A Moment in Time

The collapse of the Berlin Wall caught the world by surprise. Is the GFC another of those pivotal moments we only see clearly in retrospect, asks Adrian Glamorgan?

The collapse of the Berlin Wall caught the world by surprise. Is the GFC another of those pivotal moments we only see clearly in retrospect, asks Adrian Glamorgan?

One cold November 11 night 22 years ago, thousands of West Germans headed down towards the dreaded Berlin Wall to witness history. An eyewitness who drove from Denmark, Andreas Ramos, described how when he got closer to the East German border, the traffic got heavy.

Environmentally conscious West Germans stopped their cars to reduce fumes and, as the traffic went forward, would push their cars along the road, bit by bit. But from the other side, the liberated East Germans coming from the other direction stayed in their tail-finned Trabants, keeping these retro trademark cars revving characteristically, filling the air with smoke and catching the light of thousands of headlights. They came through, cars full of smiling faces, their polluting engines a relic of the ecocidal practices of Communism.

The Berlin Wall came down. The Stasi secret police couldn't stop it, even though they had dossiers supplied by one third of their citizens. The formidable East German army couldn't stop the protestors knocking down the Wall, despite all the weapons and the threat of missiles stacked up in their Cold War armoury. The Soviets didn't stop it, for President Gorbachev envisioned a new kind of society without chains.

No one saw this collapse of Communism coming. Not the Soviet economic planners, with all their obscure theory of surplus value; not the peace and environmental groups in East Germany providing the backbone for resistance against the state itself; not the KGB, with their spy equipment and informants; not the Central Intelligence Agency: no one. It was for many, a miracle. The freed Easterners streamed across the border, inhaled the air of freedom, and began to join with their Western brothers and sisters (sometimes literally) to build a united country.

Communism collapsed and once it did, the full extent of environmental devastation was shamefully obvious. Though their leaders criticised capitalism because of our supposed corporate focus on profit instead of people, one-party states went ahead and polluted rivers, contaminated air, soured soil, and drained inland seas.

The US Blacksmith Institute "Dirty Thirty" report in 2007 identified the 30 worst polluted cities in the world and former Soviet Union cities, for all of their agitprop triumphalism of a new world for the worker, featured high up in environmental atrocities on working people.

Sumgayit, Azerbaijan, once a significant producer of petrochemicals, has a population with 39% more laryngeal cancer, 150% more bladder cancer, and 15% more cancer overall than Azerbaijan generally. Mailuu-suu, Kyrgyzstan, contaminated by the radioactive and heavy metal waste from uranium mining, experiences twice as many people with cancer as elsewhere. Then, in the top 10, there is the city of Chernobyl. Since the 1986 fire in the nuclear reactor, there have been more than 4000 cases of thyroid cancer in children, with skin lesions and breast cancer in the surrounding Ukraine and Russia.

For all this environmental criminality, we cannot ignore how the West has also contributed to the loss of habitats and its injury to humans. The London smog of the early 1950s killed thousands of people, but unlike a commissar system without political room to move, this event led to the cleaning up of at least some aspects of particulate pollution. The contamination at Love Canal on Lake Erie likewise killed and hurt people, but it led to the Superfund sites in the United States. Erin Brockovich had to fight the company, but the people won.

But the worst effects of Western pollution are usually to be found furthest away, in former colonies.

After independence, economic policies laid down by groups such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank pressured Third World elites to head towards industrialism that benefited wealthier countries. Through advice or structural adjustment, subsistence farming was ripped up to ensure that the West got environmentally unsustainable cheap coffee and tea from forest-clearing plantations. Mining companies searched for ore in far off places knowing they could deny the far off workers any protection of occupational health and safety or environmental standards. The Bhopal Gas disaster in India, for example, killed 2259 people immediately and exposed hundreds of thousands to methyl isocyanate gas. The Philippines, conquered by the United States in the early 1900s, became especially polluted once companies took advantage of an impoverished workforce and a compliant legislature - witness the sky high wall of pollution as you fly towards Luzon.

Closer to home, BHP Billiton departed from its involvement with Ok Tedi mine in the North Fly District of Papua New Guinea. An estimated 50,000 people rely on the Ok Tedi River, but have had their fishing and food gardens affected by the discharge of mining waste, and the collapse of the tailings dam. BHP Billiton has gone and the mine closes next year, but the Ningerum people will have to wait an estimated 300 years to finalise the clean up of toxic contamination from arsenic, copper, zinc and other heavy metals. China, as we know, has massive pollution problems, but they are producing cheap products for Western homes. And we show no sign of declining to buy products they make because of what they - and we - are doing to our shared planet.

In Australia, our unemployment is historically high and housing affordability dismally low, yet we are still relatively well off. But in other places, there is greater disappointment and disbelief in the libertarian disciples of Ayn Rand, who solved every crisis in the market by just making money cheaper and shouted down regulation of the money lenders until the GFC left Greenspan in "shocked disbelief".

Since then, the merchant bankers and CEOs are still receiving bonuses, regardless of the damage to their own companies, or the superannuation funds that were meant to provide for millions of people's retirement. In Europe, the PIGS' (Portugal, Ireland, Greece, Spain) economies are under severe pressure because untenable corporate and government practices went on without hindrance because somehow the market was going to provide. In Greece, before the current austerity measures took effect, they had already closed 3,000 schools - yes, before they took on these new draconian measures. The price of this will be paid for years to come.

The mood of the Occupy Wall Street folk is not just about any one thing: the protest is about everything. They claim to speak for the 99% of the population who don't benefit. They have been shut out by a Berlin Wall that has no border guards or barbed wire, only rules of the game: affecting housing affordability, jobs, health care, the gnawing disparity between rich and poor, the militarism and the latest evidence of environmental damage, not least of all the changing of our climate.

The poster of protest has a dancer balanced delicately above the raging stock exchange bull. They are inspired by the Arab Spring, but they have no solution, only questions, and a general attitude of quizzicality that the current economic system will provide us with any trustworthy answers.

When the Berlin Wall came down, it was a total surprise: looking back, explicable because the Soviet-style economy was inherently inefficient and corruptible. By comparison, the Global Financial Crisis may mark the West's own moment of doubt growing into disbelief about a system that fails so many. If so, there are no simple steps forward, no glib manual of revolution, no alternative on the other side of the checkpoint we can sightsee from our smoky Trabis. Just a disbelief, not without trepidation: a doubt about the way things have been.