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Pyramids of Concrete: Rivers, Dams, and the Ideological Roots of Brute Force Technology
Look down in the canyon and there you will see
The Grand Coulee showers her blessings on me;
The lights for the city for factory, and mill,
Green Pastures of Plenty from dry barren hills.
—Woody Guthrie, "Pastures of Plenty"
FLOODS, STAGNANT POOLS, rapids, seasonal trickles, and hard freezes are the nature of a river's life. They also often disrupt natural human activities: commerce, transport, and fishing. For centuries, people have tried to regulate the flow of rivers to support those activities and prevent or diminish the effects of floods. They have dammed them to form reservoirs and to harness their power, employing at first simple water wheels and by the end of the twentieth century 500 megawatt turbogenerators.
Twentieth-century efforts to alter the flow of rivers commenced with the unquestioned wisdom that to dredge their shoals and straighten their banks in order to improve navigation, produce electricity, and store water for irrigation was always and everywhere good. Engineers were convinced that they understood the cycles of rain and drought, of summer warmth and winter ice, that affected river flow. They were confident that their sluices, canals, and irrigation channels would function as intended and that new agricultural land would be found to replace that inundated by the reservoirs. Above all, they believed that engineering of rivers was necessary to prevent once and for all the dangerous floods that periodically devastated towns and cities, killing hundreds of people and ruining valuable property. Engineers overlooked, underestimated, or did not anticipate the great costs of their projects, notably the destruction of ecosystems, of flora and fauna, and of the human cultures that were displaced.
In the mid-nineteenth century, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers took it as a matter of faith that flood control by means of dams and levees along such rivers as the Mississippi would improve agriculture, commerce, and navigation, and the agency gained congressional approval and funding for its projects. The Swamp Land Acts of 1849 and 1850 encouraged the reclamation of millions of acres of wetlands, especially in the lower Mississippi River basin. Later, the Newlands Act of 1902 gave birth to the Bureau of Reclamation, which the United States Congress charged with advancing irrigation projects to expand the country's ability to farm—that is, to prosper regardless of the amount of water available, the aridity of the land, or the presence of competing demands for this scarce resource. Cattlemen, lumbermen, farmers, and miners in the American West all needed water, and specialists concluded that rational planning based on modern science was the way to provide it. Yet flood control and land reclamation accelerated urbanization and activities such as farming on floodplains. Technologies of transport and communication along the rivers—highways, bridges, and railroads—led to the covering of floodplains by structures of cement, tar, wood, and other materials, leaving less and less area for runoff and absorption of water. Before long, hundred-year floods became fifty-year floods. Fifty-year floods became twenty-five-year floods, and twenty-five-year floods became ten-year floods.
Indeed, massive floods on the Mississippi in 1912 and 1927, and disastrous floods in 1935 and 1936, should have indicated that all was not well with river engineering. Either flood control was not working or it was drawing too many people into dangerous regions. The 1936 floods in Johnstown and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, though not as devastating as the region's 1889 flood, which killed more than 2,200, caused $100 million in property damage. This gave further impetus to regulation of inland waterways and promoted still larger projects employing many thousands of workers armed with ever more powerful earthmoving equipment, dynamite, and federal money. Never lacking for confidence, civil engineers, hydrologists, and other specialists believed that with additional study they would understand the interaction of climate, geology, and river "improvements" and be able, once and for all, to transform rivers into machines that operated according to human dictates.
From past centuries to the present, a number of major geo-engineering projects have moved steadily ahead on the confluence of engineering certainty, government action, and human hubris. These include centuries-long Dutch efforts to reclaim land from the ocean; various canal and river diversion projects, from the Panama Canal in the nineteenth century to the Suez Canal in the twentieth; and such noteworthy efforts to change the landscape—even if simultaneously to obliterate history—as the Aswan High Dam on the Nile and the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River. But two stand out for their scale, their irreversible effects on human and other biological communities, and their importance as symbols of high statecraft in the mid- twentieth century: the reconstruction of the Columbia River basin in the Pacific Northwest region of the United States and the transformation of the Volga River basin in the European USSR. These massive, unified river engineering projects are the epitome of modern, state-sponsored brute force technologies—and their unintended and devastating social and environmental consequences.
