Environmental Ethics
and Public Policy
Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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Classical Guitar:
"The Other Profession




A Conversation with Sviatoslav Zabelin


Sviatoslav Igorovich Zabelin is the Co-Chair of the Council of the Socio-Ecological Union. (There is no "Chairman," he tells me: "we are all equals here"). The Socio-Ecological Union now represents over 290 environmental organizations, located in Russia and eleven other republics of the former Soviet Union, in addition to Scotland, the Czech Republic, Finland, Palestine, Norway, Spain and the United States.

Zabelin is thus described by Oleg Yanitsky, in his book, Russian Environmentalism:

Zabelin is one of the few leaders who combine the capacities of a scientist and of a professional politician with those of an individual possessing civic virtues of a high caliber. With an open and accessible manner, he communicates readily with almost anyone, preferring to listen rather than talk. Zabelin is never overbearing in taking decisions, and never exploits his authority as adviser to an official leader of the movement, preferring to rely on the movement's collective experience and on scientific data.

Educated as a biologist at Moscow State University, Sviatoslav Zabelin served for eighteen years with the "Nature Protection Corps," first as an undergraduate and eventually as the president of movement's Coordinating Council, moving on in 1979 to work for seven years at a nature reserve in Turkmenia. Zabelin was a leading figure in the founding of the Socio-Ecological Union in 1989. From 1991 to 1993, he served in the Yeltsin government as a State Councilor on environmental and health protection issues. In 1993 Zabelin was awarded the prestigious Goldman Prize for environmental activism.

We visited Zabelin  July 12, 1999,  at the Moscow office of the Socio-Ecological Union, where we taped the following conversation.

This year, the Socio-Ecological Union is celebrating the tenth anniversary of its founding conference. What circumstances and purposes led to the founding of the SEU?

Zabelin: Those who founded the SEU were members of the "druzhinas" or the student "nature guardian" movement. This, you will recall, was the time of perestroika. Two years earlier, in 1987, there were over 100 nature druzhina organizations. With perestroika, we began to organize adult groups as well, to deal not only with nature preservation problems but also with a full spectrum of environmental issues such as pollution - with a focus on "my" immediate environment, not just a distant nature preserve.

Gadfly: But shouldn't nature protection be regarded as an issue within this broader spectrum?

Zabelin: From a general point of view, perhaps. But practically speaking, issues like pollution bring environmental questions "home" to the public - as close as the air we breathe. We also understood that the issues of nature and wildlife protection could also serve as a means to alert the public to larger environmental issues.

Gadfly: How was this new movement organized?

Zabelin: We choose a horizontal "network" structure, rather than the hierarchical ("pyramid") that was the tradition of the Soviet-style bureaucratic state. Simultaneously, about a half-dozen "all-Union" environmental organizations were emerging which did, in fact, adopt the hierarchical structure. One in particular emerged out of the "Komsomol" (Young Communist) establishment, apparently with hopes of attaining financial support from the Party apparatus. But when Komsomol faded with the demise of the Soviet Union, so too did this organization. Of all these nascent non-governmental environmental federations, only ours survived.

Our success, I believe, was due to our motivation to be independent, to extend beyond the original student community, and yet to develop the environmental movement through the experience gained through thirty years of the student nature protection movement.

Gadfly: In those early days, the sixties and seventies, how were the conservation groups able to achieve independence from the Communist Party and the government?

Zabelin: Easily. First of all, these groups had no "head," and thus no point at which the Party could exert control. Also, these activities - e.g., the inspection of hunting and fisheries, etc. - were not politically significant. And finally, the Party did not perceive this a loose network of nature conservation groups as a national movement.

Gadfly: So while these groups had Komsomol or university affiliations, as far as the Party was concerned it was enough that they were involving the youth in "socially useful" activities, and nature-protection was not seen as particularly "subversive."

Zabelin: Exactly!

Gadfly: So in 1987 you decided to shift your emphasis from nature conservation to broader environmental issues?

