November 25, 2017

The retreat from Stockholm

Governments have a lot of very important things to worry about – the economy, maintaining their grip on power, buttering up multinational corporations, and otherwise pursuing the path of ‘progress’. The poor, the weak and the natural environment are left to carry the cost.

Editorial article published in The Ecologist Vol. 12 No. 3, May–June 1982. Republished in The Doomsday Funbook (Jon Carpenter Books, February 2006).

See ordering information for the Funbook.


I recently spent two weeks in Nairobi. I was there at the invitation of the Environmental Liaison Centre to act as a ‘resource person’ for the NGO meeting. I also attended the first few days of the official meeting of Government delegates who had assembled to attend the ‘Session of Special Character’ at which the achievements of UNEP over the last decade were assessed and its programme for the next decade considered. A couple of weeks later, I attended the ‘Hearings on the Environment’ also organised by UNEP which took place in London at County Hall.

All three meetings left me profoundly depressed.

At the UN conference at Stockholm, ten years ago, I remember, between two sessions, seeing Sir Frank Fraser Darling sitting by himself on a chair in a corridor adjoining the conference hall. I remember, too, sitting down next to him and asking him what he thought of the proceedings. He shook his head and looked thoroughly miserable. “We are doomed”, he said. At the time, I did not really believe him. Perhaps, I was still (relatively) young and naive. Today, after having attended these three meetings, I know that he was right.

It is not so much that we are systematically annihilating life on this planet but that there is nothing really being done about it and worse still, nobody cares. “For want of interest, the future has been cancelled”, ran the title of Paul Ehrlich’s film that appeared about a decade ago.

Indeed for governments throughout the world, the environment is little more than an embarrassment. Their main preoccupation is to earn the necessary foreign currency required to assure the economic development on which their prestige, power and future must depend. To this end they will sacrifice anything – their forests, their land, their topsoil, not to mention their traditions, their culture, their religion; indeed all that their ancestors, for countless generations, held to be most holy.

Government indifference to the real problems that confront us today is well illustrated by UNEP’s predicament. It is the only international agency, we must not forget, that has been set up to prevent the further degradation of our planet and hence the further impoverishment of the lives of those who inhabit it. Yet Governments have consistently refused to fund it properly.

UNEP’s budget was originally fixed at $30 million a year, a mere pittance if one considers the nature of the problems it has to deal with. Today inflation has reduced its value to $15.6 million at 1973 prices, as a result UNEP can spend only $3 million a year on its ocean programme, $5 million a year on its terrestrial ecosystem programme and $3 million a year on its arid land programme. These are token sums, especially if one considers the hundreds of billions of dollars spent every year on pillaging and contaminating the oceans, degrading terrestrial ecosystems and desertifying our arid lands.

A further illustration is that from the start UNEP has been given no executive functions nor any means of compelling other agencies or national governments to abide by its policies. In reality the situation is much worse since UNEP only exists by virtue of the voluntary contributions it obtains from member states and it knows only too well that to obtain them, it must carefully abstain from criticising their policies – however environmentally disruptive they may be.

Clearly UNEP is muzzled. It can only say things that do not offend member states and can only do things that do not run counter to their political and economic interests. Consequently, its easiest option is to undertake, or sponsor, scientific research and to set up monitoring programmes, hence the collecting of information that nobody in authority is willing to face, let alone act upon.

As Holdgate, White and Kassas admit in that massive tome The World Environment 1972-1982 specially produced for Nairobi,

“effective action is more difficult where the need goes beyond information collection, analysis and dissemination and involves joint management of commercially important resources, especially when national interests conflict.”

UNEP has also been active in seeking to influence other agencies, as well as governments of the Industrial West, who are most responsible for the degradation of our planet, into adopting less destructive means of achieving their economic priorities. Thus UNEP has proposed that the emission of key pollutants be reduced or controlled. Nevertheless, it has always made clear that such action should not interfere with the far more important economic priorities. (Principle 8 of Stockholm’s Declaration of Principles states explicitly that “Environmental policy must not hamper development.”)

Moreover UNEP’s effectiveness in the field was curtailed from the beginning by siting it strategically in Nairobi, as far away as possible from the agencies and governments whose activities it might otherwise influence.

A further illustration of the irresponsibility of governments, has been their reaction to the findings of UNEP’s highly informative Conference on Desertification, held in Nairobi in 1977. Delegates learned there that up to a third of the world’s agricultural land was likely to be lost to desertification before the end of the century, while much of the world’s remaining agricultural land would be subjected to serious erosion, to the point that its productivity would be progressively reduced – with a corresponding increase in malnutrition and starvation.

To counteract those fatal trends, UNEP set up a special account to raise $2.4 billion for 20 years, the sum that, according to its consultants, was required to bring the trends to a halt. Clearly, governments, if they had had the slightest sense of responsibility, would have fought to contribute to this special fund. But the opposite has happened. By the end of 1981 only $5,000 had been contributed to the special account – a donation from the Government of Mexico.

The behaviour of delegates at Nairobi faithfully reflected the callous and cynical irresponsibility of the governments they represented. Each one of them had undoubtedly received specific instructions to underplay environmental problems in order to justify their government’s environmentally destructive policies. Some of the more honest delegates actually admitted as much to me. The German delegate did so in writing. I obtained a copy of a report they wrote to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Bonn; it apologised for not having been able to prevent a debate on the issue of Armaments and the Environment, as they had been instructed to do.

