Of Watermelons and Tyranny

By Hal Herring

In a long talk with an old friend about the state of the world recently, I learned a new definition for the word “watermelon.” As in, “I used to think that anybody who cared about the environment was just a watermelon, you know, green on the outside, red on the inside. But nowadays, I’ve changed my mind.”

I pondered this. I’m kind of an isolated person in some ways, and I’m often baffled by words and phrases that for more tuned-in people are already old hat. But the idea of being green on the outside and red on the inside was so twisted, so odd, that I have not stopped thinking about it. Who came up with the term? And how does it relate to being a conservationist? “Reds,” ie. the Commies, Socialists, Maoists, Trotskyites, and so on and on ad nauseum, the self-described Big Thinkers who made the 20th century a murderous hell for millions of our fellow human beings, are responsible for the most disastrous ecological atrocities in human history. The first obvious example is surely Josef Stalin, the dull-witted and ruthless dictator of the USSR from 1941 to 1953. Stalin is the definition of a Red, who declared that he and his engineers were on a campaign to “correct nature’s mistakes,” draining swamps, channelizing rivers, clearing forests, pouring out the pollution, killing off the fish and wildlife. Just as Stalin sought to reconfigure human beings into the New Soviet Man (who had no time for hunting and fishing or much else), so he sought to reconfigure the landscape. The result was ecological devastation and massive famine, some intentional, and some not. Among Stalin’s 15-20 million victims were the scientists who tried to explain why his crackpot Commie agricultural theories were not actually going to grow crops. The famines killed an estimated 8 million people. Some historians say that Stalin is to blame for almost 70 million human deaths.

Today, the former Soviet Union, still an autocratic society, is reeling under ongoing environmental catastrophe. By the 1990’s, the Aral Sea, once the fourth largest body of freshwater in the world, was an apocalyptic, duct-blowing wasteland, the victim of yet another crack-pot irrigation scheme. Northern Kazakhstan has been irradiated by nuclear testing and the 19 mile diameter Exclusion Zone around Chernobyl remains uninhabitable, displacing 120,000 people. As soon as Mikhail S. Gorbachev took power in 1985 and began opening up the free flow of information, one of the first things the Russian people did was to demand a halt to what has now been termed the “eco-cide” of the Communist years. But thepeople still do not have the power to demand change: new reports have come in about the ruin of the Arctic by Russian oil companies, , and a 9 page story by David Remnick in a recent New Yorker details the murder and kidnapping of journalists and citizen conservation activists, including a newspaper editor who campaigned to save a section of forest near Moscow from a corrupt road building scheme, and who was beaten into a coma by thugs. A business woman who protested the same road was declared an unfit mother, and had the state threaten to take away her two children. Remnick’s story is a great read

Of the environment in the other vast Red power, Communist China, maybe we all know enough. I’ll just quote here from Wikipedia, and provide the link. “The environment in the People's Republic of China has traditionally been neglected as the country concentrates on its rise as an economic power. Chasing the political gains of economic development, local officials in China often overlook environmental pollution, worker safety and public health problems. Despite a recent interest in environmental reform, pollution has made cancer the leading cause of death in 30 cities and 78 counties, the Ministry of Health says.[1] Lead poisoning is one of the most common pediatric health problems in China. A 2006 review of existing data suggested that one-third of Chinese children suffer from elevated blood lead levels. [2] This lead comes mostly from manufacturing of lead-acid batteries for cars and electric bikes. Only 1 percent of the country’s 560 million city inhabitants (2007) breathe air deemed safe by the European Union.

And China’s water crisis- 90% of the groundwater near cities is polluted, 75% of all rivers and lakes are polluted, 700 million people drink contaminated water every day- has its own Wikipedia page. It’s an ugly read.

You may have gathered by now that I despise Communism and collectivism. That is true. But the common denominator of environmental destruction is not the Red Menace. It is tyranny in all its forms. When the far-right dictator Augusto Pinochet took power in Chile in 1973 (from the elected Marxist President Salvador Allende, who was killed in the coup), his junta immediately created a kind of haven from environmental regulations for the many companies who cut Chile’s forests, fished her seas, and above all, mined her copper. The Water Code of 1981 (also called the “Chilean Model”) turned Chile’s rivers and streams into commodities whose use did not take into account the public’s interest or environmental protection. Not coincidentally, tremendous conflicts arose, but during Pinochet’s reign (1973 – 1990) no dissent from the citizenry was allowed- an estimated 3000 Chileans were murdered by state forces, 30,000 tortured, and 80,000 thrown into prisons. Again, one of the first things the people demanded as soon as Pinochet gave up power in 1990 were environmental protections and a reform of the Water Code. Currently, Chile has a democratically elected government and agencies that work to try and reverse some of the damages from the Pinochet years. But old habits die hard. New plans to dam rivers in Chile’s Patagonia region have resulted in a storm of protests but the dams have nevertheless been approved by the government. Protests against new pipeline construction have been greeted with the traditional and familiar boot-and-rifle-butt.

TIME’s list of the world’s most polluted places

Not to belabor the point, but I’d like to just touch on our neighbor, Mexico, before we wrap it up. The lack of a representative government in Mexico (and I love the country, have traveled most of its length by bus and train and on foot) has resulted in yet another ecological, environmental, and economic catastrophe. Tyranny can come in the form of a strongman like Pinochet, or a homicidal Utopian Commie like Pol Pot or Chairman Mao, or it can come in the form of corrupt government, what has widely become known as the kleptocracy, a government devoted solely to pillaging the wealth of its lands and peoples. Such a situation in Mexico has had predictable results – this video interview paints a brief, clear portrait of the environmental aspects in Mexico (and the speaker notes how a less-aware and poorly educated citizenry is key to the destruction). But tyranny by kleptocracy has another element, too. The result is a massive wave of economic and environmental refugees, at least 11 million of them in this case, headed north to a place where, so far, the government still represents the will of the people, and the people remain free (so far) to raise Cain and have their voices heard.

And that is it, really, isn’t it? Free people demand clean rivers for their children to swim in. Air that will make them strong instead of sick. Beauty to nourish the soul, the kind of beauty found in healthy landscapes, flowing creeks, farms, marshlands, forests, the elegant muscled-up shape of a northern pike or a salmon or a mule deer buck. And nobody is more free than a fisherman taking a week’s worth of fish suppers from a river, a hunter shooting a whitetail to feed her family instead of buying plastic-wrapped mystery meat produced by some huge conglomerate in some far away state or foreign country. Grass fed beef, roasted wild turkey, pan fried brook trout, healthy harvests from healthy dirt. Your river. Your public lands, free for the roaming. Old growth timber, second growth timber, swamp and peak and prairie. There are no real economic tradeoffs to discuss here; environmental destruction is not economic development and it never has been. It is theft. Free people don’t let thieves plunder their nation, even when the thieves are sophisticated enough to call the free people “watermelons” and spend millions trying make those who oppose them the objects of derision.

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