POLITICALLY and economically the Soviet Union has been experiencing great turmoil over the past few months. Indeed, the Western press has devoted a fair amount of attention to the ethnic violence in Soviet Georgia and the devastating mining strikes in Siberia. But even on the environmental front, disturbing news is seeping out of the USSR. We have been told that the Caspian Sea - the world's largest lake - is dangerously contaminated with massive amounts of the carcinogenic phenol. The Aral Sea - once the world's fourth largest lake - has all but disappeared, the water long since diverted for shortsighted irrigation projects. Additional reports out of Leningrad indicate the foulness of ordinary tap water and mention long lines of people waiting daily for fresh water distribution.
On top of all of this, there is an indication, as yet underplayed in the Western press, that the situation might be much worse than it appears. As of the beginning of this year, Moskovskaya Pravda, the official publication of the Moscow Communist Party, has begun to run a regular astrology column.
The Soviet government has long labeled astrology a ``false science'' and has prohibited astrological predictions from appearing in its publications. Yet the author of the new feature is extolled as ``a specialist in the arts of white, black, and other magic,'' and as a ``master of the magical sciences.'' Such a shift by the Soviet leaders away from rationality and toward the pseudoscience of astrology is big news. Its timing may tell us a good deal about how the average Soviet citizen perceives life.
Inaction stemming from the ``fact'' that one's fate is predetermined by the configuration of the stars can be very troublesome. Although many of us know that serious environmental problems cannot be made to vanish by astrological prognostications, the very first astrological column appearing in Moskovskaya Pravda claimed that the conjunction of Saturn and the Year of the Snake mean that 1989 will be a very good one for the Soviet environment.
Ample rigorous sociological studies in the US have conclusively demonstrated that astrological and other occult beliefs increase in hard times when people feel less in control of their lives. A belief in things astrological, for example, skyrocketed during the Great Depression. Recognizing this fact and writing during the onset of the double-digit inflation of the 1970s, Lamar Keene, a well-known charlatan and false medium, said: ``All mediums would agree ... wars, depression, personal and national disasters spell prosperity for us. The present economic stresses in the United States are good news for mediums.''
On one hand, it seems significant that there has been such a large increase in interest in astrology and related pseudosciences in the USSR of late. On the other hand, it is probably even more significant that the Soviet government has sanctioned such interest. Are problems so bad, and is civil unrest so great, that the government feels it must turn to such mass palliatives to help assuage the concerns of its people?
It is also worth noting that upon returning from a trip to the People's Republic of China, Paul Kurtz, chairman of a national group of skeptics known as the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, reported a marked upswing in interest in astrology and the paranormal among large numbers of Chinese. Again, as personal living conditions deteriorate, individuals turn to mystical explanations as consolation.
We need to be interested in these developments, not only for what they might teach us about present conditions in the USSR and China, but because of what they might portend for the rest of the world. It is axiomatic these days that both politically and environmentally we share a shrinking planet. The loss of the Aral Sea, for example, might induce grave environmental effects throughout Europe, while the global ramifications of the Chernobyl accident are self-evident to virtually everyone.
When major superpowers tilt toward the irrationality of pseudoscience in place of the methodology and power of science, there is no telling what the worldwide consequences might be. Indeed, such a basis for decisionmaking makes predicting the actions of foreign governments all but impossible - a very troubling thought in a nuclear world.