Only One Earth: Re-visiting our home

| Updated: June 30, 2022 21:25:51

A general view of the opening meeting of the UN Conference on the Human Environment at the Folkets Hus in Stockholm. 	—UN Photo A general view of the opening meeting of the UN Conference on the Human Environment at the Folkets Hus in Stockholm. —UN Photo

Since the first ever United Nations (UN)-sponsored World Environment Conference was held in Stockholm in 1972, it has become an annual fixture in the calendar, observed in all member countries on June 5th, rotating the host and changing the theme for celebration. Host countries included Rwanda, New Zealand, United States of America (USA), Algeria, Mongolia, Saudi Arabia and others with themes like 'Melting Ice', 'Your Planet Needs You', 'Many Species, One Planet, One Future', 'Bio Diversity', 'Beat Air Pollution', 'Plant for the Future' etc. On this 50th anniversary of the Environment Day, also known as Echo Day, the celebration took place in the original first host country, Sweden, surprisingly with the original theme: 'Only one Earth'. There is poetic justice in this, in both the return to the 'home' country and the repetition of the original slogan, implying a long distance has been traversed and there are exciting tales to be told to the first host since the journey began 50 years ago with chutzpah and fanfare normally associated with such international Days. But it has not been like any other Day observed as a matter of routine.

SILENT SPRING: To tell the story, let us begin at the beginning. It all started with a small book, written by a not so well-known writer in 1958 in America.  Neither the name of the author, Rachel Carson, nor the title of the book, 'The Silent Spring' held much attraction or promise for readers who happen to read first. Its content also was not something that thrilled or titillated the readers who looked at its innocuous title as one meant for self-healing or attaining spiritual bliss. But the book said something new, a message conveyed in simple language about a danger lurking in the corner. It warned that the silent spring or river could swell one day, endangering lives of people who used the water because of the effluence of toxic chemicals in it. The warning was new, unheard of and mild in its tenor, not alarmist at all in the way of ' the end is near' jeremiad. The danger seemed so remote that few sat bolt upright reading the book. It took some time and talk in the grapevine before Rachel Carson's words sunk in and the warning bell rang about the impending danger of 'environmental threat' posed by human-related degradation.  She was not, however, the first to point out the fragility of earth with its delicate balance of eco systems and dependence on them by mankind.

The urgency of collective action to protect the environment (eco systems hosting flora and fauna) was highlighted as early as 1879 by Henry George in his book 'Progress and Poverty' where he visualised the earth as a spaceship which was well provisioned for sailing through space. If the bread and beef in the upper deck of the ship became scarce, new supply would appear opening a hatch to lower deck. In his view, spaceship earth was self-sufficient in meeting the needs of the vayagers. George Orwell, the famous novelist of  stories with dystopian scenarios, surprisingly shared the optimism of Henry George and wrote in his 1937 book 'The Road to Wigam Pier,' that the world is a raft sailing through space with potentially plenty of provisions  for everybody in need. He wrote: The idea that we must co- operate and see to it that everyone does his fair share of the work and gets his fair share of the provisions seems so blatantly obvious that one would say that no one would possibly fail to accept it unless he had some corrupt motive.' The two Georges apparently had no apprehension of provisions running short in supply either due to excess demand or disruptions in  what has now come to be christened as 'supply chain'. Kenneth Boulding, being an economist, however, thought of scarcity and couched his explication of 'spaceship earth' in the context of a market where equilibrium is achieved through the forces of demand and supply. Though taking a cue from Henry George in so far as the metaphor of spaceship was concerned, he  wrote with  a different perspective in his article, 'The Economics of the coming Spaceship Earth'(1966) about the open economy of the past  having illimitable supply of resources and called it the' cowboy economy'. He continued: 'The economy of the future might be called the 'closed economy' where earth is a single spaceship with limited supply of everything, either for over extraction or pollution and in which man must find his place in a cyclical ecological system.' Boulding, the economist, came close  to the view of scarcity of resources, either due to excess demand by an ever increasing population  or denuded supply resulting from pollution, both  manifestations of the core problem of environmental crisis. Speaking at the United Nations General Assembly about the same time as Boulding wrote his article, Adlai Stevenson, the American statesman, made his famous speech: 'We travel together, passengers in a little spaceship dependent on its vulnerable (limited) resources of air, water, soil; all committed for our safety, preserved from annihilation only by the care and work and I will say, the love we give to our fragile craft.'

It is evident from above that the first ever UN Conference on Human  Environment held  in Stockholm in 1972 did not materialise  out of the blue. It was preceded by thoughts and concerns expressed in books and speeches by discerning minds of people from different walks of life, all of whom realised the problems of limited resources made scarcer by excess demand of increasing population and or  pollution by human behaviour. The problem of climate change, also due to human conduct, however, took time to occupy centre stage in the discourse of crisis of environment because of its complex nature, defying a clear-cut explanation of cause and effect.

THE FIRST CONFERENCE: To revert back to the UN Conference in Stockholm in 1972, it should be pointed out that the intellectual input that underpinned the discussion in the various sessions by participants from 156 countries comprising politicians, government officials, scientists, civil society members an UN officials did not come from the sponsor i.e.. the UN lest it appeared to present the official view. Instead, the UN commissioned an independent report by appointing  British economist Barbara Ward and the French  the French scientist Renee Dubos who finalised their draft in consultation with subject matter specialists drawn from four corners of the globe. The title given to their Report 'Only One Earth' was so comprehensive and compelling that the UN selected it as the overarching theme of the Conference. The Secretary General of the Conference  wrote : The greatest value of the Report derive precisely from the fact that it represents the knowledge and opinions of the world's leading experts and thinkers about the relationship between  man and his natural habitat at a time when human activity is having profound effects upon the environment'.

