear…

“The Soviet whale slaughter followed no such logic. Unlike Norway and Japan, the other major whaling nations of the era, the Soviet Union had little real demand for whale products. Once the blubber was cut away for conversion into oil, the rest of the animal, as often as not, was left in the sea to rot or was thrown into a furnace and reduced to bone meal…”

Whereas Japanese whalers used 90% of their kills, the Soviets used just 30%. So what was the point of it all?

The answer lies in the madness of central planning:

“The Soviet whalers… were motivated by an obligation to satisfy obscure line items in the five-year plans that drove the Soviet economy, which had been set with little regard for the Soviet Union’s actual demand for whale products…

“This absurdity stemmed from an oversight deep in the bowels of the Soviet bureaucracy. Whaling, like every other industry in the Soviet Union, was governed by the dictates of the State Planning Committee of the Council of Ministers… the progress of the whaling fleets was measured by the same metric as the fishing fleets: gross product, principally the sheer mass of whales killed.”

“Whaling fleets that met or exceeded targets were rewarded handsomely, their triumphs celebrated in the Soviet press and the crews given large bonuses. But failure to meet targets came with harsh consequences.”

Of course, capitalists do bad things to the environment too – but only in response to rational (if selfish and short-termist) economic incentives. Effective environmental regulation can adjust these incentives, achieving desired outcomes by working with markets and the grain of human nature.

It takes socialism, however, to send men to the ends of the Earth in order to hunt an economically worthless species to the brink of extinction.

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