In London, at the Hearing on the Environment, our own Secretary for the Environment, Mr Heseltine outdid them all. His opening speech was specifically designed to underplay the seriousness of the problems that confronted us, as well as grossly to exaggerate our ability to solve them and the extent of the efforts already made in that direction.

Equally depressing as the behaviour of the government delegates and representatives, was that of the behaviour of the delegates of the large international agencies and in particular of FAO. At the meeting in Nairobi, FAO actually vetoed a UNEP proposal to reduce the global use of pesticides, which as everybody knows, are everywhere contaminating rivers, estuaries, coastal waters, inland seas, soil and just about all our food. In some countries human milk contains levels over one hundred times higher than those authorised by WHO.

According to FAO the consumption of pesticides will have to be increased 5-fold over the next decades, in order to feed the starving millions, a contention that is simply laughable to anyone who knows anything about the problems involved.

What was equally depressing were the efforts to rationalise and hence legitimise, the priorities of governments and international agencies. We were assured that there had been considerable progress in the understanding of environmental issues and we now knew that the environment was far more resilient than we had thought. Hence, our destructive activities were nothing like as destructive as had been made out at Stockholm.

In fact since Stockholm, the environmental establishment has been busily back-pedalling, so as to interpret the problems that confront us in such a way as to make their solution compatible with the continuation of the develop-mental process to which it is still so totally committed. As Earthscan tells us, the general attitude at Stockholm was that “economic growth was suspect; today it is regarded as essential”. That change is reflected in just about all the major statements presented to us at Nairobi. UNEP in its document Retrospect and Prospect says so explicitly,

“A decade ago the desirability of further economic growth was questioned in some quarters but the negative effects of the recent slow-down in economic growth, have reinforced the view that it is an essential instrument in achieving social goals. In developing countries particularly, economic growth is vitally important and remains a major force for improving the health and welfare of people.”

UNEP makes no attempt to reconcile this statement with another published in the same document which states that practically all the disastrous environmental trends that it carefully documents “flow from a failure to reconcile policies for environment and development.” In spite of admitting that failing UNEP insists that

“economic growth can often be managed not only to avoid environmental deprivation, but also in many cases, to improve the environment.”

I think many of our readers may agree that UNEP is going too far here, to curry favour with the national governments that finance it.

Another change in attitudes since Stockholm is the accent on poverty as the main cause of all our problems. Thus Earthscan tells us that poverty is “often the cause of pollution and resource degradation” and also “the basic cause of population growth”. This means that it is the poor who are causing all our problems, not the rich and since development or economic growth is the only means of combating poverty, it must follow that it is also the only means of solving our environmental problems.

This insidious thesis underlay all the discussions both in Nairobi and in London discussions, which remained on a very superficial level. No one suggested, for instance, that the terms used should be defined. For instance there was no attempt to distinguish between the ‘poverty’ of a tribal society living in its natural environment from that of detribalised slum dwellers in the shanty towns of the larger cities.

Nor did anyone, of course, dare to suggest that development was the real and only cause of our problems, for to do so would have assured his immediate dismissal from whatever office he might have held within the environmental establishment, or any establishment for that matter.

Yet a little reflection should make it clear that traditional societies living in their natural habitat, refrained for hundreds of thousands of years from cutting down their forests, eroding and desertifying their land, exterminating their wildlife, poisoning their water supplies, polluting the atmosphere to the point that the rain derived from it was, as it is in many cases today, as acid as vinegar.

A little further reflection should make it equally clear that as those societies are made to develop, hence to adopt our energy and resource-intensive life-style, so do they start perpetrating such disasters; indeed the more they develop the more hooked on such development they must be.

Indeed, I would say such behaviour is part and parcel of the developmental process. In this issue of The Ecologist Dr Lusigi demonstrates very convincingly that a country cannot both develop (especially in the tropics) and at the same time preserve its wildlife. Neither can it preserve its forests, nor its soil let alone its culture or social structure, nor any other part of the natural world to which it has been adapted by its biological and cultural evolution.

But, what depressed me unutterably was the NGO meeting. Its most important task was to draw up a statement to be read out at the official meeting. I expected that statement to be strong, critical and at the same time, positive, telling government delegates exactly what had to be done to prevent the annihilation of life on this planet, however unpalatable that might be.

It was to be nothing of the sort. The drafting committee, dominated by Tom Burke the rapporteur, decided in advance what the statement would be. It studiously noted all criticisms of the various drafts but in the end, although the preamble was modified, the recommendations remained exactly as Tom Burke wanted them. Governments were deferentially requested:

  • “to enforce existing environmental legislation
  • to re-examine concepts of development and to develop mechanisms to plan for the longer term
  • to guarantee public access to official information bearing on the environment and to sustain the freedom of the media
  • to recognise and guarantee the right of environmental associations to exist and to participate in the formation of policy
  • to accede to, ratify and implement international treaties and conventions on the environment.”

Here then, is Tom Burke’s formula for saving the world. The organisers of the NGO conference had achieved their task, which was clearly to ensure that the statement be as inoffensive as possible, so as to cause the minimum embarrassment to politicians who, as everybody knows, have very much more important preoccupations.

It is difficult to avoid agreeing with Sir Frank Fraser Darling that “we are all doomed.”

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