Stockholm: Birth of the green generation

Event outside the Stockholm meeting Stockholm was the first UN summit to feature, even welcome, groups from civil society

Stockholm, 1972. Five years after the Summer of Love, four after the Paris riots; the Cold War is in full swing.

The Club of Rome has just projected a future in which the demands of a growing human population outstrip the Earth's capacity to provide.

The blue whale, the biggest animal that ever lived, has been hunted almost to extinction.

Atom bomb tests continue to garnish the world in strontium-90; and from Japan to Europe to North America, man-made poisons are affecting plants, animals and people.

Economically, the world has never had it so good. But governments are beginning to realise that nature is paying a price.

On 5 June 1972, in the Swedish capital, they began to build their response, in the form of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment - the first UN summit on the environment, and the event that really put the issue on the global political agenda.

Outside the negotiations, two entirely different groups had also assembled, with a self-appointed brief of keeping the negotiators on track.

One was a small group of scientists who were becoming desperately concerned about population growth, pollution and rapidly increasing use of natural resources.

The other was a much larger gathering of people from what we would now call civil society, or environmental campaign groups, who used the now familiar smorgasbord of marches, song, demonstrations and dialogue to press issues from pollution control to civil rights to vegetarianism.

"My motivation was the message from Rachel Carson and her book Silent Spring," recalls Jan-Gustav Strandenaes, one of the 10,000 or so making up the Peoples' Forum.

"It brought together a number of issues we'd read about but not really thought about: the Minamata disaster in Japan where all these people were killed by mercury poisoning in water and fish, and there was a similar one in Sweden where they had hormone-disturbing liquids buried in the ground contaminating the fresh water.

"I was looking at these as isolated incidents until I read Rachel Carson's book."

Brown pelican in flight Silent Spring showed how wildlife was being decimated by dangerous chemicals

Silent Spring's main thrust was the damage being wrought on American wildlife by the indiscriminate use of newly invented herbicides and pesticides.

But the wider narrative it told, encompassing Minamata and other incidents, was of human technology running out of control.

The issue was elevated by the appearance in Stockholm of people who had survived the Minamata disaster - the poisoning, the physical and mental symptoms and the corporate cover-up - and by veterans of the war in Vietnam, where the US military's use of defoliant chemicals such as Agent Orange sought to destroy a guerrilla army by ripping out forests and fields, at a huge cost to people's health.

Child with Agent Orange-related deformity The legacy of Agent Orange continues to affect Vietnam - and the US has yet to pay compensation

The involvement of this nascent people's movement in a UN summit was unprecedented.

Although the Swedish government and the conference organisers officially welcomed the Peoples' Forum, it is clear that not all government delegates knew what to make of it.

But inside the official negotiations, many delegates offered a similar message.

Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi told the conference: "It has been my perception that people who are at cross purposes with nature are cynical about mankind and ill at ease with themselves.

"Modern man must re-establish an unbroken link with nature and with life."

But developing countries - which had just acquired a new champion with the accession of China to the UN (at the expense of Taiwan) - raised another set of issues that almost ended the summit before it had begun.

"Developing countries were considering boycotting the conference," recalls Maurice Strong, the Canadian-born environmental diplomat who chaired the Stockholm summit for the UN.

"They thought this new concern of 'environment' was one for the rich and would distract from their main concerns, which were the relief of poverty and continuing development."

Rio summit jargon buster
Use the dropdown for easy-to-understand explanations of key terms:
Access and Benefit Sharing (ABS)
Granting countries the right to gain financially from the exploitation of biological resources discovered on their territory. Aims to prevent biopiracy. Agreement made at the UN CBC meeting in Nagoya, Japan in 2010. Rio+20 will see further discussion particularly of resources from international waters.

National and factional politics also surfaced in several guises.

Most obviously, the Soviet Union and its allies stayed away, as communist East Germany did not have a seat at the UN table. That meant only 113 nations were present.

The other superpower, though, was very much the focus of attention - particularly when Sweden's Prime Minister Olof Palme raised in dramatically undiplomatic terms the US actions in Vietnam, which he termed "ecocide".

"The indiscriminate bombing, the large-scale use of bulldozers, the use of herbicides, is an outrage," he said.

"Our experience is that the active use of this ecological warfare is coupled to a passive resistance even to discuss it."

