Publisher's Note: This column was originally published on Nov. 28, 2005. Mikhail Gorbachev died on Aug. 30, 2022 in Moscow.

GREENCASTLE, Ind. — Mikhail Gorbachev, the former general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, suggested that perhaps I shouldn’t be driving my big, gas guzzling Ford F-150 pickup truck.

I would have been better prepared if Al Gore had made the suggestion. But Gorbachev? It wasn’t a personal admonition. He spoke on Oct. 27, 2005 to 3,000 people packed into the DePauw University basketball gym about the impending crises in energy, water and population, or the “global environmental crisis.”

This is a man who came up through and thrived in one of the most brutal regimes in the history of mankind. Not only did the Soviet Union exact an immense human toll, but its exploitation of the earth has resulted in the death of the Aral Sea; billions of gallons of oil from fractured pipelines staining the tundra; a radiation no man’s land around a place called Chernobyl; nuclear, biological and chemical weaponry often times kept secure by simple padlocks; and thousands of polluted rivers and brownfields.

To his magnificent credit, upon assuming the helm of what President Reagan called the “Evil Empire,” Gorbachev realized its precarious position. As the West exploded in a PC-based sharing of information, the centralized Soviets tried to horde data. This realization ignited the velvet revolutions of Eastern Europe and on Jan. 1, 1991, gave us a sight many couldn’t have imagined: the lowering of the crimson hammer and sickle from the Kremlin.

So why was Gorbachev’s message at DePauw, located 145 miles south of the Lake Michigan shoreline, so relevant to Hoosiers?

The short answer is that it underscores the vibrant worldwide connectivity that we all should be feeling. What is troubling about my Indiana today is that we seem to be kicking and screaming into the 21st Century, fighting to preserve a status quo that will only render us asunder. My last several columns have all been about modernizing our 1851 government at the state and local level so that we can compete and thrive globally.

I never would have imagined that Mikhail Gorbachev would be the one to articulate what’s at stake so vividly. “Looking at the situation, we understand that we need political will; we need to overcome the paralysis of political will,” Gorbachev said, adding, “We see that world leaders are still stuck in the past century. They’re still responding to events.”

As founder of the environmental advocacy organization Green Cross International, Gorbachev said, “I’ve been working on these issues. I know the situation, and I believe the situation in the world today is a conflict between man and the rest of nature,” the former Russian president said. “We’ve come to a point where the biosphere is being destroyed. This is our home. This is the only environment in which we can live. It is being destroyed.”

He offered up startling statistics. The world’s Gross Domestic Production on a daily basis matches that of the entire year 1900. One billion earthlings live on $1 a day; 2.8 billion on $2 a day. Two thirds of earth’s women cannot read and write. One out of every 11 newborn babies dies; some 2.46 billion people do not have access to sanitation.

On that day — Oct. 27 -- 25,000 people died of starvation. “Very soon,” Gorbachev said, “China will become the biggest importer of grain.”

Between 1993 and 2003, the consumption of oil grew by 17%, with 38% consumed by China, Russia and the United States. The U.S. has 4.3 percent of the planet’s population, but consumes a quarter of its oil supply, which Gorbachev believes will be exhausted in “41 or 42 years.”

Looking out at this young collegiate audience, Gorbachev said, “A majority of you will see oil drying up.”

He said 60% of the earth’s ecosystems are in a state of atrophy “and it is not clear they can be restored.” Hurricane Katrina’s deathblow to New Orleans, with its eroding wetlands no long acting as a buffer, illustrates that point. He predicted that future wars “will be fought over water, not oil.”

This is a notion that should strike home. Over the next three weeks, Gov. Mitch Daniels will have to decide whether to sign the Great Lakes Basin Water Resources Compact, which declares that Lake Michigan and its four freshwater cousins are “precious public natural resources shared and held in trust by the states.” Great Lakes water is coveted by many, from parched Las Vegas to China’s billions of thirsty people. Once signed, it will have to be approved by the Indiana General Assembly and those of seven other states and two Canadian provinces, along with Congress.

As a baby cried in the audience, Gorbachev said the future of civilization “will depend on how global problems are addressed.”

“I would say that initially there was tremendous hope that after the end of the Cold War, which we announced when we met in Malta with President (George H.W.) Bush... that there would be enormous changes for the better, with great expectations,” Gorbachev recalled. “That process slowed down, and the opportunities that we had are not fully used.”

Gorbachev concluded by recalling a famous quote from another president. John F. Kennedy once said, “If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.”

These words were spoken in a state that is struggling to assess its own property, fund its education, keep the sewage out of its lakes and rivers, finance the defense of its most vulnerable children, build power plants, or even merge its police forces.

Brian Howey is publisher of The Howey Politics Indiana, the weekly briefing on Indiana politics.