THURSDAY, MAY 8, 1997
ENVIRONMENT: ACT GLOBALLY, NOT NATIONALLY
Mikhail Gorbachev, the last president of the Soviet Union, now heads Green Cross International, based in Geneva, Switzerland. (The American affiliate is called Global Green USA.). He was interviewed recently in Washington by Nathan Gardels in advance of the summit of world leaders at the United Nations in June to evaluate progress on the 1992 Rio Earth Summit.
Question: It has been five years since the famous Rio "Earth Summit" (the U.N. Conference on Environment and Development held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992) when world leaders pledged, among other things, to curb the destruction of rain forests and the carbon emissions that cause global warming. Was that conference the "water -shed" it was said to be at the time or has , or has it been a bust?
Answer: I am sorry to say that little has changed in practical terms since 1992. There has been no dramatic step forward.
Of course, projects here and there to improve the quality of air and water have been implemented. Local legislation has been put in place to protect some regional ecosystems. This is true even at the provincial level in Russia, where financing for such projects is very hard to come by.
But this is not enough. The changes taking place are not of the scale necessary to make a difference. We have little time at our disposal - perhaps 30 or 40 years before the biosphere is beyond repair.
Nations are acting too much on their own. The challenge is global, but the policies are being nationalized.
The American economy, for example, is connected to the whole world. Its businesses are everywhere; they are creates an environmental load.
In and of themselves, U.S. environmental laws, guidelines and goals are very advances, but they are exclusively good for America and don't really address the "environmental footprint" of the U.S. economy globally. They exist within a shell.
Q: When communism collapsed, there was euphoria in the West. Jacques Cousteau said at the time, "This is a big mistake. The market system is doing more damage to the planet than anything else because everything has a price but nothing has value- Since the long-term damage to the environment is not part of the pricing mechanism in today's market, the cost to future generations is not part of the equation- "This abuse of economics" he said, is destroying the Earth. Do you agree?
A: I absolutely agree with Cousteau. Communism is certainly dead, but capitalism is not the alternative for the 21st century. We need a new synthesis that incorporates capitalism's capacity for initiative - this is important - but at the same time does not exclude social justice and protection of the biosphere.
In this new synthesis, we need democratic, Christian and Buddhist values as well, which affirm such moral principles as social responsibility and the sense of oneness with nature and each other. The future should be built with these moral building blocks that are centuries old.
he need to stabilize the population and growth pressure on the biosphere does not mean stabilizing poverty and backwardness, which is what the global market will do if left to its own devices. If we have a situation where only a few live at the expense of the many, we cannot expect anything of it.
Q: In a historical sense, the failure of communism scared people away from believing in the future. democracy and consumerism have triumphed instead. And both are about giving people what they want, when they want it, which is now. How will we find a way to remember the future?
A: The way to remember the future is to live virtuously in the present. nearly a decade after the end of the Cold War, it is time to get beyond rejoicing that freedom has won in history and to understand the responsibilities of freedom. In thinking of the future, we need to remember what the ancients knew: that self-restraint is the fundamental and wisest aim of a person who is free.
The most important thing is the shaping of a new value system. Instead of a hedonistic approach, we should promote an approach that reasonably limits desires, which promotes the virtue of enoughness. If we insist on consumerism as the new utopia, nature will reject such a system as surely as cultural diversity rejected the totalitarian system.
Even though it shows no bitterness toward humankind, nature knows there was a time when it existed and we didn't Nature is already sending a signal - through the spread of diseases resistant to antibiotics, new cancers and even genetic changes in the species - that this can happen once more. The human genome could break up. We should heed the signs.
Also, the issue is not just protecting the planet for future generations. It is also a question of protecting it for ourselves. After all, already we live in urban zones with noxious air. Already, one out of two people on the planet have bad water.
Doing something about these things is not sacrificing for some distant future, it is about making our lives better today.
Q: By what mechanism can cultural attitudes and institutional behavior be changed on a global scale?
A: We should move forward by recreating the United Nations. Until recently the U.N. has been mainly involved in dealing with military conflicts and security issues. It doesn't do that very successfully now.
At the same time, the environmental institutions at the United Nations have not, up until now, been very effective either. Therefore, the emphasis in U.N. activities should be shifted to such global problems as the environment.
We also need a new international environmental legal code rooted in an Earth charter - a covenant similar to the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights.
The idea of an Earth charter was first conceived at the Rio Summit. During the Rio evaluation meeting this March, the Earth Charter Commission, which I chair, drafted such a document with the aim of presenting it to the U.N. General Assembly for approval by the year 2000.
"Do not do unto the environment of others what you do not want done to your own environment", reads one charter item. "Adopt modes of consumption, production and reproduction that respect the regenerative capacities of the Earth", reads another.
My hope is that this charter will be a kind of Ten Commandments, a "Sermon on the Mount", that provides a guide for human behavior toward the environment in the next century and beyond.
Contact us at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 1997 Green Cross International.