Learning from disaster

Mikhail Gorbachev describes how the misuse of natural resources by the unregulated
free market is threatening the planet, and proposes concrete actions

As a politician and former leader of a country, I know what it is to have to make difficult decisions: choices which have wide-reaching ramifications and are loaded with negative impacts and risks. I also know what it is to take decisions in time-stressed situations. For me, two cases stand out above all others as examples of where I wish I had had greater knowledge, more time and foresight: the mismanagement of the waters of the Aral Sea basin and the Chernobyl disaster.

After the extent of the Aral Sea tragedy became known, we stabilized the unsustainable irrigation schemes which were cutting off the water supply to the Aral Sea, and halted a project which had been planned by engineers to divert two major Siberian rivers. Following the Chernobyl nuclear accident, it was very clear that we needed to strengthen information exchange and transparency. But, the damage was done and we had to ask ourselves who was responsible. Politicians; engineers; economists; scientists; scholars; citizens; the centralized communist system? In cases such as these, where there was no stakeholder participation and an opaque decision-making process, the only answer to this question is that we were all collectively responsible and we must all learn from these catastrophes. The most important lesson is that the developments in science and technology of the past century bring with them not only huge benefits, but also great responsibility, as human mistakes or mismanagement can now cause irreversible damage to the environment, immeasurable human suffering and threaten the very habitability of large parts of our precious planet.

The fall of the Berlin Wall and the ideological storm that swept across the world kindled the hopes of people everywhere that we might finally make real progress in terms of human rights, liberty and sustainable economic development, and raise the quality of life for all people. These hopes were consolidated by many United Nations summits in the 1990s, including the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992 which provided the impetus for the creation of the Commission on Sustainable Development and the non-governmental organization of which I am President, Green Cross International . But standing on the brink of the new millennium, we have to recognize that while there has been some progress, especially in terms of awareness raising, the overall picture is fairly bleak. The struggle for short-term profit, encouraged by the unregulated free market, has led to unacceptable human and environmental abuses, often in the name of ‘economic growth', and in many regions people are worse off now than they were one or two decades ago. We must accept responsibility and learn from our mistakes.

Otherwise, international environmental disasters will keep on happening, erasing any progress made in terms of development and plunging regions back into poverty, as we saw with the devastating floods in Mozambique early in 2000. Irresponsible business decisions with dramatic ecological and social consequences have taken their toll on all continents. The 1997-1998 decision to clear large tracts of forest in Indonesia by burning trees devastated more than 9 million hectares, causing an economic loss of more than $6 billion. Driven by profit and aided by weak law enforcement, entrepreneurs destroyed irreplaceable biodiversity and caused smoke and haze pollution that adversely affected the health of Indonesians and people in neighbouring countries.

Short-term profit

Europe is absolutely not free of such calamities. In December 1999, the wreck of the tanker Erika off the coast of France polluted beaches, devastated the local economy and killed hundreds of thousands of birds, fish and other wildlife. And this was just one of 180 tankers that sink every year around the world, mostly unbeknownst to the media or international authorities. The full extent of the deadly ‘mad cow disease’ is only now beginning to come to light. It is a perfect illustration of the dangers of prioritizing short-term profit rather than exercising caution. When someone decided to feed cows, a herbivore, with animal meal, nobody realized that the immune system of the cow was not elaborate enough to create resistance to unknown diseases in the way carnivores can. This is another example where, even in advanced democratic states, authorities withheld information from the public and endangered their lives through the abuse of nature.

But in fact we need look no further than the two most severe environmental problems looming in our future to see how desperately we need to change our behaviour: the freshwater and climate change crises. Together they are the cause of more than 25 million environmental refugees fleeing their homes every year, due mostly to droughts and floods, driving many to the miserable alternative of eking out an existence in the slums of already overcrowded cities. Scarcity of water is exacerbated by mismanagement of the resource. In my ongoing tentative efforts to help bring new constructive and concerted solutions to the water scarcity problem in the Middle East, I recently had the opportunity to cross the bridge over the Jordan River between Israel and Jordan. I was struck by the very small stream of water which flows there, and which must sustain the whole region. I then understood better the dimension of the water crisis in the world’s arid lands. Water is a limited resource and its mismanagement leads to scarcity.
We owe it to the future to make a commitment before the window of opportunity passes
We can extensively multiply examples but we should recognize that humankind is deaf to all these signals of the reaction of nature. Human activities continue to disturb and sometimes irreversibly destroy our life-support system, the Earth. Climate change threatens the habitability of vast areas of Earth and yet many of those most responsible are procrastinating and avoiding taking a firm decision on how to deal with it. There is no easy way to do this, but we owe it to the future to make a commitment before the window of opportunity passes.

The main causes of environmental degradation include: growing populations, which need more energy and materials; affluence, which increases material consumption and waste; poverty, which limits choices on how to use the environment; technologies which use energy and dispose of waste inefficiently; insecurity, which leads to magnification of the military budget and the construction of nuclear and chemical weapons of mass destruction; and finally institutions and policies that avoid addressing the most pressing problems and exclude stakeholders, especially women, minorities and the poor.

What can be done? I propose five measures:

1. Reform the United Nations system in order to give more power for action, for enforcement of United Nations decisions, for peace and stability.

2. Governments should ratify international conventions and protocols without delay, and implement them with courage and determination, including climate change, biodiversity, desertification, international watercourses, and others.

3. Environmental objectives should be integrated from the beginning into development planning and processes, as we are reminded once again by the World Commission on Dams in its November 2000 report.

4. The political leaders should acknowledge and act on their responsibility, sometimes backed by public opinion, and sometimes against it, to turn rhetoric into real action and achieve environmental compliance.

5. Reverse the tendency of the last ten years and increase overseas development assistance (ODA) spending in order to allow the developing countries to reduce their crippling debt, cover their basic human needs and have access to modern technologies that use materials and energy efficiently and with the minimum of waste.

The planet is in danger; this statement is not new, but if nothing is done to achieve sustainability in the first part of this new millennium, the prospects for the survival of humankind will be ever diminishing.

The 21st century should be declared the Century of Earth

Mikhail Gorbachev, formerly President of the USSR, is President of Green Cross International.

PHOTOGRAPH: E.P. Petunin/UNEP/Topham

This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Learning from disaster | Being prepared | The way forward | Breaking the cycle | Flip-flop to catastrophe | Nature's warnings | At a glance | Competition | Insuring against catastrophe | Recreating sustainability | The legacy of conflict | Ask us, involve us | The poor suffer most | Through a slanted lens

Complementary articles in other issues:
Metropolitan John of Pergamon: Ecological asceticism: a cultural revolution (Production and Consumption) 1996
Jorge Illueca and Walter Rast: Precious, finite and irreplaceable (Water) 1996
Dr. Johann Georg Goldammer: Fire watch (Climate and Action) 1998
Emma Gabunshina: Desert reaches Europe (UNEP 25) 1997
Sanjoy Hazarika: Bhopal blinded us all (Chemicals) 1997
Mohamed T. El-Ashry: Energizing change (Climate and Action) 1998