Chapter 1: Integrating Environment and Development: 1972–2002

The 1970s: the foundation of modern environmentalism
The 1980s: defining sustainable development
The 1990s: implementing sustainable development
2000 and beyond: reviewing the agenda

The environment has always been critical to life but concerns over the balance between human life and the environment assumed international dimensions only during the 1950s. In the years that followed, supposedly unconnected pieces of a global jigsaw puzzle began to fit together to reveal a picture of a world with an uncertain future.

Paradigm-breaking books and articles such as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (Carson 1962) and Garrett Hardin’s ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’ (Hardin 1968) galvanized individual countries and the international community into action. A series of catastrophes added fuel to the environmental fire: thalidomide caused congenital deformations in babies, the Torrey Canyon spilled oil along France’s picturesque northern coast, and Swedish scientists charged that the death of fish and other organisms in thousands of the country’s lakes resulted from the long-range transport of air pollution from Western Europe.

The tragedy of the commons

‘The tragedy of the commons as a food basket is averted by private property, or something formally like it. But the air and waters surrounding us cannot readily be fenced, and so the tragedy of the commons as a cesspool must be prevented by different means, by coercive laws or taxing devices that make it cheaper for the polluter to treat his pollutants than to discharge them untreated.’

Source: Hardin 1968

At the end of the 1960s, the voice of environmental concern was heard almost uniquely in the West. In the communist world, the relentless destruction of the environment in the name of industrialization continued unabated. In developing countries, environmental concerns were regarded as Western luxuries. ‘Poverty is the worst form of pollution,’ held India’s Prime Minister, Indira Ghandi, who played a key role in orienting the agenda of the UN Conference on the Human Environment, held in Stockholm in 1972, towards the concerns of the developing countries (Strong 1999). ‘We hold that of all things in the world, people are the most precious,’ said Tang Ke, leader of the Chinese delegation to the Stockholm conference (Clarke and Timberlake 1982).

In the early 1970s, attention was focused first on the biophysical environment, for example, on issues of wildlife management, soil conservation, water pollution, land degradation and desertification — and people were considered as the root cause of such problems. In the West, there were (and, to some extent, still are) two principal schools of thought about the causes of environmental degradation: one school blamed greed and the relentless pursuit of economic growth; the other blamed population growth. As one commentator put it, ‘Unabated pollution and unstabilized population are real threats to our way of life and to life itself’ (Stanley Foundation 1971).

These views were encapsulated in the most famous study of the time, the Club of Rome’s computer model of the global future which attracted worldwide attention. The Club of Rome was a group of some 50 self-appointed ‘wise men’ (and women) who met regularly to try to put the world to rights, much as did the Pugwash group of scientists in relation to the Cold War. Published as The Limits to Growth, the Club of Rome model analysed five variables — technology, population, nutrition, natural resources and environment. Its main conclusion was that, if current trends continued, the global system would ‘overshoot’ and collapse by the year 2000. If that were not to happen, both population and economic growth would have to cease (Meadows and Meadows 1972). Although The Limits to Growth has been heavily criticized, it publicized for the first time the concept of outer limits — the idea that development could be limited by the finite size of the Earth’s resources.