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1972 Stockholm Conference: opening statement



The world desperate needs hope; and we must build on this hope.  If we fail, we will add to the growing divisions of this planet. Is it realistic to think that we can continue to reap the benefits of exploiting our precious planetary heritage while continuing to permit its accelerating desecration?

 

United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, 1972
Opening Statement by Maurice Strong, Secretary-General of the Conference


"We have made a global decision of immeasurable importance to which this meeting testifies: we have determined that we must control and harness the forces, which we have ourselves created.  We know that if these forces can be effectively controlled they will provide everything that life on this planet desires and requires; but if they are permitted to dominate us, they will have an insatiable and unforgiving appetite.

Our purpose here is to reconcile man’s legitimate, immediate ambitions with the rights of others, with respect for all life supporting systems, and with the rights of generations yet unborn.  Our purpose is the enrichment of mankind in every sense, of that phrase. We wish to advance-not recklessly, ignorantly, selfishly and perilously, as we have done in the past – but with greater understanding, wisdom and vision.  We are anxious and rightly so, to eliminate poverty, hunger, disease, racial prejudice and the glaring economic inequalities between human beings.

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Maurice Strong (left) with Conference President Ingemund Bengtsson at the closing of the Stockholm Conference on 16 June 1972. (Pressens Bild AB; European Pressphoto Agencies Union)

Much has been already accomplished, within nations where most action must be taken, and where ultimate responsibility for all nations resides, within the United Nations family where widespread activities have long addressed themselves to important environmental needs and within the many other intergovernmental and non-governmental bodies in which a wide variety of capabilities reside.

New impetus has been give to existing activities and many significant new initiatives have been launched. But this conference must be the beginning of a whole new approach to the situation.  For the environmental crisis points up the need to review our activities, not just in relation to the particular purpose and interest they are designed to serve, but in their overall impact on the whole system of interacting relationships, which determines the quality of human life.

What then, is the prospect for Planet Earth?  The answer is that nobody knows.  There is much difference of opinion in the scientific community over the severity of the environmental problem and whatever doom is imminent or, indeed, inevitable.  But we need subscribe to no doomsday view to be convinced that we cannot – we dare not – wait for all the evidence to be in. Time is no ally here unless we make it one.

We do not have to believe in the inevitability of environmental catastrophe to accept the possibility of such a catastrophe. Whether the crisis is, in a physical sense, just around the corner or well over the horizon cannot obscure the fact that we have a policy crisis on our hands right now.  We need only look at the unintended results of past and present decision.

No one decided to poison the Baltic – or any other of our polluted and dying waterways.  No one decided to destroy millions of acres of productive soil through erosion, salination, contamination and the intrusion of deserts. No one decided to dehumanize life in the greatest cities of the world with crowding, pollution and noise for the more fortunate and with degrading squalor for the rest.

We did not intend either these or the many other destructive, dangerous and unhealthy and unaesthetic consequences of our past activities; but these are what we have.  Man has been making social decisions on too narrow a base and in too short a time perspective.

It is this that calls for a renewed sense of trusteeship over the resources he has inherited from the long evolution of nature.  It is this that makes man’s future role as a decision maker qualitatively different from what it has been in the past.  The skills that enabled him to master the techniques of providing his food supply and then of producing the wide variety of goods and services required to support his affluent consumer-oriented societies are now needed even more in managing the new ecological society on which the surviival of technological civilization depends.  Man the agricultural producer and man the industrial producer must became man the societal manager.

We shall not accomplish this compelling new task in a year or a decade.  But we can discern a few essential components of the kind of decision making that will help us to foresee the consequences of alternative actions and to clarify our choices.  For one thing, we must learn how to bring to bear our vast resources of knowledge in forms and at ties most useful to those whose duty it is to make choices and to those who will be affected by them.  For another, we must learn how to engage more effectively in the decision making process those who must live with the consequences of the decisions.

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, many 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.  Yet, if we use our present standards as an indication of what will be, three decades from now, at least half of humanity will still be enduring a life of uncertain work, permanent undernourishment, poor health, poor housing and illiteracy and insufficient skills.

The balanced use of the world’s resources, the priorities for human action within a well ordered planetary system, the plain facts of deepening poverty, of protein deficiency, of inadequate housing, of festering urban environments, must be a the center of our concern.  Our whole work, our whole dedication is surely towards the idea of a durable and habitable planet.  But what we are heading for is an earth in which fewer than half its inhabitants will enjoy such conditions. And this poses the key question that all governments must begin to ask – and answer: can the great venture of human destiny be carried safely into anew century if our work is left in this condition?  I, for one, do not believe it can.

Our subject is the human environment. Broadly interpreted, the human environment impinges upon the entire condition of man, and cannot be seen in isolation from war, and poverty, injustice and discrimination, which remain abiding social ills on planet earth.

