German President Christian Wulff said that it was his “admirable passion for a global ecological perestroika” that won Mikhail Gorbachev, the last General Secretary of the Soviet Union, the German Environmental Award in 2010. A year later, Gorbachev published a book in which he humbly described himself as a “prophet of change” and confessed to a great awakening in the last days of the USSR. Industry, he discovered, was destroying the sociological and environmental stability of his country. “It became clear that growth was occurring only at massive cost to the environment,” Oxford University Professor David King wrote for the book’s afterword. In that sense, the implosion of the Soviet state that Gorbachev so vehemently resisted was an act of altruistic sacrifice to environmentalism.
Blaming the Soviet state’s legitimacy crisis on its productive capacity is bizarre considering that, in the last full year of the country’s existence, the country’s ailing per-capita GDP begun contracting after years of stagnation. But the claim serves a purpose, and not just to whitewash Gorbachev’s legacy. To the most honest of today’s committed climate activists, the existential problem they are confronting isn’t just environmental degradation but the essential nature of capitalism.