A personal reflection by Steven Stone from UNEP’s Economy Division
Next year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Stockholm Conference, which brought into being the United Nations Environment Programme and a host of other environmental agreements and agencies that today live on as a thriving, chaotic family of governance mechanisms put in place to improve human well-being and to safeguard the life support systems on our planet.
How are they doing?
Most, like the planet itself, are under fire. The constant stresses of day-to-day priorities – the proverbial end of the month vs end of the planet – take their toll on the institutions, much as they do on our everyday lives and personal aspirations to be good and better global and local citizens.
But we can do better. And we must do better.
Think back for a moment to 1972, the backdrop the Stockholm: rivers catching fire from toxic effluents; acid rain falling across industrialized countries, killing swaths of forests; and garbage strewn across our roads and countryside; or routinely shipped to the ocean for dumping – if it got that far at all.
I was 8 years old in 1972. I remember Nixon, the Vietnam war, and, vaguely, exiting the gold standard – a prelude to today’s quantitative easing. And also, remotely, something about the Club of Rome and limits to growth, which came into my field of vision and focus only many years later. I remember Earth Day – the excitement of something new, of caring for something very old, something very dear to us all.
Fast forward to today: the science, once an inkling, is incontrovertible. We face planetary tipping points and thresholds along climate, nature and pollution – and as Johan Rockstrom and others have so clearly illustrated, risk exiting a relatively stable equilibrium established over millennia.
We face inequality within and between nations not seen since before Great Depression; with more and more people destabilized by an increasingly weakened and unpredictable life support system of climate and nature. We face increasing pressure to generate more prosperity from fewer resources – and yet, innovation still lags, as do the market signals we were taught to trust to reflect scarcity and induce innovation.
Still, against this rather ominous landscape, thin shafts of light appear from between the clouds.
Finance, holders of wealth and capital, long the most conservative element in the economy and society, turns its view to the material risks of an unstable climate, of shrinking habitats and increasing zoonoses, and the very visible health and wellbeing costs of pollution and toxicity.
Lead by UNEP Finance Initiative and others, investors and asset holders and portfolio managers are increasingly alert: through the principles for responsible banking; through the net zero asset owners alliance; through specific industry initiatives like the global standards for mine tailings, supported by the Church of England and the Principles for Responsible Investment – finance is flexing new muscles that can help birth the future economy.
Behind finance, governance: though many countries missed the boat for green recovery spending, others such as Canada, Belgium, Bangladesh and Turkey for example focused their recovery on transition spending. At the local level, states and cities are enacting legislation that puts human health and well-being above short-term corporate health and well-being – and this means cleaning up and protecting the environment, the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat.
And behind governments, youth and an increasingly awake population. Youth activists’ sense their future is in play, and are demanding a say in how it is shaped. Others – including the UN - see a clean environment as a basic human right. Questions are now asked about fair consumption space and what we as individuals and communities can do to align our footprints with a living planet.
In cities and across countries, people question their very basic relationship to nature and people – how covid locked us in, locked us down, and made us value that which was always close at hand and somehow undervalued.
Fifty years ago, Stockholm hosted the first UN conference ever on the “human environment” – what it will take to keep an environment in which humans can prosper. It inspired a generation of people and institutions committed to improving the environment that surrounds us and sustains us.
Next year, as UNEP turns 50, and the world returns to Stockholm to contemplate the future of our human environment, we can think about not only what is riding in the balance – but the difference we can each make to the future that calls us, that beckons us, that beseeches us to be its ambassadors and advocates for its coming.
Everything that is dear to us, is a gift from nature. Our lives, the very air we breathe – an endowment passed on from generation to generation. It is time to think of our responsibility – to ourselves, to our children, to the future. And as Robin Wall Kimmerer has written so elegantly, how we can reciprocate and regenerate the life support systems that have given us so much.
Who cares about Stockholm + 50? We all have different reasons. Let’s come together to take stock, and take care, of our common home.