THE President of West Germany, Richard von Weizs"acker, has dozens of things on his mind. But on his agenda for the 21st century there's only one central item: the preservation of nature, or (to use the word he prefers) creation. In the course of an hour-long conversation in the presidential residence here at Villa Hammerschmidt, however, Mr. von Weizs"acker expands that single-item agenda to embrace a whole world of issues - North-South relations, population growth, nuclear armament, energy supplies, and more. Nevertheless, as he tells his visitor with a smile in his Oxford-accented English, ``it will remain easy throughout our whole conversation for me to prove that every possible item you're going to mention has to do with my primary concern - namely, to preserve nature.''
Leaning forward on a sofa, he explains his point: ``We have been brought up, and our ancestors even more, to understand that nature is serving mankind.'' But in the future,``we will have to realize, in our daily decisions and forms of behavior, that finally we are nothing but a little part in the history of nature. And either we learn to preserve nature - or, if you wish, to preserve creation - or we will not survive.''
For von Weizs"acker, the word ``environment'' is inadequate. ``It comes from the notion that there's one center, and that is me,'' he explains. That notion, he says, leads people to assume that the real reason for caring for the environment is simply to ensure that humanity can ``move ahead the way [it wants] to move ahead.''
``I don't think that's proper,'' he says. ``I don't think that's a sufficient way of understanding what [we] really have to learn. We have to preserve nature for nature's own sake, [and not simply] for the sake of mankind.'' A committed Lutheran, von Weizs"acker traces man's attitude toward nature back to a misinterpretation of the Old Testament. ``What we read in the Bible about man having dominion over the earth,'' he says, referring to the first chapter of Genesis, ``may have been misunderstood.'' By suggesting that man has a right to dominate nature, this passage has been ``a tremendously dangerous incentive for misunderstanding.''
In man's relation with nature over the centuries, says von Weizs"acker, he has ``taken his share, more or less properly.'' Nowadays, however, ``the unbelievable speed of progress in science and technology has come to a point where, without us realizing it quickly enough, we have started to take more than our share.'' That, he says, means that we not only have ``the capability of destroying pretty much of the environment'' but of ``destroying ourselves'' as well.
``In general,'' he says, speaking of man's relation to nature, ``I think this is the most important question'' on the next century's agenda.
Growing directly out of von Weizs"acker's concern for nature is his special interest in preserving the world's dwindling rain forests.
``Intellectually,'' he says, ``it's easy to understand why [their preservation] is so important for everyone on Earth. But existentially it's rather difficult to experience [the fact that] that is really true, because you don't live in Brazil and you don't live in Malaysia and Cameroon.''
As he explained in a recent speech, tropical rain forests ``play an irreplaceable role as a regulator of world climate, reservoir of water, as a natural cleaning filter for the atmosphere. Their destruction would have unforeseeable consequences for water, weather, and temperature.''
The discussion of the threat to the rain forests leads von Weizs"acker to a related issue: the growth in global population, often cited as a major reason for cutting down rain forests.
``Certainly, the population question is among the foremost,'' he says. It is unquestionably ``going to be a [central] question of the 21st century,'' he notes, because the children who will come to maturity early in that century have already been born.
Does the Chinese policy of permitting only one child per family offer a useful example?
``The Chinese are probably among the most successful people to cope with the population-growth problem [and are] a most astonishing people,'' he says. But he adds, ``I don't think [the Chinese policy] will survive, in the sense that it is just too much against human experience.''
Yet von Weizs"acker says he sees little evidence that the leading nations and institutions around the world are ``really contributing to an insight into these problems.''
In this connection, he mentions in particular the Roman Catholic Church as an organization which still could do more to help solve these problems.
The discussion leads naturally to the issue of the social and economic gap between the developing and the developed countries - the so-called North-South divide.
``I think there has been too much talk about [the] possibilities of changing the world economic system, by which the North-South problem could be solved,'' he says. ``I don't believe there is a world economic system which you can define, in a sense, and say, `Well, here it is.''' Banks and debtor nations HE disagrees with those who say that the problem of the massive debt burden in developing nations could be solved by making the banks that have lent the money ``feel a responsibility for restoring or building a sound world economic system.''
Private banks, he says, ``exist for the purpose of lending money and earning money out of their interest.'' If Western governments have encouraged banks to lend money to the developing world, and if the debts turn out to be uncollectible, ``then you have two possibilities: either to let [the banks] go bankrupt, or to pay back the money which cannot be paid back by the debtors through your government or our government.''
