World Environment magazine features Maurice Strong

In this interview with World Environment, the magazine of World  Wildlife Fund (China) Maurice Strong speaks about the process to move globalize the environmental movement.

Maurice Strong with a copy of WWF China's World Environment magazine

In his conversation with Jia Feng from the World Environment, Strong gives a first hand account of China's participation at the historic United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm in June 1972. Stockholm was the first global conference that China attended after taking its proper place in the UN system. 

Jia Feng: The first world conference on environment in 1969 was held in answer to the proposal of the Swedish government. It was painstaking to select a proper organizer of this conference. At last the UN Secretary General Mr. U Thant appointed you as the under-secretary general to attend to the conference's preparatory work. Could you please tell us why you were selected?

Strong: Well, I cannot know exactly why. I was so fortunate, but perhaps it was because I had a long interest in the issue, and I also had a strong interest in development. I was head at the stage of the Canadian International Development Agency; and I had very good relations with developing countries. Developing countries were very suspicious of the environment issue. They were very concerned about this conference because maybe it would take attention away from their principal interests which were to relieve poverty and to increase development.

So in the beginning many developing countries were rather reluctant about this conference. I had an interest in environment matters and was active in development: perhaps that combination influenced the secretary general. I did not run for it, but when I was offered the opportunity, I was absolutely delighted and grateful. It changed my life.

Jia Feng: What pushed the UN to hold the first environmental conference?

Strong: It was the Swedish government, particularly the Swedish Ambassador (Mr Sverker Astrom] in New York who actually proposed the conference. The Swedish assistant to the New York Ambassador, Lars-Göran Engfeldt and I talked about this. At that time, environment issue was not seen as global issue by many people; it was seen as local issue, or maybe national issue. So when the Swedish government proposed to hold a world United Nations conference on environment, many countries objected. It was not easy, That is why they wanted to fight. The Swedish ambassador is still alive. He was the one who spearheaded the drive to have the conference, and the one who proposed the secretary general that maybe I could run that conference.

The Swedes were in the lead there and they were very supportive and ever since. Sweden has been in the lead in dealing with environment. Lars-Göran Engfeldt, who was a young man supporting the ambassador in New York at that time became the ambassador for the environment. He has lifetime interest in these issues, and has been a lifetime friend as well.

Jla Feng: Why it was Sweden having proposed the proposal, instead of other industrialized countries?

Strong: Sweden has always been a quite progressive country. Sweden was looking ahead; and Sweden had some problems of its own not so bad as some countries, but Sweden could see that it was not a local problem, and that pollution doesn't have a border it can affect other countries. United States, Canada and other countries joined in that. They did not take the lead, but when Sweden proposed, it was supported by them. But many countries were not enthusiastic.

Jia Feng: What is your impression of the Chinese delegation at the first environmental conference?

Strong: One of the most important things about this conference was that it was the first global United Nations conference that China attended after it took its proper place in the United Nations. That started for me a very important relationship because there was a young man in the Chinese delegation called Qu Geping. The Chinese paid great attention, but because it was their first conference they were not so experienced. So every morning I met with Chinese delegation. That was the beginning of my cooperation with China on environment. and that cooperation has been ever since.

My interest in China came even before that, but our environmental cooperation started in Stockholm, and it has continued to this very day. I made my home in China, and continuously learned from my Chinese friend Qu Geping who really is my great professor and mentor.

Jia Feng: There are some sentences in the Environmental Declaration very similar to some sayings of Chairman Mao, like on the idea that human is the most precious of all In the world, and that man must persistently gain experiences, make discoveries and inventions, create new things and progress. What do you think are some of the positive impacts of this conference on China?

Strong: I think the Chinese position was very much influenced by Stockholm. At that time, Chinese position on population, for example, was that people are most precious resource and that we must not have any restriction on it. But the Chinese position afterwards changed and China introduced one-child policy. So the Chinese position at Stockholm was not exactly the same as Chinese policy later became. Maybe Stockholm had some influence on that policy, I don't know for sure.

The Chinese were very cooperative. and they did not want the conference to fail. Yet it was not easy to get instructions from Beijing. On the last of the conference, the Chinese delegation told me that they had not been able to get instructions from Beijing because of time difference and communication problems. They were quite concerned, but we found a formula that enabled the Chinese not to vote but not to abstain. Thanks to the Chinese cooperation, the Stockholm Declaration was able to be a full consensus.

The Chinese were very helpful in the success of Stockholm; and I think Stockholm was also helpful to China. After that, Zhou Enlai decided that there should be an environment agency, and he asked Qu Geping to start an environmental program. And that became NEPA, National Environmental Protection Agency, which became SEPA and now elevated to a Ministry. All this began with Stockholm; and that meant I had a wonderful relationship with China right from the beginning in the environment field.

Jia Feng: What was the key message the UN wanted to deliver to the world when the conference was held in Stockholm?

