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Does the fate of the Soviet Union await the West? The implications for climate change

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By Wim Naudé

· 7 min read

Chi Ling Chan identified five sources of rot that ended the Soviet Union: a) increasing militarization, b) the ideological undermining of science, c) the disincentivizing of innovation, d) technological conservatism; and e) a centralizing hierarchy that obstructed the horizontal flow of information. 

In this article, I argue that all of these pathologies are currently present in the West and becoming more pronounced over time, which is of concern for the fight against climate change.

Increasing militarization

Historians recognize that increased militarization often precedes the collapse of an empire, as it did in the Soviet Union. In 2022, total world military spending exceeded US$2,2 trillion. By far, the most militarized region is the West. Military spending per capita in Europe and the USA is a factor of 5 to 10 times the world average. 

Current militarization is not a legacy of the Cold War. After the Soviet Union collapsed, the militarization of the West accelerated, with over 100 foreign military interventions by the US after 1999. Increasingly, the US is scrapping diplomacy for kinetic diplomacy: "diplomacy by armed force alone." It is not only the US: Europe has become "a cash cow for the military industry, without proper parliamentary control and with the collusion of decision-makers. " 

Despite significantly contributing to greenhouse gas emissions, the US military is exempt from environmental regulations. In Europe, the arms industry has requested privileged access to sustainable finance so that EU "arms companies should be exempted from any form of assessment of the risks of corruption or bribery, or possible negative impacts on the environment, climate or human rights." 

Ideologically undermining science

In the Soviet Union, ideological nit-picking of science was expected; for example, "Einstein's theory of relativity was dismissed as bourgeois, reactionary, and incompatible with Marxism-Leninism." Millions died of hunger under Stalin because the latter implemented pseudoscientific ideas.

Today in the West, the "rejection of scientific information is costing lives" - examples include anti-vaccination campaigns and denial of climate change. The corporate manipulation of science is reflected in the fossil fuel industry, which, as a recent study found, had been creating " scientific uncertainty [...] to deny climate science and delay action." 

Another example is the push-back in the EU against scientific research on New Genomic Techniques (NGTs), which are blocking gene editing, which would enable less use of fertilizers and pesticides. 37 Nobel laureates and over 1,500 scientists felt compelled to write an open letter to the EU Parliament, calling for rejecting "the darkness of anti-science fearmongering." Eventually, the call was heeded, but ironically, the European Greens opposed it by a very narrow margin. 

Disincentivizing Innovation

In October 1957, the West suffered the "shock of the century" when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik into space. To the horror of the West, it seemed to be losing the technology race. Despite its impressive science, the Soviet Union eventually lost the technology race. What went wrong? Essentially, the Soviet Union's approach was inimical to sustained innovation, as it "sought innovation in the same way that it pursued industrialization [...] The same bureaucratic logic used to run the command-and-control economy was applied to scientific and technological development. "

Ironically, in its response to the Soviet's Sputnik success, the USA adopted this logic. In 1958, it established the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA). In 1961, US President Kennedy announced the "Moonshot, "which resulted in the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing. Europe has bought into the command-and-control directing of technological innovation - amongst others; its US $117 billion Horizon Europe science programme is explicitly based on Moonshot thinking. 

The dirigiste approach to innovation enabled the Soviet Union to take the lead in the space race. Similarly, the dirigiste approach to innovation, which arose from the Moonshot response to Sputnik, enabled the West to win the technology race. However, as in the Soviet Union, this approach is not sustainable. 

In the Soviet Union, the problem was that inventions could not be commercialized quickly. In the USA, the problem is that just like the oligarchs in post-Soviet Russia appropriated the state's gas and oil, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs have de facto appropriated Moonshot-induced digital technologies. From this, they have built digital platform capitalism and techno-feudalism, created the Silicon Valley Mindse  , and stifled entrepreneurship for the rest.

Moonshot approaches can work for a single mission, such as to land a person on the moon. A recent editorial in Nature emphasized that the Moonshot oriented approach is less than ideal for addressing poly-crisis-type problems, which “will require not just money and expertise, but also the reconciliation of competing political ideologies, especially in richer countries; satisfaction of demands for equity from poorer countries; and recognition of the citizen's voice." 

Technological conservatism

Robin Hanson compared countries in the West to old, tenured professors who: 

"[...]put in less effort, are less focused on doing big-win projects, and are less willing to change locations, research subfields, or classes taught [...] They are also more pompous in their speech; they complain more in public [...]” 

In such an aged society, innovation is often a threat. Michael Bhaskar describes how, in the West, "society has become more hostile to radical innovation, risk-averse, fractious, short-termist.”  This is a "stop-button" society where the response when facing a perceived threat is to push the stop button. An example is the idea of "Degrowth," according to which the West needs to de-develop to prevent an ecological collapse. Another is the fear that AI poses an existential threat - which has generated its label - AI Doomerism. It drives arguments that research on AI needs to be stopped.

Neither Degrowth nor AI Doomerism is rooted in science. In the case of Degrowth, it has a Christian-infused ideology, "even if Jesus hardly comes into it anymore. Degrowth is only one of many contemporary altars of abstinence. The rejection of one's self, in some cases of all humanity, seems today to be a prerequisite for being on the right side of history. Only the truly marginalized need reject themselves less because others have already done it for them." 

Similarly, AI-Doomerism takes its cue from Effective Altruism's Long-Termism, which is described as “a disturbing secular religion that looks like it addresses humanity's deepest problems but justifies pursuing the social preferences of elites.” 

The downside of technological conservatism is that it would leave the world much more exposed and vulnerable to shocks, making the adjustment to a zero-carbon-emitting economy more costly. 

Informational bubbles

A problem in the Soviet Union was "the tight control of information flow." In a different manner than in the Soviet Union, but with similar consequences, the flow of information in the West is increasingly being shackled. 

In the Soviet Union, the state's centralizing and dominating role obstructed the flow of information. In the West, it is due to corporations' dominating and centralizing role aided by information technology. The rise of surveillance capitalism and the surveillance state affects not only innovation but also the democratic institutions of society. One way is through mis- and misinformation, and another is by rupturing the social fabric. 

The essence of the climate change challenge is that it is one of the most difficult collective action problems yet faced by society. Informational bubbles and distrust make it harder to address. 


The West is suffering from similar sources of rot that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Indeed, collapse narratives have seeped into popular Western culture. As this collapse unfolds, the West will be less able to contribute to fighting climate change. 

The conclusion is that climate action in the West should be accompanied by succession planning—climate and empire collapse cannot be kept separate. However, no one seems concerned about succession planning, not Western Elites. This is no surprise: as Blair Fix remarked, "As empires collapse, elites are usually the last to know." 

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Wim Naudé is Visiting Professor in Technology and Development at RWTH Aachen University, Germany; Research Fellow at the IZA Institute for Labor Economics, Germany; and Distinguished Visiting Professor in Economics at the University of Johannesburg. According to Stanford University’s rankings, he is amongst the top 2% of scientists in the world.

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