Zabelin: But remember that at that time the student conservation movement existed independently from the Socio-Ecological Union, though many of us who founded the SEU were former members of this movement. We proposed an organization to serve a different social group, to promote different activities, and to address different objectives. After all, these were citizens who were concerned about air pollution, radioactive contamination, Chernobyl, dams and river control - the big projects.

Gadfly: Was this shift in emphasis and concern made possible by perestroika and glasnost?

Zabelin: Certainly. Before then, we tried to do it many times, but we failed.

Gadfly: What are the foremost objectives of the SEU today?

Zabelin: Our main objective is the support of local initiatives. We have a cadre of a thousand activist individuals (not all of them SEU members) who offer that support, and we print and distribute ten thousand copies of our Newsletter. By "support" I mean that we give these local groups the means, most particularly information, to carry out their activities. In addition, we promote inter-connection, to help these groups become acquainted with each other - to exchange practical experience and give each other moral support. - to let each know, "I am not alone, I am not crazy, it is not hopeless."

Gadfly: And to let each other know that action and initiative occasionally succeeds!

Zabelin: Yes! And in addition, we advise our members of available resources - legal procedures, e-mail contacts, agencies and foundations, etc.

Gadfly: A few years ago I interviewed Oleg Yanitsky. He told me then that electronic communication had an important role in maintaining and extending the community of environmental organizations in the FSU.

Zabelin: Certainly. This was a factor.

Gadfly: What do you see as the greatest obstacle to environmental reform in Russia today?

Zabelin: Perhaps I have an untraditional approach to that question. In my view, post-Soviet society is in a separate category than the rest of the industrialized world.

Imagine a "normal distribution curve" (also called a "bell curve") with the horizontal axis as the historical time line, from left to right. The vertical axis represents resource consumption or "throughput." The United States, western Europe and Japan (the "developed countries" or "DCs") are, with their maximized consumption of resources, at the apex of this curve - an unsustainable position. To the left of the "DCs", on the "upward slope," are the so-called "developing countries" which are aspiring, in a few cases with some short-term success, to imitate the US by increasing its resource consumption. To the right, on the "downward slope," is Russia which, having passed its apex of consumption under communism, is now well into an era of ever-decreasing consumption. Given the limits of the earth, the other countries are bound to follow. Like it or not, Russia is the "leader" in this regard.

Gadfly: Do you see any opportunity for Russia to reverse this trend - put itself back on an "upward slope."

Zabelin: No. Nor should it. This is the necessary historical trend, the normal path in the development of all social systems. Industrial civilization is a self-destroying system. But Russia has the ability to survive the crisis of "the limits of growth" (as the Club or Rome described it).

But when we are asked, "what must we do to survive the present crisis?," that question is posed with the presupposition that Russia is on the left side of that curve, and that the solution to the crisis here is to recover and implement the mechanisms of increased consumption, by improving mismanagement, by ending political corruption, and by finding still more technical solutions. But none of this is the solution to Russia's economic, social and environmental problems or, for that matter, for the emerging problems of the United States and the world economy. It is not, for the simple reason that the established system of modern industrialized society is incapable of dealing with the limits of consumption and of growth.

Gadfly: So, I understand you to be saying that there is no solution in the sense of achieving the western standard of living, or even of reversing this decline in consumption. Rather, the solution must be for the Russians to learn to live within the biotic and resource limits of the planet.

Zabelin: The solution now, as in the case of all previous historical systemic crises, is to find new resources - and by this I mean, not material resources, but human and institutional resources. Consider: when primitive hunter-gatherers became too numerous to be sustained by the available prey, they domesticated plants and animals, developed agriculture and settled into permanent communities. And when established agricultural methods no longer sufficed, mankind discovered and developed fossil fuels and the industrial revolution was born. Today, industrial civilization, as it reaches its limits, is about to run its course, and a new revolution is upon us.

Gadfly: What, then, do you see as this next stage of human civilization?

Zabelin: It will be an era of information and spirituality - a time of decreased material consumption, and of recycling of available resources. As people discover spiritual values, they will demand less material resources. This will be the next stage of civilization, though nobody knows what will be the price of this transition.