Strong: Remember that the conference was called "The United Nations Conference on the Human Environment", which means environment is not something abstract. It is how environment affects people and how people affect the environment. Environment problems are caused by people with bad habits. Environmental problems create difficulty for people like health problems. So people are at the centre both at the cause of environmental problems and also in their solution. The main in theme was to address concerns of developing countries that environment may be in conflict with their development. Developing countries principal priority was development, to improve the lives of their people, to eliminate poverty. The emphasis on environment could actually hurt their development effort. So the main theme of the conference was the synthesis between environment and development.

This is my main message that environment and development are two sides of the same coin. It is through development that we affect environment: and environment has great impact on development, These two things are linked. and we must bring them together rather than look at them as two opposites. Out of that comes the philosophy of sustainable development.

The biggest single thing is how we get global cooperation in environment without hurting developing countries. In fact, my message is that developing countries should expect more help from industrialized countries, because industrialized countries cannot solve environmental problems without the cooperation of developing countries. What I was trying to do in Stockholm was to convince industrialized countries who had mainly caused environmental problems that they must give more help to developing countries, so developing countries can continue their development without affecting their own environment and the global environment.

Jia Feng: To hold such an international conference at that time was surely confronted with a lot of difficulties. What was the biggest barrier or difficulty for you when you negotiated and organized the conference?

Strong: One or the problems was it was the Cold War time. East Germany was not a member of the United Nations: the Soviet Union boycotted the conference, saying that the East Germany must participate. I also agreed, but I was not influential at the political side. I tried to get the approval of the United States and other western countries so communist countries could all participate. So that meant the Soviet Union was not at the conference, but I kept them fully informed all the time because I knew they would have to be participating if it was going to be truly global. And later they came along.

The other problem was that some developing countries were going to boycott the conference because it could pose some danger for them. I visited India and I got to Indira Gandhi she was the prime minister of India. The foreign ministry was not going to let me meet with her, but through a personal friendship I met with her. She agreed to come to Stockholm, and to let me say she was coming to Stockholm. India is a very influential developing country. When I said to the world that the prime minister of India and China were coming to Stockholm, other developing countries were influenced. So that was kind of a breakthrough. That proved that it was of interest to leading developing countries.

These problems all made it difficult to see what would be the result of Stockholm (conference). The result of Stockholm (conference) was not perfect, but it put the environment issue on the world map. It really moved the environment issue from being local and national to be a global issue. And then it recommended the creation of a new agency United Nations Environmental Programme to be the global environment agency.

Maurice Strong (centre), Secretary General of the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment

Jia Feng: Why did UN decide to organise a second and bigger environmental conference?

Strong: They realized that even though there had been some progress after Stockholm, there was not enough. Environment issue was becoming more serious yet the actions of governments were not sufficient. So they decided to hold another conference on the 20th anniversary of Stockholm. Again the initiative came from Sweden and Sweden was prepared to host what they were going to call Stockholm II. Then Brazil, which is a very important developing country, offered to host the conference. So Sweden stepped aside because they realized that if the conference was held in a major developing country like Brazil, it would have better chances for success. particularly for participation of developing countries. Fortunately, I was asked by the secretary general to be responsible for the conference again, which became another important experience.

Jia Feng: The 1992 Rio conference on environment was attended by 183 national delegations and representatives from 70 international organizations of UN and its subdivisions, with leaders of 102 countries, What was your feeling when you so successfully organized the conference?

Strong: Of course I worked hard for a long time, And you know I grew up poor; I never though I could be with such leaders. The leaders did not have their assistants at my private meeting with them. I insisted the leaders only come by themselves. More leaders than ever before up to that time gathered around the same table.

My message 10 them was: "You are leaders of your countries, but you are also world leaders, And the problems facing the world are even more important to the future of your people than the problems  now on your desk." They did agree. But they did not do everything they agreed to do.

But it was progress. still not sufficient progress. Today, thanks to Al Gore's Nobel Prize, shared with the Intergovernmental panel on Climate Change -- which was started by UNEP. Even in my opening speech in Stockholm, I mentioned climate change as a big risk; we didn't know at that time, that it was even a more urgent risk. We thought maybe it would occur more in the future, but now climate change is seen as probably the biggest single environment threat facing the earth.

We already had that on our agenda in Stockholm; and UNEP started to have expert meetings on climate change way back in 1973 The United Nations and particularly UNEP have played a hig role in getting these issues on the world agenda. Of course, the action by the governments has not been as good as their words. Now many governments are beginning to realize they have to take more action.

Jia Feng: You have a regular life in Beijing in the last few years. Since you already know a lot about China, could you please talk about your impression of today's China?

Strong: I am impressed that China realizes the importance not for the world only but for China of the environment issues. Climate change is the big one, but also the health problems of air pollution and water pollution, China is a huge country and very successful with its dynamic economy, but that same success is producing impacts on the environment, which you know very well.

