The amazing disappearing lakes, pt. 2: The Aral Sea

“We cannot expect charity from nature. We must tear it from her.”—A Soviet slogan.

Here is one result of those rousing words being put into action: The liberation of the Aral Sea from uncharitable nature by heroic Soviet engineers. Please buy and read When the Rivers Run Dry by Fred Pearce to learn how this and other such man-made disasters happened.


The one thing that Soviet-style communism had in common with capitalism is an elaborate philosophical justification for destroying the environment. Both systems are branches of a broader philosophical current that considers human beings to be the masters of the planet.

This means that humans are free—required even—to control, radically modify, and obliterate natural objects and systems that don’t meet our requirements. Take the Aral Sea in Central Asia, for example, which the former USSR deemed “nature’s error.”

Since its inception, the Soviet government saw Mother Nature as an irrational bungler and most likely an enemy of the working class. In an April 2002 article in Harper’s Magazine—a searing condemnation of the Aral’s devastation—writer Tom Bissell cites the Stalinist slogan that opened this entry. He also quotes Trotsky, (who had nothing to do with the Aral’s demise) who once giddily stated, “The present distribution of mountains and rivers, of fields, of meadows, of steppes, of forests and seashores, cannot be considered final.”

That kind of pompous arrogance would be funny, were its consequences not so tragic. Until 50 or so years ago, the Aral was a huge blue body of water filled with aquatic life and graced with beautiful surroundings and beaches. But this was a mistake, you see. Nature had blundered big time by insisting on filling the Aral’s basin with the flow of not one, but two rivers, thereby wasting water that could be put to better use irrigating the desert of Central Asia—primarily to grow cotton.

Never the kind to shy away from big projects, the USSR put those gargantuan Soviet-sized bulldozers to work tearing the two rivers from nature’s grasp, simultaneously turning Central Asia into a major producer of cotton and the world’s fourth largest lake into a couple of chemical-laced saline cesspools.

I can’t even begin to describe the resulting social and economic upheaval, the poverty, disease, and despair visited upon the the inhabitants of the area surrounding the Aral, for whom the sea had been their livelihood and joy. Read about it here, or just search Aral Sea on Google. Better yet, buy and read When the Rivers Run Dry like I keep telling you.


2 Responses

  1. What a disaster of gargantuan proportion!! The former USSR communist regime who was directly responsible for this catastrophe should be publicly held accountable, the flow of the two rivers into the Aral Sea should be restored by the Russian Government by order of United Nations, indeed their legacy is seen far and wide throughout Asia. I am a descendant from Latvian parents residing in Australia and a trip to Latvia in 1994 highlighted the poor state of roads, infrastructure and social chaos the Soviets left on their departure from the Baltic States.
    Professor Jared Diamond’s Book Collapse highlights how many former countries suffered under the various practices by former regimes and how we as a society can learn from our past mistakes, however do we as a society actually learn and correct past practices at the expense of economic pressures.
    I think that we as humans over the millennia have proven to be the worst kind of animal to have ever existed on our beautiful planet.

  2. There’s no other species that believes it has a mandate to control nature. And to date, we haven’t learned from our past mistakes, except on very rare occasions. Thanks for the comment, Erik.

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