Gadfly: Henry David Thoreau, Mohandas Gandhi and Leo Tolstoy, among many others, observed that human material dissatisfaction can be thought of as a fraction. The usual mode of response is to seek satisfaction by attempting to increase the "numerator" of wealth and possessions. However, they said, the wiser course of action is to achieve satisfaction by reducing the "denominator" of demand.

Zabelin: Of course - the solution is to demand less. And this will bring about a profound change. There is no limit to demands, for even the wealthiest individuals want still more. Indeed, their demands seem to increase with their wealth. Unlimited demands in a limited world? This is a prescription for disaster. But if, on the other hand, we are moving to a society based upon information and spiritual values, there are truly no limits. I have never met an individual who was too wise or too virtuous.

Gadfly:  So this new society will have a vastly different economic system?

Zabelin: Certainly!  Everything will be changed. It must be. And this transformation will involve deep crises and tragedies for billions of people.

Gadfly: Then, you see Russia as a leader in this transition, though not by choice?

Zabelin: The Soviet Union moved forcefully into the consumptive-industrial mode of economy. But it was the same with capitalism. Both systems used and wasted enormous resources. Both acted as if natural resources were unlimited. In Russia today we are encountering the bleak fact that natural resources not unlimited. Thus we just might possibly choose to deal appropriately with the limits so clearly before us.

Gadfly: It is interesting to reflect upon the similarities between the United States and Russia. Both arose alongside what appeared to be limitless frontiers - to the west of the United States, and to the east of Russia. From this historical experience, both acquired a careless attitude toward nature and its resources - an attitude that an island nation such as England might not have. And the most reckless use by both, of course, was the arms race.

Let's move on to another question. Do you believe that there is much support in Russia for environmental reform, outside of the SEU of course?

Zabelin: No support from the "official" organs of society. The environment has a very low priority in all levels of the government.

Gadfly: But isn't this condition a change from the official attitudes a decade ago, during the final days of the Soviet Union when Nikolai Vorontsov was the Minister of Environmental Protection?

Zabelin: Perestroika was a time when new ideas and adaptations were being seriously considered, and there were some attempts then to promote dialog and to effect reform. But sadly, this did not last very long. Very soon the authorities came to believe that money was much more important than dialog with the public.

Gadfly: I notice that Alexey Yablokov, another Co-Chair of SEU and a man that I very much admire, is no longer a member of President Yeltsin's administration. Is this because he feels that he can work more effectively outside the Government? And if so, is he correct in this judgment?

Zabelin: Yes, on both counts. As you may know, I served as his assistant deputy in the Administration.

Gadfly: Do you see any hope for change in this regard? Is there any chance that the Russian government might renew its interested in protecting the environment?

Zabelin: No chance - and for the reasons just explained. We are facing the need to develop and adopt a new system, and the government is bound to the old system - not the "system" of communism, but the western-style system of constant growth. Because the new system must be radically different, the present system is more and more irrelevant. After all, the interests of the government and its supporters are contrary to the trends of history. Politicians can only think and act in terms of the old system - in terms of putting Russia back on the "left-hand, upward slope" of our diagram. They fail to realize that, in the present economic and social circumstances, this is a hopeless policy.

And yet, the ordinary Russian citizens do seem to realize this. I published a book expressing these ideas, and it has passed from hand-to-hand among ordinary people. But when I present these ideas to top-level officials like Yavlinsky, it becomes clear that they have a block against even considering these ideas. And that is understandable, since in the "post-industrial" system (the "right-hand slope") they simply have no place.

Gadfly: My friend, Alexander Karpov (St. Petersburg Society of Naturalists), conveyed to me your concern that the West was looking greedily at the vast store of natural resources in Russia - that the West was interested in making Siberia and much of Russia what you call a "resource colony." Do you see this as a problem?

Zabelin: Yes, this is a problem. But it is a problem for the West as well as Russia. The problem arises out of the political situation here. The post-Soviet society is a non-legal society - the old legal institutions simply do not work. Legislation is simply ignored. Officials from the President on down do not follow the letter of the laws, nor are they guided by the laws. How then can firms or individuals plan and manage their activities? But then, when foreign firms go outside their own countries, they also operate non-legally and extra-legally. And this is especially true in Russia.