I am impressed by the extent of China's leadership in understanding these issues, doing everything possible to deal with them and making impressive progress. Certain other countries are talking about all the pollution in Beijing, but when I am talking about pollution, other places are or have been worse than Beijing. In London many people died from air pollution, also Los Angeles. Many countries have gone through the same expenence that when they get development they get pollution. The only difference in China is that the scale is much bigger. the speed of development so much higher, so the challenge in China is greater because China is moving faster and on a larger scale.

I believe what China does matters to the whole world. So if I can be a little bit helpful, a little bit useful, then maybe I am helping the whole world a well as China. I have some experience. yes: but I learn more from China everyday. I don' t advise China: I join and cooperate with them. From cooperation, I learn even more than what they learn from me. I appreciate so much the opportunity of working with Chinese people in dealing with their own environmental and sustainable development problems.

Jia Feng: Recently, some countries criticized China for the air quality in Beijing at the Olympic Games is approaching, accordingly some Olympic teams do their exercises in places other than Beijing. How do you perceive it?

Strong: The air quality in Beijing has been a problem, not just for the Olympics but for people here. It is a health problem, But they are making progress in resolving it. Now it is much better. For example, when I was sick in Canada last year, and could not come back to China, Almost everyday, I phoned my office in Beijing, and found the air quality in Toronto and Ottawa was worse than Beijing, So Beijing is not the only place that has these problems, and they are making progress. Right now, the air in Beijing is quite nice. I have problems with my heart and lungs, yet I am quite healthy here in Beijing. Yes, there is still pollution; yes, it is still a problem. But it is getting better.

The Chinese have solved previous problems, and they will solve this problem, It is not unusual for athletes who are going to compete in one place to train in another place. Sometimes, Beijing gets bad publicity, but I don' t think it will have any serious impact on Olympics.

Jia Feng: Why do you choose to spend more and more time in China?

Strong: For more than forty years, I have spent a lot of time here, I didn't have an apartment here, but every year I spent significant time (here). when I was with the United Nations, when I was with Canadian government, when I was with World Bank, always I came to China, not living here, but spending much time (here). So my life in China is not just something new. But as I came more and more after I retired from the United Nations, I decided I should have a place (in China). But that was not just the beginning. I have a family connection from a long time ago in China. I was a deputy minister of foreign affairs in Canada when we recognized China before United States. From Stockholm established my cooperation with China In environment from the very beginning, The only difference is now I spend more time than I did before (in China). The reason is that I have more time free now. I am not in an official job that requires me to be somewhere else I come here because this is the place I like and where I can be most useful.

Jia Feng: Last October, the 17th National Congress of the CPC put forward in the report a new concept of "Ecology Civilization". What is your comment on It?

Strong: This shows that the Communist Party and China understand this not a little side problem - this is a problem of our whole civilization. We must make changes in the way in which we manage our civilization. We must make sure that economic developments continue, but is not destroying the basis of our civilization. Economic development, if it is not sustainable, is like cancer in human being. Environment problems are the cancer of our civilization. We cannot cure it alone because the disease crosses borders. You cannot fix it only within your own borders, you have to cooperate with others. So I think it was it was a  very enlightened statement, and I hope other countries will realize it and adopt it.

Jia Feng: What do you think is the biggest environmental challenge for the world in this century?

Strong: I think the biggest environment challenge is to reduce the risk of climate change. Of course air pollution and water pollution affect our health. Among all these important issues, climate change affects the whole earth, What makes possible for life on earth is the balance between the amount of heat coming in from the sun and the amount radiated back out. Now we are changing that. And we are really changing the basis for the whole civilization on earth. Remember, in the history of the earth, the time in which it could support the human form of life, as we know it, has been very short, we think it is just as normal: but the normal condition of the earth is not to support human life.

We must bring our economic life in harmony with our social needs and our environmental requirements, if life as we know it is to continue.
This is a civilization issue, I think our whole civilization is at risk today. You could say our future is in our hands. My own country, I am sad to say, is one of the biggest per capita polluters in the world, to which the United States is the biggest overall contributor. And yet they point a finger at China and India, and say "they must take the lead" . Or course China and India for their own good as well as that of the world, must reduce (pollution).

But the people who must do most and set an example is United States - the biggest single source of climate change, and my own country Canada. on a per capita basis. They must take the lead: China, India and other developing countries cannot freeze their development, but should in their own interest reduce the amount of damage to their own environment. They must reduce their emissions of C02 in the atmosphere. C02 is the filtering mechanism that determines the heat balance which determines the climate. All of these issues arc really basic to the continuation and sustainability of our civilization

Jia Feng: Finally, What do you want to say to our readers?

Strong: It is important to recognize that leaders cannot solve problems by themselves. Everyone is concerned with environment: if everybody can reduce significantly their own damage (to environment) in their life, then the problem can be solved. Lenders need the public's support and response. I believe first of all education must be a priority for what individuals do makes a difference. Why I am at this stage of my life still keeping on is because I believe that individuals can make a difference. Even if I can only make a little difference, nevertheless, I have to keep trying.