High Modernism and The Aral Sea disaster


The Aral Sea desiccation is a textbook example of the anthropocene. Children around the world learn about this ecological disaster in schools. The consequences of the desiccation are well-known the world over: the destruction of a fishing industry that sustained local communities for hundreds of years, the appearance of salt-laden dust storms, the spread of fertilizers and pesticides heavily used in the cotton industry over hundreds of kilometers around the sea, soil salinization, and the detrimental effects on the health of local populations. It has been more difficult to explain how and why an event of such scale happened in the first place. It is universally acknowledged that the overuse of Syr Darya’s and Amu Darya’s waters for cotton irrigation is to blame (Micklin 1988, 1992). However, it is not clear what drove this overuse – was there something in the way the Soviets approached water that made this environmental disaster possible? The Soviet engineers and geographers who worked on the region’s irrigation projects were aware of the dangers of large water withdrawals for The Aral Sea. First studies predicting the levels of lake volume’s reduction based on water diversions appeared as early as 1950s (Wheeler 2018). But for Soviet scientists and bureaucrats, it appears, the end-result of economic progress brought by irrigation expansion was worth the sacrifice. A prominent Soviet geographer Voeikov, for example, thought that water flowing into the sea was a waste – water resources were useful only when they sustained agriculture (ibid. 6).

“Aral: region of ecological disaster”
1991 Soviet postmark

So in the end of the day, was it just the scientists’ flawed ‘cost-benefit analysis’ that made the water overuse possible? Did they fail to account for the severe implications of the lake’s disappearance on its surroundings? I think that would be an oversimplification – they were well informed about the consequences of their policies, but achieving ‘progress’ in the shortest time possible was more worthwhile than saving the lake. As many other projects across the USSR show, scientists and bureaucrats in the Soviet Union believed that they were justified in their approach to the environment.

On the one hand, the Soviet authorities were not particularly famous for their appreciation of human life and nature. As the 1930s industrialization and collectivization campaigns demonstrated, human life meant nothing for the people implementing those policies. On the other hand, their faith in the ability of science to change the course of rivers, to turn deserts into blossoming oases, in short, to transform nature itself betrayed the worst kind of hubris. This faith in human progress and scientific rationality, together with the sheer cruelty of the Soviet state apparatus created a deadly combination that affected generations of the Soviet people.

For a long time, I have been perplexed by the combination of the Soviet Union’s inhumane brutality and claims to have improved the human condition. The Soviets had a peculiar vision of modernity – they killed and exploited millions of people, all the while having the audacity to extol the virtues of enlightenment (prosveshenie) and liberation. As I was thinking about this paradox, I could not help but think about James Scott’s concept of high modernism. It seems to me that this concept captures perfectly the inconsistencies surrounding the Soviet state, manifested in Central Asia’s water management problems, and the Aral Sea tragedy.

In his book Seeing Like a State, James Scott (1998) analyzes 20th-century modernization schemes that purported to better the human condition, instead causing death and disruption to millions of people. These schemes, according to Scott, were driven by a system of beliefs he calls ‘high modernism’, characterized by the desire to transform nature and human society according to scientific laws. The best way to improve the human condition is to impose a rational order on every aspect of social life. A sure way to do that is to expand agricultural production, so as to eliminate society’s dependency on the exigencies of nature.

This belief system treats people and nature, and their inherent qualities – such as human ability to create value through labor – as economic resources to be extracted with the highest returns possible. It neither appreciates nature nor values human life; their worth is purely utilitarian. Indeed, it is unclear why high modernists even aspire to improve the human condition.

However, having high modernist ideas is not enough to ‘ensure’ planning failure. According to Scott, large-scale disasters and human tragedies are made possible by a combination of four elements – ‘administrative ordering of nature and society’ by the state, a high-modernist ideology, an authoritarian state able to bring ideologically-motivated plans into reality by coercion, and a weak civil society that lacks the power to resist the state’s social engineering (10). The socio-political conditions in Soviet Asia met all four of these criteria (Obertreis 2017). The imposition of cotton monoculture on Uzbek SSR from Moscow, and the rapid expansion of its irrigation system was a perfect example of the high modernist ordering of nature and society (Bichsel 2012). Instead of progress, however, it brought one of the worst environmental disasters to the region.

What does it all mean for the environment today? It seems that the kind of high modernist schemes described by Scott went out of fashion with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Indeed, in our class we mainly discussed the influence of MNCs rather than states on the environment. But the spirit of high modernism is still strong in many countries around the world, for example in China. Also, private companies often justify their destructive production practices by maintaining that their businesses are good for the economic development of local communities. And although Ferguson (2005) has argued that the power of capital works differently from that of the state, I would argue that it is too early to discredit the influence of high modernism on societies around the world.

By Indira



Bichsel, Christine. “The Drought Does Not Cause Fear: Irrigation History in Central Asia Through James C. Scott’s Lenses.” Revue d’études Comparatives Est-Ouest 43, no 1-2 (2012): 73-108.

Micklin, Philip. “Desiccation of the Aral Sea: A Water Management Disaster in the Soviet Union.” Science241, no. 4870 (1988): 1170-176. doi:10.1126/science.241.4870.1170.

Micklin, Philip. “The Aral Crisis: Introduction To The Special Issue.” Post-Soviet Geography33, no. 5 (1992): 269-82. doi:10.1080/10605851.1992.10640900.

Obertreis, Julia. Imperial Desert Dreams Cotton Growing and Irrigation in Central Asia, 1860-1991. Göttingen: V&R Unipress, 2017.

Scott, James C. Seeing Like a State How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998.

Wheeler, William. “The USSR as a Hydraulic Society: Wittfogel, the Aral Sea and the (post-)Soviet State.” Environment and Planning C: Politics and Space, 2018, 239965441881670. doi:10.1177/2399654418816700.


Author: GEN