Gadfly: So the attraction of Russia (and other countries) to foreign firms, is that in Russia these firms are not as legally constrained as they would be in their own countries?

Zabelin: Yes. Very often these firms express, in the popular press, the view that they would like to work abroad under a well-defined legal system, and with a clearer understanding of "the rules of the game." But that is just public relations. They don't really mean it.

Gadfly: Why would "resource colonization" be a problem for the West (the "colonizers") as well as Russia (the "colony")?

Zabelin: Because we have a global flow of pollution. We live, that is to say, on a single planet. The atmosphere and the oceans do not recognize national boundaries. Somehow the multi-national corporations don't see this. They think of pollution in terms of local dumping of toxic chemicals. But the greatest threat is not the toxic chemicals, it is the greenhouse gases. And these, through climate change, affect the entire world.

Gadfly: Many of us in the west have been concerned about the deteriorating condition of Russian science and scholarship. I am personally acquainted with several professors and researchers who are working under extraordinarily difficult conditions. I find this alarming, since, to use a western expression, these individuals are "the canaries in the mine" - the harbingers of dangerous conditions ahead. In the United States, it was scientists such as Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, Garrett Hardin and Paul Ehrlich who first alerted the public to the environmental crisis. So we must wonder if, in Russia, the scientists are well-situated to sound similar warnings.

Zabelin: As both a scientist and an activist, I have mixed feelings about the conditions of the academics and intelligentsia in Russia today. As an activist, I feel that for the short term, we have the necessary facts - we don't need to investigate further. However, when we face new problems, such as genetic engineering, we need highly qualified assistance, and it may not be there when we need it.

Gadfly: Shouldn't activists be concerned about the decline of influence by the scientists? After all, weren't the crucial environmental problems of the past brought to the attention of the public by the scientists?

Zabelin: This was so because of the social status of the scientists.

Gadfly: But hasn't that status and influence of the Russian scientists been affected by their loss of voice, prestige, income, and so forth.? Doesn't that present a problem?

Zabelin: Indeed it does, for now the influence of scientists upon the authorities is effectively zero, quite apart from the declining social status of the academics. As a result, we now have no real intellectual leadership - no informed voices that will be heard by the authorities. Yes, we have intellectuals. But they have been effectively isolated from the political leaders.

Gadfly: What caused this disconnection?

Zabelin: It was a change of the "instruments" with which the power structure deals with the community. Instruments such as the mass media, public relations - devices that are implemented by money rather than by ideas and arguments.

Gadfly: Isn't the problem of the decline of influence of the intellectuals two-fold: not only their loss of leverage with the authorities, but also their loss of contact with the public? While a scientifically informed public might respond appropriately to an ecological emergency, a public saturated with mass media and manipulated by public relations techniques will ignore the warnings and be ill-prepared to deal with emergencies.

Zabelin: Yes, but there are two sides to this situation. On the one hand, there is the lack of respect for intellect on the part of the mass public. On the other hand, there is the lack of response by the authorities to the concerns of the intellectuals. They are reinforcing phenomena, for in the first place the authorities thus feel no pressure "from below," and reciprocally, the public sees no use in trying to influence the authorities. The public and the authorities, so to speak, are mutually detached.

During the Soviet times, published views of the "top level" scientists were taken very seriously. (But always remember, that these views had to be within "accepted bounds" since the state controlled the press). These opinions resulted in official action. But when the Soviet system collapsed, the views of the scientists fell upon deaf ears, both officially and publicly. Of course, the status of the social scientists was not helped by the fact that they were quite unprepared to explain the upheaval in the social system of their own country.

Gadfly: We have a similar situation in the United States, though in our case it is less a failure of the government (though that too is serious, most acutely with the Congress) and more a failure of the public to respond to scientific evidence and opinion. Sadly, our public is not scientifically sophisticated - not, for example, when over half refuses to believe in the theory of evolution. This problem is compounded by a lack of critical skills among the public, and thus with opinions expressed all over the spectrum, from scientifically warranted opinion to far-out nonsense, the public lacks a "critical filter" that will lead them to a recognition of urgent public issues amidst the "noise" of popular culture. The primary culprits, I believe, are mass media and commercially motivated public relations campaigns. The solution in both our countries, it seems to me, is a sound scientific education. And this is the source of my concern about the decline of science and scholarship in Russia today - and not just in Russia, I would urgently add.