Although everyone knew of the pitched battle between the USSR and the United States during the cold war for ideological and military supremacy, few noticed how intense this battle was in the 1930s. Soviet leaders pronounced capitalism bankrupt, pointing to the long lines of hungry workers waiting for handouts during the Great Depression. As examples of the advantages of emergent socialism they held up new hydropower stations, steel mills, and subway systems being built in the USSR that were transforming the nation into an industrial superpower while keeping its workers contentedly employed. Many Soviet engineers and political leaders realized that the United States had a far more developed technological culture, but under Joseph Stalin they could not risk openly saying so. Instead, they insisted their technologies were better in all respects: they would be built more quickly, treat the worker with respect, end unemployment, facilitate the control of nature, and create an industrial power greater than that of the United States, all within fifteen years. The steel mills in Gary, Indiana, were nothing, propagandists argued, next to those in Magnitogorsk, a steel city at the southern end of the Ural Mountains built in the 1930s from virtually nothing. On the river front, until the early 1950s Soviet engineers and workers focused their energies on reconstructing the Volga, Don, and Dnepr River basins in the European part of the country, establishing a unitary system for transportation, agriculture, and power generation to serve Moscow and what was euphemistically called proletarian power.
No less explicitly, business and political leaders in the United States spoke about the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Bonneville Power Administration, about their dams and cheap electricity, and about successful flood control, illumination, and clean water as evidence that the capitalist system was more just and more efficient than the Soviet system. The nations were locked in a battle of hydroelectric envy, each side touting each successive dam it built as more powerful, requiring more excavation and more concrete. Hoover Dam and the Grand Coulee Dam in the United States and the Kuibyshev and Tsimliansk dams in the USSR were not just hydropower stations but symbols of the might and right of the capitalist and socialist systems. The tragedy is that political leaders, engineers, and planners, in part because they were so blinded by ideology, typically overlooked or dismissed the great human and environmental costs—some in plain view early on, others quite unanticipated—of their concrete pyramids.
Neither socialism nor capitalism produced dams, fish ladders, or irrigation systems that lived up to their rhetoric. In both the United States and the Soviet Union, families were forcibly removed from their homes to make way for progress—many churches, schools, and cemeteries were inundated. In both countries, dozens of workers were injured, maimed, or killed in the huge construction projects. In both, crucially, engineers underestimated, indeed did not understand, the significant effect brute force technologies would have on the environment.
Lenin, Stalin, and Hydroelectricity
Since the first years of the Russian Revolution, large scale technologies were at the center of Soviet economic programs. Economics of scale seemed to make them preferable. The centralizing and controlling ethos of Bolshevism gave them impetus. They were justified for their role as both workplace and venue in which overly superstitious and religious peasants could be turned into atheists and communists. And Vladimir Ilich Lenin, Russia's leader, embraced electricity in particular as a panacea for the country's backwardness. Lenin asked a colleague, engineer Gleb Krzhizhanovskii, to compile a program for the electrification of Russia. The state program, known usually by its acronym, GOELRO, served as the basis of Soviet electrification efforts for decades. Approved by the 8th Congress of Soviets in December 1920, the plan was popularized by the Bolsheviks through posters emblazoned with lightbulbs intended to supplant religious icons and carrying the famous slogan "Communism equals Soviet power plus electrification of the entire country!" GOELRO was as important for its revolutionary symbolism as for its concrete results. Indeed, Lenin called GOELRO "the second party program," foreshadowing the centrality of brute force technologies in government development programs.
The GOELRO plan, modest in generating capacity by today's standards, proposed the construction over a fifteen-year period of thirty stations of all sorts, with a total capacity of roughly 1.2 million kilowatts (kW). Soviet Russia lagged considerably behind Germany, England, the United States, and other industrializing nations at this time in per capita consumption of fuel and energy resources. In GOELRO, planners emphasized power derived from coal, peat, and oil (and also wood) because of the country's extensive fossil fuel reserves. Hydroelectricity made up one-third of the total fifteen-year forecast of additional capacity. Stations were to be built at Volkhovsk, Sversk, and Dnepropetrovsk by 1925 or so, with six others to follow soon thereafter in Ukraine, the Urals, the Altai, and Uzbekistan. These goals for hydroelectricity are not surprising, given the poor state of the tsarist coal industry in the Kuznetsk Basin of Ukraine, the backwardness of the oil industry in the Caspian Sea near Baku, Azerbaijan, and the cost of extraction of oil and coal. By comparison, hydroelectric power seemed less costly and could be developed wherever there was a sizable river. Engineers identified scores of sites.
