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Ecological Sacrifice Zones

The world requires robust economic growth if we are to eliminate global poverty. Currently, half of the world’s population lives on less than $7 a day. 648 million people, a small minority of the world’s population but a very large number in absolute terms, live on less than $2.15 a day. It is unlikely that the wealthy of the world will voluntarily give away enough of their income to raise everyone in the world to a $7 a day income. It is less likely that they will ever be forced to do so. Pragmatically, the primary mechanism for eliminating global poverty will have to be stimulating economic growth.


However, economic growth causes ecological damage. Wiping out the poverty on our planet is not so wonderful if it also means wiping out the planet itself. The multiple contradictions between economic growth and environmental sustainability are discussed by treadmill of production theorists. Among the most fundamental contradictions are

  1. Economic production exhausts supplies of critical raw materials. The search for new materials entails the invasion and destruction of both new and old ecosystems.

  2. Economic production pollutes the environment. Some toxins dissipate or mutate into harmless forms. Others do not.

  3. Economic production generates energy, which warms the atmosphere.


Few of these arguments should be surprising to the reader.

However, economic growth hurts some regions worse than others. The worst ecological victims of development are referred to as “sacrifice zones”. The term was invented by Steve Lerner in his book Sacrifice Zones: The Front Lines of Toxic Chemical Exposure in the United States. (MIT Press, 2010), a discussion of the twelve most toxic chemical waste areas in the United States. It is the intentional sacrificing of the ecology of an entire region for a larger economic or political purpose. Love Canal was destroyed because the Hooker Electrochemical Company wanted to make chemicals but needed a place to dispose of its toxic waste. The Pacific atolls where nuclear tests were carried out are even better examples. The American military wanted to see if hydrogen bombs worked. Entire archipelagos were completely destroyed. It is not hard to apply this concept to the deforestation of the Amazon or for that matter of Borneo and New Guinea


However, one of the most compelling applications I have seen appeared in a 2020 article in Sociology of Development: Thomas Shriver, Stefano Longo and Alison Adams’s “Energy and the Environment: The Treadmill of Production and Sacrifice Zones in Czechoslovakia”. It is a sad story of the ruination of North Bohemia, one of the most beautiful natural areas in Eastern Europe, during the Communist years of Czechoslovakia. The authors have an elaborate explanation for this that uses the political philosophy of Antonio Gramsci. The Gramscian process they describe can be laid out in simple common sense terms. You don’t get to destroy a region and ruin the lives of everyone who lives there unless the government can force this destruction down people’s throats. Either the government has to directly administrate the destruction, or the government must make clear they have no intention of stopping the private sector from engaging in destruction. Locals who want to protest get no vote and no voice.


Note that there are two elements to this explanation. One is having the state (or the state and capital) who wants to develop an area at all costs. The other is having locals who are too weak to resist these initiatives. Generally, if the state or state and capital have destructive plans for an area, the area just gets sacrificed and that is all there is to it. Having weak local opposition facilitates the process.


Northern Bohemia is the Appalachia of the contemporary Czech Republic. Beautiful mountains and forests above the ground. Coal under the ground. You don’t get at the coal without destroying the mountains and the forests on top. By the end of Shriver et. al.’s story in the 1980’s Northern Bohemia gets nearly totally destroyed. What sets up Northern Bohemia for the fall?


Northern Bohemia is more familiar to American readers of history as the Sudetenland. This was an area of German settlement and German language use within the legal boundaries of Czechoslovakia. Hitler used the presence of Germans in the Sudetenland to justify the military seizure first of the Sudetenland and then of Czechoslovakia as a whole. Both the prewar Czech government and the Nazi occupiers did some economic development of Northern Bohemia. Massive ecological destruction, however, came with the arrival of the Communists.


Czechoslovakia was liberated by the Soviet Red Army. It was not obvious in 1945 or 1946 that the Eastern European countries freed from Nazi domination would become Communist. However, Communist control had become hegemonic by 1948. There were several consequences of this:

1. Communists placed a high priority on rapid industrialization. This was because

  • Communism had to show on the world stage that it could outperform capitalism as an economic system. A small number of countries, Albania and North Korea in particular, were not preoccupied by this issue. Every other communist nation made Five Year Plans that were meant to provide dramatic growth.

  • The Cold War put the Warsaw Pact under intense military pressure. Industrialization that prioritized heavy industry and steelmaking would be essential to provide Communist nations with the armaments they needed.


2. Rapid industrialization meant maximizing the output of coal. All of the coal in Czechoslovakia was located in Northern Bohemia.


3. Czech coal is of low quality. Most of the deposits are lignite, which means brown coal. Lignite produces relatively little energy when burnt. One has to mine much more lignite in order to make steel than one would be necessary with bituminous coal or anthracite. That means destroying that much more surface space.