In Stockholm, the US remained resistant to discussing it. But in alliance with some of the campaign groups, it found a way to deflect the negative press it was receiving on the issue, by focusing on whaling.

The US had by then stopped its own commercial whale hunts - so had its allies, the UK, Germany and the Netherlands. The only two countries carrying on were the USSR and Japan - which happened to be, respectively, its main political and economic rivals.

Despite the fact that whaling had not been raised as a major issue in documents governments had prepared leading up to the conference, a resolution was passed calling for a moratorium on commercial whaling - which is possibly the outcome that commanded most headline inches.

Maurice Strong Maurice Strong, in 1972 and today

It may have been ecologically justified - but there is little doubt that the main motivation was political, at least on the governmental level.

It was not, however, the most profound outcome.

One concrete move was the decision to establish a United Nations Environment Programme.

But more significant, in the long term, was the new philosophy evident in the final declaration; that nations had to work together on environmental issues, and that a healthy environment was essential for the long-term prosperity of developing countries.

For the first time, governments acknowledged that technology could seriously damage the environment.

They agreed that each country had a duty not to pollute others, and that threatened species needed international protection.

Not everyone was happy. The eminent US biologist Barry Commoner, for example, argued that the conference declaration did not go far enough; rather than agreeing to monitor pollution, he said, governments should have been discussing how to develop industries that produced no pollution in the first place.

But Jan-Gustav Strandenaes recalls that on a political level, the impact of the Stockholm agreement - made, as has become customary, in painfully long overnight negotiating sessions - was immediate.

UNEP logo Establishment of the UN Environment Programme was a key Stockholm outcome

"No country in the world had a ministry of the environment before Stockholm; and I know that the Norwegian delegation raced back to Oslo and established a ministry, and they beat the Swedes by a few weeks.

"So Stockholm started something; it put the environment on the political agenda."

Internationally, that agenda would lead in 1987 to the Brundtland Commission and its famous definition of a sustainable society as one that "meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs".

It would lead to the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit in 1992, which gave birth to UN conventions on climate change, biodiversity and desertification, and the Agenda 21 "roadmap" to sustainable development.

The next milestone is also in Rio - the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, nicknamed Rio+20 - which is scheduled to bring about 130 world leaders as well as ministers, diplomats, business moguls and an estimated 70,000 activists to Brazil later this month.

And many would argue that the need for decisive action is bigger than ever. Governments have done many things since Stockholm to alleviate poverty and stem environmental decline; but still, a billion people live in hunger, and damage to nature progresses.

Now 83, and still very much involved, Maurice Strong has mixed views on whether this month's Rio summit will bring profound change.

"I am analytically pessimistic; I believe we are in danger of not doing what we must do for the survivability of human life and its sustainability," he says.

"But I am operationally optimistic, because as long as there is hope - and there is still hope - we must continue to work for it."

With thanks to Soundings of the Planet for use of archive material

Richard Black Article written by Richard Black Richard Black Former environment correspondent

Farewell and thanks for reading

This is my last entry for this page - I'm leaving the BBC to work, initially, on ocean conservation issues.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    "The Club of Rome has just projected a future in which the demands of a growing human population outstrip the Earth's capacity to provide"

    The Limits To Growth predictions, much villified at the time, have proven remarkably robust with 40 years of hindsight.

    What have we done to avoid the consequences?

    Almost nothing!

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    It began among scientists in 1957 with the International Geophysical Year, the first real attempt to coordinate planetary scale investigations.
    The Green planet concept may have caught on in 1969 when the Earthrise photograph from Apollo 8 gave a single view of a blue planet.
    Pity we're making such a mess of our 8000 mile ball of rock.

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    22 - Eddy - That's likely true, but a bit of a misnomer; atomic bombs are designed to create as little fallout as possible, whereas a nuclear reactor works on a totally different principle. In any case, >99.5% of background radiation is natural or from medical sources.

    If only we paid as much attention to the emissions from fossil fuels, the world would be a much healthier place.

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    Unfortunately our world will never be green until we get rid of all politicians and the business owners who pay them huge amounts of money to turn the other way !

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    "...Atom bomb tests continue to garnish the world in strontium-90..."


    I read the amount of radioactive isotopes released by all N-tests is tiny compared with that routinely discharged by Sellafield into the sea over the years, and accidents such as Chernobyl, Fukushima etc.

    However, A test-attributed leukaemia incidence in the US, in the 1960s, led to the atmospheric test ban.

