By Prof Brendan Mackey, Director, Climate Action Beacon, Griffith University Queensland Australia
Much has been written, and rightly so, about the political impact, significance and legacy of Mikhail Gorbachev (1931-2022). However, in addition to his grand and historic roles in changing the shape of Europe and Russian, and bringing to an end a Cold War that threatened to end in nuclear annihilation and mutually assured destruction, Gorbachev was also an environmentalist.
Prior to the official end of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic Soviet empire when on the 25th of December 1991 he resigned as president, Gorbachev speaking at the Global Forum on Environment and Development for Survival of Humanity (Moscow USSR, 15-19 Jan 1990) proposed the creation of a “Green Cross for the Earth” to promote international cooperation for environmental protection. He went on to found in 1993 Green Cross International which became established in 30 countries with a focus on Earth ethics and environmental education, elimination of the environmental consequences of the arms race and access to clean water.
Gorbachev also played a critical role in the development of the Earth Charter. The report of the 1987 The World Commission on Environment and Development (the “Brundtland Commission”) entitled “Our Common Future” called for a “new charter” to set “new norms” to guide the transition to sustainable development. Discussion about such an Earth Charter took place as part of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, but no political consensus could be reached on the need for such a document nor the process for its drafting. Rather, the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development articulated the international consensus on values at that time.
In 1994, Mikhail Gorbachev and Maurice Strong (Secretary-General of the Rio Earth Summit) working through the organizations they each founded (Earth Council and Green Cross International respectively), launched an initiative (with the support from the Dutch Government) to develop an Earth Charter as a civil society initiative. An independent Earth Charter Commission was formed in 1997 to oversee the development of the text, analyse the outcomes of a world-wide consultation process and to come to an agreement on a global consensus document. The drafting process was chaired by Prof Steven Rockefeller, supported by the Commission and a global network of individuals and organisations, and involved worldwide consultations with civil society organisations, including in Australia, Brazil, Netherlands, Russia and South Africa. The Earth Charter was formally launched in a special ceremony on 29 June 2000 at The Peace Palace in The Hague, Netherlands.
It is clear from his writings, that Gorbachev’s concerns for the environment and sustainability were a lifelong concern. In a 2005 essay on the Earth Charter entitled The Third Pillar of Sustainable Development, Gorbachev wrote “I was not born an ecologist, but the environment has always meant a lot to me. I grew up in a village and perceived the dying of rivers and land erosion as personal pain. Right after coming to power in the Soviet Union, I had to deal with a huge project of reversing the flow of the rivers from North to South. If not stopped, it would have resulted in a tremendous ecological disaster. I thought this was a tough school. Yet, I still had Chernobyl to face.… This catastrophe of planetary scale shook the world and showed, in the most harsh form, that nature does not forgive human mistakes.”
He also understood with great clarity that maintaining Earth’s environment as a safe and healthy home for the people of all nations, and those to come, was fundamental to global peace and security. In the same article he further argued that: “I believe that the world is confronted today with three major challenges which encompass all other problems: the challenge of security, including the risks associated with weapons of mass destruction and terrorism; the challenge of poverty and underdeveloped economies; and the challenge of environmental sustainability.”Adding that “..to help the human community [meet these challenges)… another document is missing, one…defining the human duties towards the environment. In my opinion, the Earth Charter should fill this void, acquire equal status, and become the third pillar supporting the peaceful development of the modern world.”
From humble origins – his parents were peasants from the farming village of Privolnoye – to the deadly game of nuclear disarmament, the environment was an ever-present component of his life experiences, thinking and vision for a more just sustainable and peaceful world. Through his work with Green Cross International, the Earth Charter, and other international initiatives, he should also be remembered as a great environmentalist.