Rio + 20, Stockholm + 40
The upcoming Rio+20 Conference, so named because it is taking place 20 years on from its forebear the historic Rio Conference on Environment and Development, will begin in a little over a weeks time. Much is being made of the heritage of this event, harking back to the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development. At which two legally binding agreements were opened for signature: the Convention on Biological Diversity, and the Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).
But the history of what we now call sustainable development has a longer lineage. 40 years ago the first major international conference on issues affecting the environment took place in Stockholm. From the 5th-16th June 1972, 113 governments attended alongside a number of NGOs. With several heads of state present, the conference was certainly an issue being taken seriously by many governments. The proposal for the conference initially came on the 3rd December 1968 from the Swedish Government. Responding to the proposal, UN resolution 2398 (XXIII) noted the:
“continuing and accelerating impairment of the quality of the human environment” and its “consequent effects on the condition of man, his physical, mental and social well-being, his dignity and his enjoyment of basic human rights, in developing as well as developed countries.”
Despite an emergent environmental movement in a number of developed countries, elsewhere there were impediments to the success of a conference on the Human Environment. Two main points of contention –North-South conflict and Cold War Geo-political tensions –make the fact that the Stockholm Conference even happened particularly impressive.
On the Cold War tensions, Richard Nixon had raised the stakes back in 1968 when he sought to provide NATO with a new social and environmental dimension –the Committee on Challenges to Modern Society (CCMS) –to ameliorate some of the anti-NATO feeling, transposed from US involvement in Vietnam. The CCMS received a tepid welcome from allies within NATO; they were sceptical of involving the military machinery of NATO in environmental matters, with concern expressed by British officials that “on the surface it appeared that the involvement of a military alliance such as NATO would give the kiss of death to any East/West dialogue on the environment.” In seeking to further his policy of détente, environmental diplomacy offered Nixon a vehicle to engage in East-West dialogue that counterproductively deepened the entrenchment of the east-west divide. This was seen when the Soviets sought to enhance the international status of East Germany, which was rejected by the Western Governments. Ultimately, Nixon’s environmental diplomacy resulted in a Soviet boycott of the conference, but not before they had participated in a number of preparatory meetings. Disappointing as it was to many people that the Soviet states didn’t attend it didn’t deliver hammer blow to the Conference.
While, the North-South conflict witnessed during the Conference preparations and proceedings has perhaps left the biggest mark on international environmental politics to this day. Intimately involved in overcoming these tensions was Maurice Strong, an enigmatic Canadian entrepreneur and former Deputy Minister with responsibility for Canadian External Aid, who was appointed Secretary-General of the Conference.
The two years of preparation for Stockholm involved Maurice Strong acting as a travelling salesman. Strong visited as many countries as possible during the preparations soliciting environmental reports from every invited country. During these visits Strong both advertised the conference, and helped to raise awareness of potential and actual environmental problems present in the country he was visiting. Throughout the preparations Strong was engaged in a delicate balancing act. Strong had to Address the concerns of industrialised countries on pollution as well as emphasise to developing countries that protection of the environment was not exclusively a rich man’s problem, retrospectively observing that:
“In Asia, Africa and Latin America, the disposition was to regard the environment as something remote from the interests and concerns of the poor. To a man faced with immediate starvation and other diseases of poverty, the risks he runs from contamination of the seas or the atmosphere seem so remote as to be irrelevant.”
Maurice Strong (left) and Conference President Ingemund Bengtsson
In order to overcome this impediment Maurice Strong convened a meeting held in Founex, Switzerland June 1971, at which 27 economists and scientists met for nine days and produced the first conceptual basis for the idea that environment and development are not incompatible. The report produced at the Founex meeting suggested that “the developing countries would clearly wish to avoid, as far as is feasible, the mistakes and distortions that have characterized the patterns of development of the industrialized societies.” There was shift in emphasis that abated some of the concerns held by developing countries, and while at the outset it was said that developing countries “would welcome pollution caused by smoking chimneys” by the conclusion there was a wider appreciation that developmental issues and environmental issues cold not be separated. And by the tie of the Conference itself principle 11 of the declaration signed at Stockholm stated:
“The environmental policies of all States should enhance and not adversely affect the present or future development potential of developing countries, nor should they hamper the attainment of better living conditions for all, and appropriate steps should be taken by States and international organisations with a view to reaching agreement on meeting the possible national and international economic consequences resulting from the application of environmental measures.”
While we now talk about Sustainable development, Stockholm was concerned with eco-development, a process of positive management of the environment for human benefit. Eco-development acknowledged that technology could seriously damage the environment, that managing the environment and shouldn’t affect future development because they weren’t incompatible. So while it is often the Brundtland Commission on Environment and Development to which many refer when seeking out the roots of the concept of Sustainable development, a longer history can be found. This history has been carried forth in the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), a UN agency established directly as a result of the Stockholm Conference.
Maria Ivanova, “Designing the United Nations Environment Programme: a story of compromise and confrontation”, International Environmental Agreements, (2007), 7, pp. 337–361
Peter Stone, Did we Save the World at Stockholm? (Earth Island: London, 1973)
Russell E. Train, Politics, Pollution, and Pandas, (Island Press: Washington, 2003)