4. The authoritarian nature of the Czech state, combined with absolute support local Communists could expect from the Soviet Union, meant that domestic opposition to ecological destruction would be futile.


5. The Sudetenland was particularly vulnerable however, because it was a German-speaking area in a country which had just been liberated from Hitler’s control. The working assumption both of the Soviets and of Czech-speaking nationals was that all Germans in Northern Bohemia were Nazi collaborators. Over 30,000 German Czechs were either purposefully killed or died in internment. Several hundred thousand German Czechs were expelled from the country. The businesses and residences of the German Czechs were confiscated. As a result, Northern Bohemia was almost completely depopulated.


6. Depopulation had two effects:

  • There were no local residents who could stand up to protect the countryside that they knew or loved.

  • The labor force that was sent to work the mines of the Sudetenland all came from elsewhere in Bohemia or Moravia. The local land meant nothing to them. They were happy to destroy whatever needed to be destroyed if that was part of their job. Such discretionary indifference probably didn’t matter for individual coal miners or construction workers. The indifference would have been critical for the engineers, architects and state planners who oversaw the extraction of North Bohemian lignite. For these foreigners, the surface was “irrelevant”; all that mattered was the coal underneath.

How bad was the destruction?


Northern Bohemia became one of the most polluted regions in the world. Sulfur dioxide emissions were over 12 times the levels of what was allowed even by the Communists’ own regulations. The air became sufficiently toxic that worker absenteeism due to respiratory disease was high; a lot of the workers who were recruited in at great cost, left because of the noxiousness of the air and the danger to their health. Life expectancy in Northern Bohemia was four years shorter than that of the rest of Czechoslovakia and ten years shorter than that of Western Europe. Children had to be sent to “nature camps” to allow them to breathe clean air.


Most of the region’s forests were completely destroyed. This was not only due to lumbering but to the destruction of the water supply. Local rivers and lakes became filled with mining residue, industrial waste, oil spills, sewage from the cities, and fertilizers and pesticides from the industrial agriculture used to feed the miners. By the 1980’s, one third of the Sudetenland’s rivers could no longer support fish life. 


The low value of lignite does not justify the cost of building elaborate shafts to access the coal. One mines lignite by taking a steam shovel and removing surface material until one finds coal. So, anything that was on top of lignite had to be removed. This essentially meant destroying most of the historic villages of the area. From the standpoint of the built environment, one of the greatest losses was the town of Most, a fourteenth century village with historic architecture comparable to that of Old Prague. The residents were relocated to “modern” Soviet-style apartment blocks on non-coal-related land. You can imagine how pleasant or attractive those modern Soviet-style apartment blocks were.

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Ecological sacrifice zones are particularly easy to create when one has an authoritarian government that wants to see rapid economic growth at any cost – and is thinking primarily in the short term. The former Soviet bloc had many such sacrifice zones. The destruction of the Aral Sea is a particularly conspicuous example. However, capitalist nations have plenty of sacrifice zones too. The essay on this website “K.S. Jomo on the Causes of Deforestation” discusses Jomo’s superb analysis of the many sacrifice zones that exist in Southeast Asia. Sacrifice zones can have military rather than economic causes. The Romans used to salt the fields of kingdoms that they conquered to prevent the locals from growing enough food to sustain an army. Iraq attempted to destroy Kuwait by sabotaging its oil wells.


The world is threatened with ecological degradation. But there still are places where forests are kept pristine in national parks, where rivers are kept clean, where endangered species are protected, and local territories are kept free of toxic waste by having said wastes shipped to poorer countries so they can be dumped there. Taking care of one’s own garden does not mean the planet as a whole is taken care of. Some of the “exported damage” is dispersed broadly. This is the case with the damage to the environment that is caused by excessive carbon dioxide emissions.


Do you live near a sacrifice zone?


Ask yourself that question the next time a developer wants to build luxury housing or a set of high rises in the “unused” coastal wetlands near your house.


The developer will make a lot of money. Your local government will see property tax revenues soar.


And you can celebrate their good fortune the next time a hurricane hits your coastline when there is no marshland capable of absorbing the storm-based surges. Your house can be flooded so that someone else can live in a gated community with an ocean view.


Some sacrifices are obvious when they happen. Some come later when someone discovers what was buried next to the local factory.   

Fore More Information 

The statistics on global poverty come from the World Bank. A useful blog on the topic can be found at

There are lots of internet materials and textbooks one can buy on environmental sociology and treadmill of production theory. The classic statement continues to be Allan Schnaiberg. Anything he wrote is good, but the book he co-authored with Kenneth Gould, Environment and Society, is particularly helpful. Otherwise, a quick search on Amazon will give you a lot of Introductions to Environmental Sociology, and a number of Handbooks of Environmental Sociology. The latter come at eye-popping prices – but your local library could easily have a copy. Nearly all the handbooks are a mix of important authors making important statements, and filler chapters by lesser authors. Read as you will and judge for yourself.

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