Zabelin: We hope that this decline in academic status and prestige is temporary. An encouraging sign is the increasing interest of the young people in their higher education.

Gadfly: Now that is very good news! Of course, it would help if the young felt that there were economic and career advantages to pursuing higher education.

Let's move on now to another issue. What do you see as the best means to promote cooperation between the SEU and environmentally concerned Russian citizens, on the one hand, and people and NGOs with a similar point of view in the West and elsewhere in the world? How might we best work together?

Zabelin: First and foremost we must develop mutual understanding. It is important for the local groups to appreciate that they are not alone on the global level - that these are not just Russian problems, and that there are solutions to these problems. In addition, because of your privileged position on that "historical curve" that I described, you have resources that we don't have to address global problems that are common to us all.

Gadfly: So we should focus on common interests!

Zabelin: Of course. Climate change, biodiversity, and the search for a new and sustainable life-style. For our part, we are experimenting with sustainable "eco-villages." Perhaps we may find something through this experiment that might be of use to you.

Gadfly: You mentioned the need for mutual understanding, and of course I completely agree. What, then, do you see as the most significant misunderstanding that the West, and Americans in particular, have concerning Russia and the Russian environment?

Zabelin: In general, ordinary Americans look upon Russia as a failed United States - that all we need to succeed is to be more like you. So they come to us with schemes that might be useful in the United States (and perhaps not, for that matter), and with little regard for our historical and cultural contexts. Of course, the real situation is much more complex.

When you and I first met six years ago, we in Russia had a very limited comprehension of the spectrum of American and Western attitudes and organizations. And we had very little communication with the "grass roots" of your society. Thus it was very difficult for us, on both sides, to recognize our common interests.

Gadfly: So, in the interests of mutual understanding, we should develop contacts with a wider spectrum of both of our societies? We should search out and focus upon common problems, such as global warming?

Zabelin: In addition, we must find ways to establish genuine self-government, on the very local level.

Gadfly: What is the role of global communications in the development of mutual understanding. It is, to be sure, a remarkable phenomenon. For example, with satellite communications I can turn on a TV in a hotel room almost anywhere in the world, and find an English language broadcast from Atlanta or Washington DC.

Zabelin: I am not impressed. It is too simple, and it is not conveying the message that we need to hear. These are, after all, commercial enterprises, and they are promoting consumerism and consumption. They give out their message, but they do not take in information and adapt to the new world conditions. Thus they are the problem, not the solution. They are not facilitating the appropriate mutual understanding between nations and peoples.

Gadfly: I understand and share your concern, for I see this consumerism taking hold in Russia. But this message aside, the medium affords an opportunity for communication and mutual understanding, albeit it is an opportunity that it not being realized today.

Zabelin: Sometimes yes, sometimes no.

Gadfly: I first became familiar with your esteemed colleague, Prof. Yablokov, through commercial American television. About a dozen years ago, the now-retired American "talk show host," Phil Donahue, teamed-up with Vladimir Pozner of Soviet Gosteleradio to present live discussions with audiences in New York and Moscow. On one of these programs, Alexey Yablokov gave an eloquent plea for cooperative action by both our societies in the face of a common global ecological crisis. I was very moved and very impressed, and thought to myself, "now there is a man that I would like very much to meet," and eventually I did.

This media exchange took place during the exciting era of glasnost, and I must report, with great regret, that we have seen nothing remotely like this since then. For now, American commercial Television (and Public TV too, for that matter), has become what you have described: a self-serving promoter of the consumer economy.

Zabelin: Yes, media could be a very positive force. But I see little prospect for this. Now it is far more a negative force.

Gadfly: Aside from commercial media, about which I share your concerns, there is the development of electronic communication - e-mail and the internet. Aren't these potentially positive tools in the hands of the global environmental movement? For example, my current visit to Russia would have been much less productive without the advantages of ongoing and almost instant communication with my Russian colleagues, including yourself, of course.

