Time for an International Environmental Initiative

Changes within the Soviet Union could open the way for an international environmental initiative, if our political leaders are willing to seize it.

| March/April 1989

  • international environmental initiative - three men viewing Statue of Liberty
    Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev (left) viewed the Statue of Liberty with outgoing President Ronald Reagan (center), and President-elect George H.W. Bush (right) during a visit to the U.S. in December 1988.
  • international environmental initiative - burning trash
    Remediating a burning trash dump doesn't necessarily require an international environmental initiative, but as a general rule the greatest threat to any nation's security is the destruction of its environment.

  • international environmental initiative - three men viewing Statue of Liberty
  • international environmental initiative - burning trash

The world now has available to it a window of environmental opportunity even bigger than the hole in the ozone over Antarctica (and, we now learn, over Australia as well). It couldn't come at a more timely moment.

The president of the Soviet Union and the new president of the United States have both recently stressed their commitment to protecting what's right with the environment and fixing what isn't. President Gorbachev has just pledged to cut back on his military forces. The onus is now on Mr. Bush to do likewise. The two leaders can redirect the funds not spent on military budgets toward environmental programs, which in turn could steer their countries and the rest of the world onto a new course.

We could finally see a major international environmental initiative to restore damaged ecosystems, and similar efforts to find ways of providing food, energy, clothing, shelter, and material goods without degrading the environment in the process. Concurrently, the countries could mount a joint campaign to bring population growth under control.

Soon after taking office, the new president should make good on his campaign promise to convene an urgent international conference on the environment. Better, he could urge the United Nations to play host to such a meeting, as it did once before in 1972.

The agenda for such a meeting could be taken from today's newspapers: global warming, deforestation, famine, overcrowding, overfishing, overeverything. The monumental difference now, however, from other times, is that there may actually be enough money available to make real, solid environmental progress — if some of those trillions that have been going to military programs can be diverted to healing the earth.

These efforts are by no means unconnected. Stealth bombers, Star Wars, MX missiles, SS-20 missiles, MIG fighters and all the rest are meant to provide security, a scandalously expensive kind of security. Insofar as the $500 million that is spent on a Stealth bomber is $500 million not spent reforesting eroding hillsides or restoring torn-up marshland, then it is the falsest kind of security imaginable: No society can ever be truly secure if its natural support system is being degraded — and make no mistake; every natural system on the planet is under stress.

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