It ``will not work,'' for example, simply to assert that ``the world's economic system is unjust and doesn't work'' - and that banks must be taught ``how to behave responsibly vis-`a-vis the third world.''
Even this problem, in von Weizs"acker's eyes, is related to the natural world. What he terms ``the very unjust distribution of chances between North and South'' - and the related problem of developing-world debt - arise, in part, because ``their raw materials don't get a good price.''
But the fact is, he explains, that some of these raw materials are no longer in great demand. ``So it doesn't help very much to deplore an unjust system in the pricing of a raw material no one needs.'' The need for the future, he suggests, is for an understanding of economics that goes far beyond tinkering with debt and pricing.
And how does energy figure into von Weizs"acker's thinking about the future?
``Energy supply is, of course, very important,'' he notes, although he adds that ``it's easier to be solved'' than the problems of population and environmental degradation.
But here, too, he argues that the issue is fundamentally a question of man's relation to nature - in that many energy-generating activities either degrade the environment or, as in the case of nuclear energy, pose what many consider to be unacceptable risks of accidental pollution.
At present, he says, the world ``will not and cannot get out of nuclear energy.'' Instead, he says, ``the main decision [should be] to concentrate all our efforts on other energy sources.'' As soon as other sources are found, he adds, ``it is more likely that we will get out [of] nuclear energy.'' Security and nuclear energy HE acknowledges that West Germany has a highly developed nuclear industry that can easily ``stand worldwide competition.'' But he discounts the argument that in the next century so many countries will need nuclear energy that the industry should be encouraged to expand.
``The majority of those countries will probably not be able to afford nuclear-energy plants with the high standard of security which we require from our own plants today,'' he says. Instead, he foresees less expensive alternative sources, such as solar energy, being developed for many countries.
The problem, he says, ``requires from us today - not in 15 years - a concentration, a very big effort, in financing and manpower and inducement for bright young people to work in the field of alternative energies.''
``If we want results within 30 or 50 years,'' he insists, ``they will come only if we work with that [kind of] concentration today.''
Thinking of nuclear energy leads von Weizs"acker to nuclear arms - and to world peace. How does that relate to his overriding concern for nature?
``Without peace in a nuclear age,'' he asserts, ``it's not worth [talking] about preserving creation.''
He cannot deny, he says, that the presence of nuclear weapons has had a healthy deterrent effect that ``is preserving our peace'' in Europe, as it has for the past 40 years. ``I think deterrence, basically, is an important and valid argument,'' he says, adding that some politicians only confuse the issue when they argue that deterrence is not ``moral'' and that peace can only be preserved by getting rid of ``all those [nuclear] weapons.''
Fundamentally, however, the issue of peace for von Weizs"acker reaches far beyond arms control. What he is searching for - in an intriguing and still undeveloped way - is an alternative to war itself.
``I believe it is not totally unthinkable,'' he says, ``that the kind of war which history has taught us [up through] the 20th century ... is not the kind of power struggle [that will characterize] the next century.''
``I don't think mankind, in its character, will change,'' he adds. ``And I don't think power struggles will be exterminated altogether. But it is possible that ... [the] means to go ahead with this power struggle will not necessarily include war, a military [form of] war, as it did in history.''
Finally, what does von Weizs"acker see on the moral and ethical horizon? The `secularization' trend THE word he uses to describe the current trend is ``secularization'' - which, he says, is ``a strange and foreign word'' for which the German language has no equivalent. He interprets the trend not so much as a threat to some already-established ``moral standard'' that will ``break down on our way into the 21st century,'' but rather as a promising sign of ``our ability to find out that there is a real problem.'' It is, he says, ``a positive and not a negative sign.''
``People have a feeling that it is too difficult for them to understand life - not only individual life but also the common life,'' he says. ``In a situation of secularization and of all those technical and political and social developments which we have been talking about,'' he adds, there needs to be a ``strong effort to not only accompany [that process of development] but to guide it by some kind of moral or religious guideline.''
``It is true that churches have more difficulties than they used to have,'' he says. But those difficulties ``are not a sign that more and more people would like to get rid of [religion], but perhaps, on the contrary, that they are not satisfied with the still fairly traditional way of handling those problems by [the] churches.''
``It is in this sense,'' he concludes, that the society of the future will need to find ``some general directions for how to live together'' - for what he calls ``the whole ethics of living, individually and socially.''
Does he foresee, then, a society turning back to a lost ethical standard?
``I would not say `turning back' but `turning ahead,''' he says with a smile, ``because it's not very easy to say `turning back.' Where to? What kind of `back'?''
Next: Robert McNamara, former United States secretary of defense and former president of the World Bank, Dec. 16.