GOELRO engineers quickly established hundreds of experiment stations to measure the level and flow of rivers in the USSR. Increased study meant increased potential capacity. In 1916, the tsarist minister of agriculture, I. O. Moskvitinov, released the "White Coal" report showing potential water resources in the Russian Empire of 14.6 million kW; the GOELRO plan of 1921 indicated 44.5 million kW; and a report three years later found another 3.2 million kW of electric energy. By 1935, planners had concluded that roughly 280 million kW of potential existed, with the Lena River providing 50.6 million kW, the Enisei 46.8 million kW, the Amur 31.8 million kW, and the Volga 11.8 million kW.
In true Bolshevik fashion, Krzhizhanovskii used hyperbole and metaphor to describe the work of GOELRO. Electricity was a "powerful lever for the creation of the cultural conditions of socialist labor by guaranteeing the rapid increase in its productivity and its rational organization." Hydroelectric power stations on the Volga were crucial links in the plan to build the material-technological basis of communist society. They showed clearly the advantages of the Soviet system over those of capitalist countries and symbolized the qualitative difference between peaceful Soviet electricity and imperialist, militaristic capitalist energy. Under Stalin, the share of hydroelectric generation capacity indeed grew rapidly.
The tsarist government had not developed these resources in the least. From 1872 to 1916, Russian industry manufactured slightly more than 3,000 turbines with total capacity of 101,000 horsepower (hp), and the country had a total of 55,000 water power plants of all sorts, mostly grist mills, with total capacity of 513,000 hp. Soviet engineers lacked the modest goals and aspirations of their predecessors: by 1939 they planned to install aggregate capacity of 2.5 million kW. They focused on development of the Volga, Sevan-Zanga, and Dnepr Rivers while commencing installation on the Angara, upper Irtysh, and other Siberian rivers. All projects involved power generation, improvements in river transport, irrigation, and water supply. "Big Volga" and "Big Dnepr" centered on the most developed, densely populated districts with basic industrial and agricultural services, high and continually increasing demand for electric power, and dense interregional freight traffic. Limited local fuel resources demanded rapid construction of dozens of stations. On the Volga, the Uglich, Rybinsk, and Ivankovo stations were already under construction in 1932, with stations planned at Gorky, Cheboksary, Kuibyshev, and Kamyshin (later to be Stalingrad). If in 1928 hydropower stations produced 4 percent of Soviet electricity, by 1937 they produced 8 percent and by 1950, 15.2 percent.
Like Lenin and many other Bolshevik officials, Stalin saw technology as a panacea for the USSR's economic and political problems. Even before becoming the nation's leader, Stalin called for expansion of irrigation systems and an increase in the role of GOELRO in bringing workers and peasants—the countryside and the city—closer together. Stalin proposed irrigation programs to end droughts in the southern Volga River basin near Samara, Saratov, and Astrakhan. In his eyes, technology was a mighty political tool; it would force the peasants to abandon their antiquated culture and bring them psychologically into the workers' state.
Once he became leader, in the late 1920s, he embraced large scale projects as the centerpiece of an officially proclaimed "Great Break" with previous policies to transform the country's political, social, and geophysical maps. In political terms, this meant abandoning the New Economic Policy, which had permitted small scale trade and a money economy, for a centralized, top-down economy. He pushed industrialization hard and forced peasants into collective farms to produce a steady source of food for growing urban centers, at the same time subjugating them to Bolshevik political institutions. The human costs were great: millions died of famine, millions perished in purges, and engineers and managers whose projects failed to reach targets were arrested. The secret police executed many of the technological experts for "wrecking" plans to use resources rationally. In this case, "rational" meant state, not consumer, preferences and breakneck speed.
Stalin forced the cities and countryside to adopt a socialist face. For the cities, this meant large scale projects that reveled in the state's, and Stalin's, glory. Buried in the projects was supposed to be a collectivist ethos: handsome, spacious buildings that housed the worker, broad thoroughfares that admitted light and moved traffic with ease, well-illuminated and safe factories, and a subway whose ornate stations, replete with marble facades and socialist realist murals, deified the worker. The reality was something else. Peasants streamed into urban centers, becoming workers overnight with only barracks for shelter, and overburdened public transport—broken-down trams—moved them to factories and home again.
Excerpted from Industrialized Nature by Paul Josephson. Copyright © 2002 Paul R. Josephson. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
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