Gorby the Green Warrior

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AT A TIME WHEN THE ENVIRONmental movement seems in desperate need of a champion, the most likely candidates have gone AWOL. Vice President Al Gore, the author of Earth in the Balance, has strayed to other issues as he tries to keep up with Hillary and the pack of FOBs in the hyperactive Clinton Administration. Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland devoted much of the 1980s to helping develop a global ecological agenda, but her reputation has plummeted since Norway resumed commercial whaling in defiance of an international ban.

Now into the breach strides Mikhail Gorbachev, who is once again a man with a mission. Helping end the cold war and pushing for democratic reform in Russia were simple compared with the new challenge he has taken up. As president of the International Green Cross/Green Crescent, a private organization intended to help coordinate global environmental initiatives, Gorbachev hopes to do nothing less than spearhead a drive to save the planet.

Even when he presided over a superpower, Gorbachev talked like someone with a heart of green. At the United Nations in 1988, he called for a halt to humanity's "aggressions against nature." Today, freed from the constraints of government, he sometimes sounds more like a granola-crunching backpacker from California than a former communist who rose through the ranks of apparatchiks in one of the most environmentally irresponsible nations of our time. Gorbachev may be the only world leader to use the word noosphere (a term that refers to human consciousness as it relates to the biosphere) in a major address.

Gorbachev launched the Green Cross last spring in Kyoto, Japan, at a meeting of the Global Forum, a gathering of lawmakers, religious leaders, activists and scientists. His intellectually adventurous speech was at times contradictory and unrealistic, but it moved far beyond the bland platitudes about "sustainable development" and "global conventions" that dominate international discussions of environmental issues. Saying things that would mean political suicide in most of the industrial world, he attacked such sacred cows as development, progress and the current definitions of material happiness.

"Technology has not only failed to ease the conflict between man and nature," Gorbachev argued, "it has aggravated that conflict . . . The crisis of civilization that we see today is a crisis of the naive belief in the omnipotence of humanity." He contended that the world must abandon the urge to conquer nature and adopt a "philosophy of limits" based on an understanding that technology cannot solve all problems.

Gorbachev knows firsthand what mankind can do to the environment. "I first saw the dangers in Stavropol, where poor farming practices produced sandstorms that carried away topsoil," he said during an interview with TIME. While in the Kremlin, he confronted one horror story after another of skies blackened by smokestacks, rivers ruined by toxic wastes and fields flooded by ill- conceived dams. "Farmers rebelled against these outrages," he said, "but because of the command system, their revolt was not heard." Then came the explosion of the nuclear power plant in Chernobyl, which "was the final argument. All of us then understood the kind of monster we had created."

At a meeting of the Global Forum in Moscow in 1990, when he was still Soviet President, Gorbachev proposed an organization roughly analogous to the International Red Cross to contend with environmental problems that cross national boundaries. Last year the Earth Summit in Rio passed a resolution establishing the International Green Cross, and six months later the Dutch government donated $1.1 million to get things going. At about the same time, Roland Wiederkehr, an environmentalist and member of the Swiss Federal Assembly, started the World Green Cross. Gracefully acknowledging Gorbachev's star power, Wiederkehr accepted the Russian's invitation to merge the two groups and is now executive director of the combined operation. It has headquarters in both the Hague and Geneva.

Since the organization's debut, Gorbachev and Wiederkehr have met with a parade of environmentalists to select pilot projects. Among the possibilities: a program to coordinate efforts to clean up the Volga River; an effort to protect the pristine Plitvicka Lakes National Park on the border between Serbia and Croatia from the fighting that has ravaged the Balkans; the establishment of a Geneva-based industry council that would help prevent chemical catastrophes like the gas leak that killed 2,000 in Bhopal, India; and an initiative to focus attention on problems that involve the use and disposal of toxic products by the world's military establishments.

Gorbachev's prestige has helped attract Green Cross board members such as Javier Perez de Cuellar, former Secretary-General of the U.N., and former Japanese Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu. Other trustees range from astronomer Carl Sagan to Rene Felber, the former President of Switzerland. Ultimately, Gorbachev envisions a network of local, national, regional and international offices that will, as he puts it, "enhance and amplify" the work of other environmental groups. He also sees this network as a means of changing the "values" of human societies.

If that sounds vague, it is. Some activists grumble that the world does not need another environmental bureaucracy, particularly one put together in such an impromptu manner. Despite the Russian's passion for his new career, it is clear that he is learning on the job. Still, Gorbachev brings to his new job one irreplaceable asset: the respect of world leaders. Recently he wrote President Clinton to say, in effect, "I stopped nuclear testing; you can too." Says Green Cross board member Thor Heyerdahl (whose writings, beginning with Kon-Tiki, greatly influenced the former Soviet President): "Even though ! there are other international environmental organizations, I came here because Gorbachev has the stature, intelligence and drive to make things happen. He realizes that the threat is grave, and he gives me hope."