Earth Day in 1970 marks the beginning of the environmental movement in the United States. Consideration of global environmental issues began with the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (June 1972), also known as the Stockholm Conference.
Both events culminated long preparation. Various manmade disasters demonstrated the need for unprecedented attention to the environment. And in both cases, social justice issues competed with environmental issues for attention.
Some disasters that sparked the environmental movement
The Great Smog of London killed as many as 4,000 people during five days in December 1952. Most of the airborne pollutants resulted from burning coal.
People in the Japanese town of Minimata exhibited a strange and lethal disease of the central nervous system. In 1956, researchers at Kumamoto University traced it to mercury discharged into local waters by the Chisso Company’s chemical factory there. The wastewater contained such high concentrations of so many heavy metals that identifying the specific cause was difficult.
A coal mining waste pile failed on a mountain above the Welsh village of Aberfan in 1966. The avalanche of about 140,000 cubic yards of slurry killed 116 children and 28 adults.
But Britain’s largest environmental accident occurred the following year. An oil supertanker hit rocks in the English Channel off Cornwall, spilling more than 100,000 tons of crude oil. It killed thousands of sea birds and untold numbers of fish. It also deposited knee-deep sludge on beaches.
Two other oil-related disasters happened in the US in 1969. The Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio caught fire when a spark from a passing train ignited the oil slick on its surface. And an oil drilling platform off Santa Barbara, California ruptured, spewing 4,000 gallons of oil per day for several months.
Somehow, more than 200 pounds of the insecticide Endosulfan got into the Rhine River in 1969 near Dusseldorf. It killed millions of fish downstream both in Germany and the Netherlands.
These are only a sample of sudden manmade disasters. More slowly, the insecticide DDT killed birds and squirrels. Some species neared extinction. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) called public attention to the problem. And the public demanded action.
Proposing a global environmental conference
Sweden tried to shift the world’s attention from the Cold War to international development and global environmental issues. In 1967, it proposed a United Nations-sponsored environmental conference to unite the world.
The US and the Soviet Union both agreed to it. So did most of Western Europe. Great Britain and France, the two greatest colonial powers, feared that newly independent countries would use such a conference to extract more financial support from them.
On the other hand, many developing countries had only recently gained independence. They were reluctant to discuss environmental issues, fearing it would undermine their own economic development.
Despite these reservations, Sweden collected enough support by December 1968 to hold such a conference in 1972. UN Secretary-General U Thant named Maurice Strong, head of the Canadian International Development Agency, as the Conference’s Secretary General.
Strong commissioned the first ever “state of the environment” report from leading environmental experts and compiled a list of issues for immediate action.
A committee of 27 members met in Founex, Switzerland in June 1971 to discover how developing countries could harmonize environmental concerns with their development. This pre-conference basically invented the concept of sustainable development.
A number of obstacles threatened to derail the Conference. The General Assembly voted that only UN members or its agencies could participate. West Germany was a member. East Germany was not and therefore excluded. Therefore, the Soviet bloc boycotted the Conference, although several countries helped plan it.
Many developing countries claimed that the developed world had caused all the environmental problems. They considered not attending. Indian Prime Minister Indira Ghandi stepped in to ensure that their concerns would be taken seriously and that global priorities would include issues of poverty.
The structure of the Stockholm Conference
So the Conference opened on schedule with 113 of 132 UN member states. More than 1,200 delegates attended. So did 250 non-governmental organizations, the largest such participation up till that time.
Sweden’s proposal had explicitly disavowed the necessity of “institutional innovations.” That is, it did not envision a new agency within the UN. It appears that no one in the world would have welcomed one.
The Conference eventually settled on attaching a United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to the General Assembly. It also attempted to mobilize other major UN agencies, including UNESCO, the Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Bank, and the International Maritime Organization, as well as non-UN conventions such as the International Whaling Convention and the Antarctic Treaty.
The outcome of the Stockholm Conference
The Stockholm Conference presented its decisions in several different documents. The Stockholm Declaration enumerated 26 basic principles. The Stockholm Action Plan presented 109 recommendations for governments and international organizations to follow. In addition, the Conference issued five resolutions calling for
- a ban on nuclear weapons tests
- an international environmental databank
- actions that would link issues of development and the environment
- changes to international organizations
- creation of an international environmental fund
The UN General Assembly adopted most of the Stockholm Conference recommendations later in 1972 and agreed on how to incorporate the appropriate organizations into its structure. Thus, it established the principle of global environmental governance.
The final disagreement concerned where UNEP would have its offices. Industrialized countries preferred Geneva, Switzerland since so many other UN specialized agencies were already there. Developing countries strongly advocated for UNEP to have its headquarters somewhere not already industrialized. Finally, Nairobi, Kenya became the host.
Despite the various problems in convening the Conference, it was considered a great success. It acknowledged the environment as an important global issue. And it marked the beginning of environmental diplomacy.
Not everyone was impressed, however. Barry Commoner complained that the Conference failed to deal adequately with the economic problems behind the environmental crisis. In particular, he said, it failed to give adequate attention to providing the needy with access to the earth’s resources.
Other critics noted that the US delegation did not include a single environmental scientist and had only one delegate from a non-governmental environmental organization. The delegation as a whole, they said, was too insensitive and inflexible when it came to pollution and failed to commit to adequate financial support to solving global environmental problems.
Accomplishments of the Stockholm Conference
Certain big issues in 1972 are no longer part of the global environmental agenda after the Stockholm Conference. These include:
- limitations on DDT and certain other chemicals
- moratorium on whaling
- reduction of acid rain
- control of trade in wildlife
- ban on dumping radioactive waste at sea
- oil spills
It might be too much to claim that the world has solved all of these problems, but it has made considerable progress. Global conferences no longer need to discuss them.
On the other hand, climate change was not on the agenda in Stockholm. It has since become such a dominant international issue that it overshadows too many others.
The Stockholm Conference did not completely eliminate environmental degradation. Environmental diplomacy still has to work on such issues as waste management, chemical pollution, plastic pollution, urban air pollution, and management of both freshwater and the marine environment.
World population has doubled since the 1972 Stockholm Conference. The hysterical Malthusian warnings of mass starvation in the 1970s have been widely debunked. Unfortunately, too many environmentalists still take them too seriously. The burgeoning population raises other problems that need calm attention and analysis.
Also, environmental policy can no longer be conducted independently. It has become a driver that steers policies in agriculture, energy, tourism, transportation, and urban planning. International diplomacy has made progress in integrating governance of these issues into an overall sustainability strategy. It hasn’t achieved it yet.
The world is coming to realize that it should not be concerned with sustainability only as a national or global concern.
We must also develop shared environmental governance of identifiable ecological regions, such as the Mediterranean Sea, great river systems, or the poles. What’s more, social sustainability demands attention to human rights, accountability, transparency, and accountability.
Therefore, a second Stockholm Conference took place in June 2022.
50 years of global environmental governance, from Stockholm 1972 to Stockholm 2022: what next? / Lucien Chabason, IDDRI. January 6, 2022
Stockholm and the birth of environmental diplomacy / Pamela Chasek, International Institute for Sustainable Development, September 2020
Toward an international standard of enviroment [sic] / George P. Smith II, Pepperdine Law Review 2 (December 15, 1974): 28-51