The draft Declaration on the Human Environment is less than the inspiration al and comprehensive code of international conduct for the age of environment that we hope to articulate over time.  But it does represent an important, indeed an indispensable, beginning.  In particular, it holds that all nations must accept responsibility for the consequences of their own actions on environments outside their borders.  In my view it is essential that this fundamental principle be accepted here if we are to establish a minimum basis for effective international cooperation following this conference.

The proposed Action Plan is designed to further the principles of the Declaration.  It consists of two main components: a series of specific recommendations for action at the international level and a framework into which all recommendations can be fitted into their functional categories.  The three principal categories are:

the global environmental assessment or earth watch program;
activities which together comprise an environmental management program;
supportive measures for it.

The Action Plan cannot, of course be a comprehensive approach to all problems of the human environment.  It does offer, however, a blueprint for a continuing environmental work program in the international community and a first indication of priorities.

Our major motivation in gathering here is to consider recommendations, which can only be translated into action by international agreement.  By far the major part of the burden of environmental management falls, however, upon national, governments operating as sovereign national states.  This may be more in accord with political reality than with environmental reality.  Yet, in working out their national environmental programs, governments and peoples will become increasingly aware of the direct and indirect links between national causes and transnational effects – between global conditions and local well being, between personal values and the integrity of planetary resources.  The inescapable fact that we face a universal problem does not, of course, require a universal response.  In nature, the quality and durability of systems is maintained by variety.  Inhuman society we depend upon cultural diversity to produce similar results.

I cannot stress too strongly, the central importance of accepting this notion of ongoing process, of continuity, of adaptation, of steady evolution, in perception, in organization, in decision making and in action to protect and enhance the human environment. In a very real sense, the process is our policy.

The particulars of the environmental situation, and the priorities to be accorded to environmental action, are most obviously different between industrialized societies and societies in different stages of development.  The developing countries are experiencing some of the same problems which first attracted concern in more technologically advanced states almost before they have begun to reap the accumulated benefits that some two centuries of industrialization have brought to the more industrialized nations.

At the same time these countries are struggling, with resources that are only a fraction of those available to the more wealthy nations, to bring to their rapidly growing populations the elementary necessities of life.  Their natural resources, including the basic environmental resources of water, soil, plant and animal life, are the essential capital base on which they depend to meet these needs; they can ill afford to abuse or waste them.  Many of the fundamental environmental problems of the developing countries derive from their very poverty and lack of resources and, in some cases, from inappropriate forms of development.  They can ill afford to put the needs of an uncertain future ahead of the immediate need for food, shelter, jobs, education and health care today.

There is no fundamental conflict between development and the environment.  Environmental factors must be an integral feature of development strategy if the aim of human endeavor is to increase the welfare and not merely to increase the gross national product.  Indeed, one of the most promising features of the continuing debate on development and environment is the new synthesis that is now emerging.

We are still at the very threshold of the new synthesis and there is still unresolved controversy over the concept of growth.  I do not believe we can cease to grow - no growth is not a viable alternative.  People must have access to more, not fewer opportunities to express their creative drives.  But these can only be provided within a total system in which man’s activities are in dynamic harmony with the natural order.  To achieve this, we must control and redirect our processes of growth.  We must rethink our concepts of the basic purposes of growth.  We must see it in terms of enriching the lives and enlarging the opportunities of all mankind.  And if this is so, it follows that it is the more wealthy societies – the privileged minority of mankind – which will have to make the most profound, even revolutionary changes in attitudes and values.

With a sound conceptual framework, with a commitment to ongoing process, with a sense of the intricate linkages between local and global systems, with an understanding that environmental concerns vary over time and place, we can, in the aftermath of the conference, begin to look ahead toward the next goals for environmental management.

The overall global goal of the United Nations environmental program must be to arrest the deterioration and begin the enhancement of the human environment.  Subsidiary global goals, such as the provision of decent water supplies for all inhabitants of the earth, will help us to realize that overall objective.  The sooner we can assign target dates the better it will be. This, of course, will involve the elaboration of national and international priorities.  For the time being, we do not yet have a clear and agreed set of criteria for identifying priorities; this itself might well be a priority concern for the next dimension of our work.  But to stimulate thought I am prepared to suggest on my own initiative three top priority areas for environmental action.  Each is so important that it is not necessary to rank them in any particular order.

Clean Water Supply: Water is the key to life.  But the water available to most of the world’s people brings with it death and distress, both from the ancient plagues of water-borne disease and from the poisonous new residues of progress which are accumulating in mounting quantities in water throughout the world.  Almost every single national report submitted to the conference secretariat placed high priority on clean water.

