AT Boston University's recent graduation exercises, French President Fran,cois Mitterrand gave one of the most important, yet underrated, speeches of the season. He talked about the accelerating destruction of Earth's life-supporting environment and of humanity's need to save that environment if it is to save itself.
The American press largely ignored his comments, because he said nothing about stress within the Western alliance, turmoil in China, or other topics of immediate political interest. But what he did discuss is likely to dominate international politics in the 1990s.
World leaders are waking up to the fact that we are trashing the planet at such a rate that, in Mr. Mitterrand's words, ``soon no one will be able to escape'' the bad effects. He rightly called this a threat that ``requires, as a matter of extreme urgency, an emergency plan to save the environment.''
Signatories of the treaty to save the ozone layer are finding that current plans to cut back ozone-destroying chemicals are inadequate. They will probably have to phase out more of these chemicals sooner than expected and speed up the search for substitutes.
Growing awareness of the likelihood that the global climate is warming - a process driven by pollution - has become the subject of major international meetings, including one with President Bush as host. Since the heat-trapping gases are released by agriculture and use of fossil fuels, coping with this climatic threat will involve both national and world economic changes.
Meanwhile, world population growth, which had slowed in the 1970s, is speeding up again. Population now stands at a little over 5 billion people. That number is growing by about 90 million (roughly the current Mexican population) a year, according to the Population Reference Bureau. This unrestrained growth is one of the main underlying causes of environmental degradation. It is negating the economic growth of many developing nations.
It is clear that the world cannot continue on its present environmentally destructive course. It's also clear that changing course will involve serious economic adjustments for everyone. The kind of heedless resource exploitation that made the present industrial nations wealthy will be foreclosed to developing nations. Likewise, industrial countries will have to make major adjustments in their energy-supply and manufacturing practices.
Rich nations will have no choice but to help poor nations find environmentally safe ways to develop. Indeed, we will all have to help one another work our way through this global challenge. What Mitterrand said is that this need is rapidly forcing its way toward the top of the international political agenda. It could hardly have been a more timely speech.