Clean Air, Clean Water, Healthy Planet - Will it Take Leadership, Disaster, or Both?

In April of 1997, I arranged for a meeting between President Mikhail Gorbachev and US Congressional leaders to discuss the growing environmental crisis. President Gorbachev, who founded the international movement Green Cross International which is represented by my organization Global Green in the United States, wanted to talk with and prod American political leaders to be more aggressive in their response to environmental threats. We met with Senators Boxer, Bingaman, and Sarbanes along with Congressmen Waxman, Markey and Shays in the Vice President's treaty room in the US Capital.

The conversation was far ranging, touching as it always does with President Gorbachev, on the Soviet Union, what Reagan was like, and current Russian politics. However, the topic kept coming back to the environment and arms control, our topics for the meeting.

After some vigorous debate, I believe it was Senator Bingaman who asked President Gorbachev a probing, philosophical question, evoking the presumption that humanity's actions or lack there of, could lead us to our own extinction, or at least deep suffering: "What will it take to change our course as a society? Will it take a disaster, or can leadership suffice?"

After a long pause, Gorbachev provided his answer (through his ubiquitous translator and advisor, Pavel Palazchenko) that I paraphrase here: "I hope, and believe, it can be leadership, but I'm afraid it will be a mix of both that are needed to cause us to act."

If there ever were a disaster in the United States to help wake us up to the need to act -- and act urgently -- it is the BP Oil Spill, and the environmental and human crises it has created. This is not to mention the lives lost in the BP Oil Spill's terrible inception. Nor the lives lost at the Massey coal mine collapse, or even the 3 lives lost today in an accident involving a natural gas line rupturing in Texas. Sadly, tragically, all these lives were lost in accidents related to how we serve our nation's growing and voracious appetite for cheap, plentiful energy.

Cheap energy we all benefit from in our daily lives. Cheap energy whose costs do not show up on the balance sheet, that puts at risk our climate, our coasts, and our citizens. The BP Oil Spill is showing us just some of those costs, putting just some of them on BP's balance sheet.

President Obama thankfully has improved his response around the BP Oil Spill the last week in the face of growing public criticism. Still, while the politicians who allowed this culture of deregulation and cozy corporate relationships may have left the White House, many are still in power in Congress.

Unfortunately, the deregulation the Bush White House and members in both parties in Congress set in motion has done its damage. And now we seem to have to rely on BP to fix this problem, who had no idea of how to deal with such a disaster.

Still, there does not seem to be the groundswell of public anger one would expect. Where is the call for action, demanding leadership to change in how we do allow business to operate in this country, whether it is with regulating the oil industry, coal mining, or even Wall Street?

Fortunately, the media loves visuals, and now that the images out of the Gulf are increasingly disturbing, we might see some action. As a colleague of mine once said a decade ago, "If it is not on TV, it is not real." Well, now that should be amended: if it is not on TV or the internet, its not real.

Today, we need both short term emergency response to the critical environmental and humanitarian crisis - for the lives and livelihoods of those that live and depend on the Gulf Coast, and our fragile ecosystem - as well as a farsighted response that will create a cleaner, safer and healthier energy supply to ensure we never have to endure another such calamity.

I often reflect upon President Gorbachev's words that day. I reluctantly agree with him.

The disaster is upon us, now all we need is leadership.

Also posted on Matt Petersen's Huffington Post blog