The Report noted presciently, that 'mankind being in the process of  completing the colonisation of the planet, learning to manage it intelligently is an urgent imperative now. It continued: Man must accept responsibility for the stewardship of the earth so that it remains a place suitable for human life now and as well as for future generations. The Report recognised the depletion of natural  resources was one of the chief reasons of uncertainty concerning the continued ability of the earth to support future human civilisations( meaning cultures). According to the report, there was general agreement among experts that environmental problems are becoming increasingly worldwide and therefore demand a global approach. The Report also pointed out that some experts believed  little progress will be achieved, either in economic development or in environmental improvement, until each particular country learnt to manage its own eco system. According to them there are many different worlds within the theoretical 'one world', each world ( country) different from the others not only in physical characteristics but even more importantly,  in cultural traditions and aspirations for future. The authors of the Report believed that the UN Conference on Human Environment, the first of its kind, could serve the very useful purpose of highlighting the need to focus social and scientific attention on the indirect and often unpredictable delayed responses made by complex eco systems to social and technological innovations.

Among the outcomes of the Conference was the consensus that the earth, the only home of mankind, faced multiple environmental problems of which environmental degradation through overuse and pollution constituted the core. It was agreed by all that that there were solutions available for each some of which required actions at national while others required international co- operation.  That problems posed by different stages of economic development of countries make the seemingly affordable solutions difficult, if not impossible, was also recognised. While all participating countries  agreed to  take actions to protect environment in its broader sense  it was agreed that their capacity ( economic)  and responsibility( as polluter)  should be taken into account. To maintain the awareness of the threat to environment   it was decided to observe' World Environment Day' on 5 June every year with an environment- related theme. Accordingly the first World Environment Day was observed in 1974

20 YEARS AFTER: To celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the first World Conference on Environment in Stockholm the UN organised the   Earth Summit in Brazil in 1992. The focus, again, was on the impact of various human activities on environment. The Rio Conference highlighted how social, economic and environmental factors are interdependent and evolve together and how success in one sector depend on success on other sectors to be sustained over time. The primary objective of the Rio Summit was to produce a broad agenda and a new blueprint for international action on environment and development issues that would help guide international co- operation and development policy in 21st century. The Earth Summit concluded that sustainable development was an attainable goal for all the people of the world regardless of whether they were at national, regional or international level. It also recognised integrating and balancing social, economic and environmental concerns in meeting mankind's needs  were vital for sustaining human life  were  on the planet and that such an integrated approach was possible.

One of the major achievement of the Rio Summit was the formulation of Agenda 21,an ambitious program of actions calling for investment in future to achieve overall sustainable development in 21st century. The Rio Declaration and its 27 Principles, The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Declaration on the Principle of Forest Management were among the landmark decisions made in the Summit. These led to national and international programs of actions  that have kept the environmental issues in the forefront of national  strategies  and international co- operation, though progress achieved so far under each  has been slow and limited. What is important is that all these momentous decisions and agreements can be traced to the World Environment Conference held in Stockholm in 1972.

WORLD ENVIRONMENT DAY: It is this continuity in the engagement with environmental issues by the UN and its member countries that make the observance of World Environment Day on June 5 so significant. The collective commitment by the international  community and individually  by member countries to do everything affordable to protect  the environment on the planet earth goes beyond  the symbolism of the Day. In every sense of the word, it is the day of homecoming for all the voyagers in spaceship earth, now and in future. Out in the blue yonder, in the outer space, there is no time in the terrestrial sense. There is only eternity and everyday is to-day.

The report 'Only One Earth', when published in book form, had the following to say in the back page by way of conclusion: 'Man has been washed up on an island, like Robinson Crusoe. How is he to survive?'

Only One Earth set the key tool for the UN Conference on the Human Environment. The Report, which is unofficial, has been in parts revised by more than 150 expert consultants from many countries and many fields. Logical in order and cogent in expression, this extraordinary document  is a Doomesday Book of the kingdom of man.

Here is a earth's swelling population; here are its measurable resources ,here are the knowledge energy, industry and commerce that form' s man's potential; and here, too, in the squalid details  of technology's impact on soil, sea and air is man's record in fouling his own nest.

All this amounts to one thing  for the industrialised  nations and another for those  with plans to develop. And yet, as Barbara Ward and Renee Dubos so movingly argued, it is only one earth man inhabits. 'What must he do to be saved?' The answer is 'Blowing in the wind' for a long time, 50 years to be exact.

Every year, on June 5, mankind is reminded of the stark reality of living in a planet that has been endangered not by any malevolent extra-terrestrial species but by their greed and selfishness. The World Environment Day is not just another day for a routine ritual but  for a grim reminder that time is running  out. 50 years is a long time to be told a simple truth. It may not be enough to do everything needed but neither does it offer any excuse for soft pedalling the task. Re-visiting 'home' from where the momentous journey began fifty years ago, mankind faced the question: what has been done so far to save itself and the planet earth? It just could not simply be the Biblical 'Return of the Prodigal Son'. The question begs for an answer and will continue to do so until the pendulum in the Doomsday clock is stopped decisively in its track.


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