An adequate response tot his problem would involve a massive mobilization of resources to provide water supply and purification systems, sewage and waste disposal and treatment facilities and research directed to developing less expensive technologies of water treatment and waste disposal in tropical areas.

Ocean Pollution: This is another inescapable top priority, for the oceans cover some 70% of the surface of Planet earth.  They are the ultimate sink not only for wastes dumped directly into the seas, but for what is washed out from rivers and bays and estuaries and what is deposited through the atmosphere - beginning, as they do, beyond all national jurisdictions.  The oceans present a compelling and urgent case for global environmental action.  The case for regional cooperation is equally compelling, for a large number of effectively enclosed seas, such as the Mediterranean, the Baltic and the Caspian, are deteriorating at a frightening rate.

Urban Settlement:  The cancerous growth of cities, the desperate shortage of housing, the expanding slums and squatter settlements which are so incompatible with our concept of the dignity of man, and the threatened breakdown of urban institu9tions, are almost universal phenomena that make urbanization one of the gravest problems of the human environment. There is an important potential role for international assistance and cooperation; but this is primarily an area for national action, including the application for national population policies.

There are of course, many other candidates for even a first list of top priorities.  But these three – fresh water supplies, ocean pollution and urban settlements – belong, in my view, at the top of the list. 

I move now to a discussion of another kind of priority, an area for agreement on which all other actions depend: the organizational mechanisms required.

Organization:  If we are to achieve our goals, effective organization at the national, regional, or global levels is of crucial importance. In order to achieve effective and far seeing decision making, we require institutional arrangements, which reflect this need and assist in providing for it.  We require new institutional patterns which provide for collaboration between governments, the scientific community and international institutions;  it is no more than the truth to say that what governments decide to do will be critical to the implementation of the Action Plan and for assuring the ongoing process of environmental action to which I have referred.

A major feature of new organizational arrangements must be creation of a direct working relationship between the intergovernmental community and the community of science and technology.  It is essential that policy makers and administrators have ready access to practical scientific guidance and that scientists – and in this category I include social scientists – are actively involved in the decision making process.  We cannot continue with a situation in which these groups operate separately, and often in isolation from each other.  This institutional separateness has played a major part in creating the situation, which we are now facing, and we must resolve to eliminate it.  If it is not eliminated, and if we continue as we have in the past, no profound or lasting environmental reforms can be achieved.

We have determined to assert our domination over forces which we ourselves created.  Our determination must be to enrich mankind and to advance together.  Our power, our demands, and our numbers, have made our interdependence an inescapable reality.  The task now is to convert it into political and moral reality.  The United Nations carries a direct and unique responsibility for taking the lead in discerning and acting upon the new environmental imperatives. No one nation or group of nations commands the air and water of this planet. If we are to ensure their survival we have to act as the whole community of man.

Can there be any doubt of our technical ability to take on – and succeed at – the task of managing our global environment?  I have been told it is unrealistic to expect that we will.  But is it unrealistic to expect that man will be wise enough to do what he must for his own welfare?

In our relentless pursuit of competitive, material and national interest, we have constructed self-justifying promises and values which are in theirselves the source of a kind of unreality.  Is it realistic to think that we as nations, or as species, can continue on our present course?

Is it realistic to think that we can continue to reap the benefits of exploiting our precious planetary heritage while continuing to permit its accelerating desecration?

Is it realistic to assume that a small minority can monopolize the benefits of a technological civilization, which is inherently global in scale and scope of the interdependences it creates and which requires global cooperation to sustain it?

Is it realistic, in light of this growing interdependence, to tolerate such disparities in the conditions of people?

Surely a sober and objective appraisal of our present conditions and future prospects must say that this cannot be realistic.  Surely, too, our sense of a larger realism must lead us to believe that because we can change, because we must change, we shall change.  We must not allow the frustrations of our past failures to prevent us from finding a new basis for international cooperation.  The world desperate needs hope; and we must build on this hope.  If we fail, we will add to the growing divisions of this planet, divisions which threaten to deny the poor and the powerless their opportunity to participate in the decisions and the benefit of our new technological order and to deny the powerful, the confidence and trust they need for their ultimate security and well being.

In the final analysis, political and social action must be rooted in the attitudes and values of people.  If the changes already discernible in the mood of many of the generation of young people constitute the beginnings of the revaluation in attitudes and values, which the environmental challenge requires, we have indeed an encouraging base on which to build.

The basic task of this conference is to build in the minds of men the new vision of the larger, richer future which our collective will and energies can shape for all mankind, to build a program of concerted action which will make an important first step towards the realization for this vision; to build the new vehicle of international cooperation that will enable us to continue the long journey towards that creative and dynamic harmony between man and nature that will provide the optimum environmental for human life on  Planet Earth."