Gorbachev, M. Manifesto for the Earth

Manifesto for the Earth, Clearview, London, 2006

There can be few people in the world better placed to have an informed view on the issues that plague our time than former President of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev. His book, Manifesto for the Earth, sets out a brief, but coherent, analysis of the global situation along with some clear recommendations for change.

Gorbachev is no idealist. As one who lived through the multiple privations of life in war-torn and post-war Russia, his view of the world is grounded in the realities of life as seen from a small farm in Stavropol region of the North Caucasus. As Russian President he is known for initiating certain democratic reforms that opened up the Soviet Union, bringing it forward out of the totalitarian era. He, more than most, is eminently well qualified to state that ‘the opportunities on offer at the end of the cold war were for the most part not taken up’. And he is clear about why: lack of vision, lack of political will and the spread of economic liberalism around the world. This was shown beyond doubt at the 2002 Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development where a variety of progressive measures (such as investment in renewable energy by the OPEC countries and measures to curb excessive consumption in the rich West) failed to be taken up and implemented. For these and many other reasons ‘global politics is in crisis’ and there is an urgent need for new initiatives to take us forward.

Gorbachev writes about how the Chernobyl disaster affected him personally. It was ‘a decisive test for glasnost’ (openness), it ‘shattered’ his belief in the ‘absolute reliability of technology’ and it radically changed the time-scales that he’d been implicitly using. ‘What right have we to burden our descendants with such a problem?’ In the book he writes succinctly about the ‘three crises’ : economic, social and ecological. After lamenting the widespread failure of the UN and governments to respond, Gorbachev calls for a rejection of the consumer society (which he regards as ‘a disaster’), a re-assessment of economic liberalism (‘the growing ecological crisis shows that a liberal economy functioning mainly according to the criteria of profitability and a return on capital is not capable of coping with the ecological challenge’) and a wholesale commitment toward re-thinking and re-prioritising human activities on the Earth. ‘What we need is not a revolution but an evolution of the idea we harbour about ourselves and about how the world might be organised and what its new shape in the age of globalisation might be’.

This all points to deeper challenges that manifestly go beyond what any nation is capable of achieving within the current world order, i.e., reversing ‘currently prevalent behavioural patterns’ beginning with ‘changes in the human spirit, a reprioritisation of our value system, including relations between people and the interrelationship between humanity and nature’. Gorbachev’s solution, insofar as he is able to locate one in this context, is to put his energy into initiatives like the Earth Charter, Green Cross International and the Earth Dialogues process. He’s accepted that governments per se and the UN simply will not act in the ways that will achieve sustained change. Therefore the only route left is direct engagement with people around the world and, especially, through the NGO movement.

There are a number of references to ‘the future’ in this book and its greatest omission is that it makes so little use of them. The focus is on finding solutions within the here-and-now to the great global problems. It says little or nothing about how human and social foresight can be mobilised to understand the challenges of the near-future environment, generate timely social responses and actively design futures worth living in. Despite a sound underlying analysis and a wealth of statesman-like experience, the writer fails to understand both the need and the potential for social foresight. But in all other respects this is a timely and refreshing book from someone who has earned the right to be heard and taken seriously. Would that governments were able to look beyond their immediate self-interest and act on these overdue suggestions.

Copyright (C) Richard A. Slaughter, 2006