Time for an International Environmental Initiative

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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.
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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.

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.

So long as we’re advising Mr. Bush, here’s a thought for Mr. Gorbachev. Pledge not only to remove a half-million troops from Eastern Europe; promise also to put them to work on environmental restoration projects in the Soviet Union and abroad. This could lead to the creation of a multilateral Green Peace Corps!

And the two countries, or the UN, could establish urgent research and development efforts to find and accelerate the adoption of manufacturing processes that do not require toxic materials, of agricultural systems that don’t require massive amounts of synthetic pesticides, and of ways to encourage recycling of all possible materials.

They could work on transportation systems that will get people where they need to go without poisoning the air and depleting the precious petroleum we have left. They could encourage the prompt adoption of all possible energy-conservation strategies to conserve fuels, protect the atmosphere and head off the latest futile attempt by the nuclear industry to ride the fear of the greenhouse effect to elusive solvency.

In short, there is plenty to do and none too long to do it in. Now, for the first time in a long time, there may be not only the will but also the resources to make significant progress. The people of both superpower countries — indeed the citizens of all the world — would applaud such an initiative, and every species on earth would be better off — and more secure — for it.

Tom Turner has over 20 years’ experience covering environmental issues as a freelance writer and editor. He is currently a staff writer with the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, a donor-supported independent environmental law firm that represents many organizations across the country.

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