November 25, 2017

An action plan for the human environment

An article that appeared in The Ecologist, June 1972, about the results of the United Nations environmental conference held in Stockholm the same year.


The recommendations of the six Secretariat documents prepared for Government are summarised in a set of Action Proposals—the Action Plan of the Stockholm Conference. This document was provided to enable the Governments to identify areas of major international concern and to agree on specific measures to deal with them, which should include the allocation of resources and the assignment of responsibilities for their co-ordination and implementation.

The Plan has three components: a proposed global environmental assessment programme, or Earthwatch, environmental management activities, and measures to support national and international action of assessment and management, as described in the article on Agenda Item No. 6.

All this activity is essential if governments are to be drawn together in common research activities, and into acceptance of a framework of principles for international behaviour, especially the essentially new concept of “environmental aggression.”

Again, it must be stressed, that this programme represents a skilful presentation of the politically possible. But what if the politically possible is biologically or socially impossible? The argument that we do not know what is politically possible or impossible is not an argument that will appeal to Nature, if we strain the absorptive capacity of our natural systems too far. Pascal came up with the reasonable proposition that, if you don’t know whether God exists or not, it is sensible to try to believe in him in case he does.

Internationally sponsored research is essential to guide the scale and scope of protective action, but it does not itself constitute such action. Similarly, with the establishment of principles for future international agreements, the approach to the Action Plan is an essential first step and eminently reasonable, given the belief that a planetary environmental crisis is pending rather than present, and that it can be dealt with by calibrated adjustments of the controls, rather than by a radical change of course. But if, to use Robert Allen’s analogy, we are already falling from our aircraft, a parachute is called for rather than the Secretariat’s proposed altimeter.

The governmental participants at Stockholm apparently do not, according to the Action Plan, “believe that international controls and management of the environment are necessary, at least for the present.” Yet all the analyses contained in the Secretariat’s six documents discussed in this issue, lead one to the conclusion that such controls and management are vital. Clearly this is a matter of policy. Surely, however, the nations gathered at Stockholm might agree to take one leaf from the United States’ legislative book. In that country, each agency of the Federal Government is now required by law to produce “an environmental impact statement” related to any new activity which has implications for environmental quality. Each agency must produce such a statement sufficiently “in advance” of any proposed activity to enable the Presidents’ Council on Environmental Quality and the Environmental Protection Agency to examine, and, if necessary, require revision of that agency’s plans.

This requirement applies to international as well as national activities and includes the United States Agency for International Development’s aid activities in the Third World. Admittedly this requirement has so far tended to produce an avalanche of documentation which serves—indeed may be intended—to overwhelm rather than to inform. Yet the simple fact of each agency having to go through this exercise in self-justification must be salutary, if only because it requires the involvement of ecologists and other environmental scientists in every new deployment of developmental effort.

Should not an international plan of environmental action include a parallel proposal? Developing countries receiving US aid must already submit to such scrutiny to satisfy the US Congress. Would it be repugnant for them to submit to similar scrutiny by the United Nations? Of course, such a proposal would cost a lot of money, and the rich nations do not appear willing to meet such costs, while the poor nations argue, with justice, that they should not, or cannot, do so. The proposal is thus “unrealistic”. But can one question whether the claim of “un-realism” is an adequate exemption from at least an international debate over the question?

Frequently, throughout these six Secretariat documents, and in the Action Plan, the statement is made that current environmental problems are unprecedented. Surely, then, they call for unprecedented solutions? One that has been suggested in this issue is for a series of high-level initiatives for cooperative action to be taken by trans-national strata of international society, below—or apart from—governments.

The obvious focus for such initiative by business, labour, science and users, or consumers, is those 5/7ths of the earth’s surface not yet appropriated by nation states.

Such initiative may seem impracticable today, but if our overarching concern is with survival, it should, in the name of ecological realism, at least be tried.

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