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    #18 John_from_Hendon

    ' 11 BluesBerry " stop HEDGE FUNDS from betting on commodities."
    Tax them out of business! Speculators really are the evil that they have been made out to be over the millennia.'

    I came up with a little Joke the other day "Roast the bean counters." -anoth was comparing bankers to pigs and suggesting that they were now getting nice and fat and ready to be sent to market. :D

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    A noble cause, set back 20 years by the espousal of a bunch of wackos.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    "These greens are who I blame"

    & you'd be 100% wrong to do so. Nuclear was 10x more expensive to build than coal and higher operational costs. Purely econonics & oil getting their way.

    The implementation was purely as part of wider cold war objectives.

    Green movement wider than green party & lead to many tech innovations being funded all stopped with end of CW

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    11. BluesBerry "5. stop HEDGE FUNDS from betting on commodities."

    Tax them out of business! Speculators really are the evil that they have been made out to be over the millennia.

    We need exchange control to prevent all currency/commodity speculation and to only allow currency transactions that relate to the actual movement of goods. E.G oil futures should only be for people who need oil!

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    This is a philosophical question. After spending billions over the decades on improved sanitation, access to water, medical care in developing countries, world population has increased and live longer. So the problems of yesterday have just popped up in a different guise, i.e. environmental issues. The question is once we've solved environmental problems what will replace them?

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    If we had the will, we would find a way, but the will of most important countries - for most part western countries - lies with black oil (Never mind how many spills.), warfare e.g. Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, where depleted uranium & colourful agents like Orange cause deformities, death & earth-pollution. The world belongs to the elite; the rest of us are collateral damage & highly disposable.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    Most within the early green movement were motivated by a desire to save the planet, they were shocked by the damage being done.

    But the people who control the power behind the modern green movement have a very different agenda.
    They are devout agrarian socialist that believe in a future devoid of ownership and technology.
    They will stop at nothing to bring their dreams into being.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    Q. What if it rains? A. I wouldn't go fishing out there if I were you.
    Q.Why did you chose to work here?”
    A. We got 2 1/2 the salary! We had families to feed.
    Petrochemical refineries, Corpus Christi, Texas - closed for 15 mos in 1982, reopened, closed again 1985, bought by subsidiary Encycle, turned 110-acre site into recycling plant - cyanide, lead, & cadmium...
    Green and sustainable!

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    It's a shame; the green movement started from noble beginnings & helped clean up vehicle emissions, greatly improving air quality. Now however they're more intent on hindering scientific progress in the name of self-promotion & profit.
    They've become as irresponsible as the big oil & chemical companies of the 70s they once fought against. They’re now a lunatic fringe; we need their sanity back.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    Rwanda, still grappling with poverty, has chosen to lead by example. In its national strategy "Green Growth and Climate Resilience" November 2011, Govt of Rwanda lays out a plausible path to achieving the ambitious development targets of Vision 2020 in a way that is SUSTAINABLE = object lesson of achievement in face of difficulty. If Rwanda can do it, where is your country's submission?

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    1. commitment based on interconnections economy, society & natural environment
    2. people to act sustainably = human rights, security & basic needs assured
    3. move beyond NOW & address complex challenges
    4. new ways to incorporate social & environmental costs into price of goods & services
    5. stop HEDGE FUNDS from betting on commodities.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    Definition of a sustainable society: "meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs". This definition is unenforceable & therefore lame because the superpowers, one in particular, has all encompassing interest in meeting its own needs NOW without care about the deformities, deaths, the poisoning of the earth.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    Nothing to celebrate about 40 years of hindering our progress.

    These greens are who I blame for our almost complete abandonment of nuclear technology and for our continued need for fossil fuels and the subsequent damage to the environment.

    People should dig into the backgrounds of the leadership of the Green movements, most of 'em are rich toffs who want us all back in their fields.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    While we need to take care of our environment and conduct our affairs in a sustainable manor, the World population had risen from 3.8 Billion to 7 Billion since 1972. How is that sort of growth rate sustainable ?

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    3. HungeryWalleye "indefinite growth...a madman or an economist"

    I think you will find that the 'or' in the above is wrong. Economists do not believe in anything; they are just the mouthpieces of their paymasters - the banks!

    On the other hand do we have the right to impoverish and starve our fellow man by depriving them of the basics of life just because the provision will harm the planet?


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