Ocean Mist

Issues and trends shaping our environment, health and economy

5 Jun 2022

50 years of trying to save the environment

Posted by Michael Keating

It was 50 years ago, on June 5, 1972, that the world began the first of the great environmental conferences that have tried to chart a course toward a sustainable future. At the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, 114 governments met to try to come to terms with the environmental problems that were serious even then and with the needs of the less industrialized nations who needed ecological room to expand their economies. Indian Prime Minister Indira Ghandi put human needs on the agenda, calling poverty a driver of environmental degradation because the poor exploit the environment to meet immediate needs such as for food and fuel. This made a strong link between environment and development issues, helping to set the scene for the sustainable development concept which was fleshed out in the next decade. The Stockholm conference came three months after the publication of the controversial book The Limits to Growth, by The Club of Rome, an international association of scientists, educators, economists, humanists, industrialists and civil servants. The book warned that with increases in population and demands, the world would face increasing shortages of essential natural resources. It said consumption trends could be changed “…to establish a condition of ecological and economic stability that is sustainable far into the future.” This presaged the 1987 Brundtland report, Our Common Future, which called for sustainable development. Following the Stockholm conference, Barbara Ward and Rene Dubos published Only One Earth: The Care and Maintenance of a Small Planet, which warned we had to learn to control our demands and environmental impacts.

One of the major results of the Stockholm conference was the creation of the United Nations Environment Programme [UNEP], giving the world its first global environmental agency. It was a period when governments around the world started creating their own environmental departments and citizens formed  many environmental non-government organizations.

Following Stockholm, the world has held a series of major meetings such as the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro in 1982, which included the Earth Summit, the largest meeting of world leaders ever held. The Rio conference launched the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Convention on Biological Diversity and agreed on Agenda 21, a program to achieve sustainable development. After Rio came the UN General Assembly Special Session on Sustainable Development in New York in 1997 and the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002. Although there are many great environmental problems most attention has shifted to climate change with its regular meetings to seek a solution to this crisis.

Maurice Strong

The common theme for much of this was the work of Canadian businessman and environmentalist Maurice Strong. He headed the Stockholm conference, was the first head of UNEP, was a member of the Brundtland commission and headed the Rio conference.

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