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Environment : The Greening of Gorbachev : The former Soviet leader now heads a new environmental group, the International Green Cross. And he has his critics.


KYOTO, Japan — The world's latest, would-be environmental guru certainly has the political connections to carry his message to the top, and he's no longer encumbered by the bonds of conventional diplomacy.

However, critics are already questioning his qualifications based on a track record that includes a role in official attempts to cover up the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

Making the jump from perestroika to pollution is Mikhail S. Gorbachev, the man widely credited with bringing down the wall that separated East from West while in his old job as president of the former Soviet Union.

He debuted last week as founding president of the newly organized International Green Cross, which bills itself as the world's first all-encompassing global environmental group.

"The civilization that has existed for centuries is beginning to exhaust its potential, and is no longer able to preserve and improve life on Earth," Gorbachev declared as the group's charter was adopted at a meeting here of religious leaders, legislators and scientists from around the world. "For the first time, we see a threat to the very existence of the human race. . . . For the first time, we see signs of danger to the very stability of the biosphere."

Calling for a change in values away from consumerism and a belief that man can conquer nature, he declared that "the 21st Century will either be the century of total crisis or the century of human recovery." The crisis in environment, he declared, deserves the same level of attention devoted to nuclear disarmament.

Gorbachev said the IGC won't be able to "do the job of governments, national environment communities or businessmen."

However, he added, it will assist existing environmental movements and work to "shape planetary environmental consciousness, develop new environmental policies and develop new environmental laws." On the initial agenda, according to Gorbachev, are plans to:

* Draw up an "ecological code of behavior."

* Propose international environment laws and mechanisms to implement them.

* Stage international competitions to produce environment textbooks for use in high schools throughout the world, "to teach children that man should not be overly ambitious as a conqueror and master of nature."

* Establish a global ecological TV network using satellite broadcasting.

What can Gorbachev and the IGC do that organizations such as Greenpeace and the United Nations can't?

The main thing the former Soviet leader brings to the environmental battle is clout. "When he calls, people do pick up the phone," an IGC spokesman said.

The new group has already signed an American consulting firm, McKenzie & Co., and a New York public relations agent, whose clients include Elizabeth Taylor.

IGC Executive Director Roland Wiederkehr, a member of the Swiss Parliament and a former leader in the World Life movement in Switzerland, said environmental movements so far have failed because they have been unable to bring ecologists together with political leaders.

"Take Greenpeace, for example," he said. "What do they do? They accuse. Accusing is good, but where are the solutions? Gorbachev will reach the leaders and put pressure on them."

Akira Matsumura, a Japanese founder of the New York-based Global Forum of Spiritual and Parliamentary Leaders on Human Survival--whom Gorbachev credited with persuading him to establish and lead the International Green Cross--said the new organization will fill a vacuum left by inadequacies of the United Nations.

The United Nations cannot transcend politics because it is an organization of governments, he said. It is also unable to deal directly with local communities where pollution problems occur, he said, and it finds itself unable to touch religious affairs.

"We have to seek a change in values and attitudes, and to do that, there is no way to exclude religious leaders," Matsumura said.

The IGC itself will not undertake specific environmental projects, according to Gorbachev. "I don't see us as instigators, or agitators," he said. "We will work with the policy-makers and legislators," making recommendations either by invitation or on its own initiative.

He also said the IGC intends to propose changes in the structure of the United Nations to develop more regional institutions, including environment bodies.

"We used to rely on alliances to coordinate the world. Now we should rely on regional and global structures," Gorbachev explained. "If there had been an organization like ours to play a leadership role in the protection of Africa, the cutting of timber that led to desertification would not have happened on that scale."

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