Taking Stock in Stockholm

When I started my journey as an environmental educator in the mid-1980s, my orientation began with an introduction to the key milestones in the global environmental movement. The first milestone was the Stockholm Declaration which put forward a vision, as well as a set of principles on the way forward in the shared management of the global environment. The Declaration was promulgated at the conclusion of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment held at Stockholm in June 1972, which became popularly known as the Stockholm Conference. 

Why was this conference such an important milestone? Among many other firsts this was the first-ever UN conference with the word “environment” in the title. The Stockholm Declaration provided the first agreed global set of principles for future work in the field of the human environment.

What was the road that led to this? The world had seen unprecedented scientific and technological progress since the end of World War II. But a fallout of the resulting development was the deterioration of the environment. In the 1960s, several scientists and thinkers began to express concern about the negative environmental and societal effects of the rapid industrialization. The shortcomings of the UN system to deal with the new developments were also becoming evident, but at the time environment was not high on the agenda of national and international politics. What was the way forward in a world polarised by the Cold War, and also the increasing gap between the ‘developed’ and the ‘developing’ countries?

It was a small Scandinavian country, Sweden who took the initiative. It urged that the time was ripe for a collective, substantive discussion at the global level about environmental problems. In 1967 it proposed to convene a UN conference on the human environment to increase awareness, and to identify environmental problems that needed international cooperation.

The response was unexpected. Despite Cold War politics, the Soviet Union and other members of the Eastern bloc joined the United States and most Western European countries in supporting the Swedish initiative. However many developing countries were uneasy that Northern interests would dominate the proposed conference and that “green issues” would be an excuse to restrict their national development. But by and large Sweden’s proposal was positively received.

In May 1968 Sweden sent an official request to the Secretary General of the UN making their case.  ‘Environmental issues … have not yet been given the prominence in the deliberations of the competent organs of the United Nations… Furthermore, as the problems of human environment grow more serious every day… there is, therefore, an indisputable need to create a basis for comprehensive consideration within the United Nations of the problems of human environment.’

In 1968 the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution which called for a conference on the relationships between environmental, social, and economic issues to be convened in 1972. The conditions were that the conference would not take decisions. Any recommendations arising from it would have to be formally adopted by the General Assembly. Maurice Strong, a businessman and, at the time, the head of the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), was appointed to be Secretary General of the Conference.

In May 1969, the United Nations accepted Sweden’s offer to host the conference in Stockholm. So it came about that in 1972, “For the first time nations came to consider the state of the planet Earth, habitually taken for granted, treated as an unchanging backdrop to human drama. For the first time we were integrating the scenery into the action of the play.” (Shridath Ramphal Commonwealth Secretary General)

The Stockholm Conference was held in the first week of June 1972. It saw the participation of the representatives of 114 of the UN’s 132 member states. The Soviet Bloc did not participate in the main event but took active part in the preparatory process. This was the first major international event in which the People’s Republic of China participated as a new member of the United Nations. In addition to government representation, 250 non-governmental organizations came to the conference—an unprecedented achievement at the time.

Only two heads of State attended–Mr Olaf Palme the Prime Minister of Sweden, and Mrs Indira Gandhi the then Prime Minister of India. Indira Gandhi emerged as a figurehead to represent developing countries’ fears and priorities, stressing the issues of war, poverty, and development. She made an impassioned plea “We do not wish to impoverish the environment any further and yet we cannot for a moment forget the grim poverty of large numbers of people. Are not poverty and need the greatest polluters?”  This has been a key point in international deliberations in the five decades since Stockholm.

The Stockholm Conference produced three major sets of decisions: The Stockholm Declaration which provided the first agreed global set of principles for future work in the field of the human environment. The second was the Stockholm Action Plan comprising 109 recommendations for governments and international organizations on international measures against environmental degradation. The third was a group of five resolutions. The resolutions called for: a ban on nuclear weapon tests that may lead to radioactive fallout; an international databank on environmental data; the need to address actions linked to development and environment; international organizational changes; and the creation of an environmental fund.

The Conference had several outcomes that we today take for granted. Environment ministries and agencies were established in more than 100 countries to implement the recommendations of the Conference. It also led to a great increase in non-governmental and intergovernmental organizations dedicated to environmental preservation.

The Conference was used as a model for a series of similar UN events to try and come to grips with interlinked cross-sectoral issues from gender to human rights.

The United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) was set up as mark of the UN’s commitment to carry forward the Action Plan of the Conference. It was headquartered at Nairobi in Kenya, the first UN body to be located outside of the industrialized world. 5 June was designated as World Environment Day.

The Stockholm Conference was indeed a milestone in many ways. It stressed that environmental issues are inherently political—not just scientific and technical, as many policymakers previously thought, and therefore need political negotiations and decision-making. The Stockholm Conference demonstrated how global cooperation could take place. It identified a theme that has been at the centre of international environmental discourse: Sustainable Development.

This week it is exactly fifty years since this vision for a sustainable future for mankind was discussed and deliberated in a spirit of international cooperation. In the half century since, our planet has seen changes—for good and the bad. We are far from achieving the vision. Rather our planet faces a looming triple threat from climate change, pollution and waste, and loss of nature and biodiversity. The alarm bells are growing louder and closer. 

Once again, this week, Stockholm will host concerned world leaders, and a wide range of stakeholders in the Stockholm+50 event—a high-level gathering convened by the United Nations, and hosted by Sweden with support from the government of Kenya. They will meet in an effort to take stock of the achievements and failures of the past five decades, as well as with the hope to accelerate a transformation that leads to sustainable and green economies, more jobs, and a healthy planet for all, where no one is left behind.

As citizens of Planet Earth this is a good time for each of us to take stock of our own lifestyle, and remind ourselves that a healthy planet for the prosperity of all is our collective responsibility, and our collective opportunity.

The fate of Planet Earth lies largely in our own hands and in the knowledge and intelligence we bring to bear in the decision making process. In the final analysis, however, man is unlikely to succeed in managing his relationship with nature unless in the course of it he learns to manage better the relations between man and man.

Opening statement by Maurice Strong, Secretary-General of the Stockholm Conference June 1972.


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