Zabelin: Surely you don't mean that the SEU needed computers to get started. After all, we were founded several years before computers became available to us.

Gadfly: No, what I meant was that, once established, computer networking became a valuable tool in the hands of the SEU - a means of maintaining and solidifying your gains by coordinating activities among the member organizations, and with supporters around the world.

Zabelin: Well, yes. Once SEU was established, e-mail became a very useful device, especially with our communication with the global environmental community.

Gadfly: I would like next to bring up a matter very much on your mind these days: namely, the legal difficulties of two Russian naval officers, Alexander Nikitin and Grigorii Pasko. What do these cases represent, and what is the role of SEU and its supporters in the west in securing a happy outcome?

Zabelin: Both cases involve the distribution of information about radioactive pollution, in Nititin's case in the North Sea, and in Pasko's case in the Sea of Japan. Each officer acted officially as he collected information about these conditions, and each attempted to disclose the information to the world community. Note the contrast with the Soviet era. In Soviet times, environmental activities (by "nature conservationists," you will recall), were officially permitted. But now, these two cases show us that environmental activity has been selected by our authorities as pretexts for the prosecution of all kinds of social activities. They are, so to speak, "test cases."

Why the authorities have chosen to do so, I just don't understand. After all, both cases have attracted international notoriety. The Euro-parliament has protested, as has your Vice President, Al Gore. Just like the complaints about the "prisoners of conscience" during the Soviet era.

Now both cases involve the "nuclear establishment" in Russia, which happens to be struggling for its survival - because they are very hazardous and because they are connected with the military.

So this may be a panic reaction by the nuclear establishment. Maybe. There just seems to be no reasonable alternative explanation for this reaction.

Gadfly: From what I understand from reading your excellent newsletter, the SEU Times, these two individuals have appealed their cases to the courts, which is to say that they have looked to the rule of law for relief. Now the rule of law may not be as secure in Russia as it is in the West, but still this seems to be a hopeful aspect of these cases. After all, it never happened during the Soviet era. Do you see any possibility of a happy outcome to these cases?

Zabelin: Not soon. For the very fact that these accusations are unreasonable, it will be very difficult for the authorities to admit that they are wrong. If these accusations were reasonable, we might calculate what the authorities might do. Unfortunately, this is not the case.

Gadfly: Does the foreign press, or public or official opinion, have a useful function to serve in behalf of Nikitin and Pasko?

Zabelin: All this is useful, for without this expression of opinion it seems to me that Nikitin would now be in prison. Over 16,000 messages of protest have been sent in the Pasko case. [See addendum, below. Gadfly].

Gadfly: In conclusion, do you have any general or closing comments for our "browsers."

Zabelin: Just that it is a delight to see you again and in good health.

Gadfly: And I sincerely return those sentiments. On behalf of the readers of The Online Gadfly I thank you for you time and for a very insightful interview. I look forward to transcribing this, and putting it on the internet for you to read, along with your friends and admirers in the United States and around the world. It is a privilege to be able to speak with you again, and to share your wisdom and experience with our readers.

Sviatoslav Zabelin may be contacted at: svet@glasnet.ru.

Gadfly's Addendum, January 2, 2000.

Fortunately, Zabelin's pessimism regarding the Pasko and Nikitin cases has since proven to be unwarranted. On July 20, about a week after our interview with Zabelin, Grigorii Pasko was released from prison, and acquitted of the charge of treason. He was convicted of the charge of "misapplying his position" but granted amnesty. Even so, Pasko intends to appeal that conviction. Alexander Nikitin was acquitted by a St. Petersburg court on December 29, 1999.  

(April, 2000):  The Federal Security Bureau appealed the verdict to the Supreme Court of Russia, which upheld the acquittal in April.

Both cases have been extensively reported in the SEU Times, included in this web site. We have collected the SEU TIMES reports in an "Archive" edition. See also the January, 2000 editorial: "The Rule of Law Comes to  Russia."

Copyright 1999, by Ernest Partridge

Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).  Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: gadfly@igc.org .