An International Response to the Human Environment
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 23 Mar 1972, p. 327-343
Strong, Maurice F., Speaker
Media Type
Item Type
Preparation, events and issues leading up to the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, to be held in Stockholm, Sweden from June 5-16, 1972. Principal issue: global environmental problems. Principal goal to deal with the prospects for enhancing the quality of the human environment. Action Plan for the Human Environment. A review of the countries involved in the Conference and what they have done already. Expectations of the Conference: a new direction based on the Declaration on the Human Environment; an Action Plan with specific goals and measures; set means to the goals and follow-up. A review of the action proposals. Different factors affecting global environmental management in different parts of the world. Cooperative behaviour, economics and costs. A recognition of urgency. A realization of larger ideals, inspired by the United Nations: international security in the absence of war; dignity and justice; relief of poverty; a cooperative world and a healthy environment.
Date of Original
23 Mar 1972
Language of Item
Copyright Statement
The speeches are free of charge but please note that the Empire Club of Canada retains copyright. Neither the speeches themselves nor any part of their content may be used for any purpose other than personal interest or research without the explicit permission of the Empire Club of Canada.
Empire Club of Canada
Agency street/mail address:

Fairmont Royal York Hotel

100 Front Street West, Floor H

Toronto, ON, M5J 1E3

Full Text
MARCH 23, 1972
An International Response to the Human Environment
CHAIRMAN The President, Henry N. R. Jackman


Our guest today is Mr. Maurice F. Strong, Secretary-General of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment. Although he has yet to reach his 43rd birthday, his life reads like an adventure story. He has experienced and been successful in so many varied careers that one hardly knows where to begin. Maurice Strong was born in a small town--Oak Lake, Manitoba, where he attended the local public and high schools. At the age of thirteen, he left home to stow away on a Great Lakes steamer. When discovered, he persuaded the Captain to keep him on as part of the crew -and Maurice Strong started his career as an environmental expert in the ship's kitchens with specific responsibility for pots and pans. At the age of fifteen, he joined the Merchant Marine, making several Pacific voyages before moving to Canada's East Arctic as an apprentice fur trader for the Hudson's Bay Company. During his two years in the region, he lived among the Eskimos, learned their language and collected rock samples. When Mr. Strong was seventeen, these samples enabled him to participate in the formation of a successful mineral exploration company. Having experienced his first blush of business success, he retired for the first time. He was then in his early twenties. He got married and decided to take a two-year trip around the world. However, a two-year holiday proved to be too much for our energetic guest and by the time he reached East Africa, he went into business for himself, opening a number of service stations for an oil company and developed a graphite mine in Tanganyika.

Upon his return to Canada, Mr. Strong entered the business world and held a series of positions with companies in the fields of finance and natural resources development, including the presidency of an oil and gas company which he founded in 1957 at the age of twenty-eight. In 1962, while still in his early thirties, his business acumen had become so universally recognized in Canada that he was invited to become the Executive Vice-President and then, two years later, President of the Power Corporation of Canada which, at that time, was Canada's largest financial and industrial conglomerate.

However, like many business men who succeed so well and so early, Maurice Strong felt that he had a still greater world to serve--reflecting his belief that the responsibility of those who succeed in our free enterprise system must be broad enough to include personal commitment of a high order to the community at large. Mr. Strong left private industry in October, 1966 at the invitation of Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson, to become Director-General of the Canadian External Aid Office, with the rank of Deputy Minister. At the same time, he resigned all his business positions. When the role of the Aid Office was enlarged and was re-designated the Canadian International Development Agency, Mr. Strong was named President of the Canadian International Development Board. During this period, he also served as a Governor of The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, The Asian Development Bank, The Caribbean Development Bank, and had principal responsibility for Canada's participation in the United Nations Development Programme. On a number of occasions, he headed Canadian delegations to important international meetings.

In November, 1970, Mr. Strong was seconded from his positions with the Canadian Government and accepted the appointment of Secretary-General of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment. He was also made responsible for environmental affairs within the United Nations Secretariat with the rank of Under-SecretaryGeneral.

Very few men have had such a varied and successful experience in as many fields as our guest today. He represents the finest traditions of both Canadian business and of our public service--I have therefore the great pleasure of introducing to you--Mr. Maurice Strong, LL.D., SecretaryGeneral of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment.


I am grateful for the opportunity you have given me to be here today among friends old and new. It is both refreshing and enjoyable to come home even for 1 so brief a visit.

As you know, I have been engaged for the past sixteen months in helping to prepare for the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, which will be held in Stockholm, Sweden, from June 5th to 16th this year. The preparations for Stockholm are now reaching their final stage, and most recently we have been conducting an intensive review of the vast amount of knowledge and insights that have come to us from governments, from international agencies, particularly the United Nations system, and from a wide variety of non-governmental sources, including the world's scientific and industrial communities.

In the light of this, I would like to review with you the principal issues which the Conference will deal with, the present stage of our preparatory work, and the results we expect--and hope--to achieve.

This Conference comes at one of those seminal points in human history in which man is confronted both with new dangers and new opportunities--and I am convinced that both the dangers and the opportunities are totally without precedent in the human experience. Certainly, the present period of ferment, frustration and uncertainty points up the paradox in which modern man finds himself. His mastery of science has enabled him to reach out into space but has left him uncertain of his direction on earth. New technology has brought him to the threshold of universal plenty and promise, but the gates remain shut to the greater part of the family of man.

From the first fire that relieved the darkness of his cave, to the light of the television camera showing him the dark side of the moon, man's forward strides have picked up speed with staggering acceleration in the past two hundred years, particularly the last twenty-five. They have carried him headlong to his present predicament--a point at which the power, depth and extent of his interventions in the natural order are now the principal determinants of his future.

There are great gaps in our knowledge about the global ecosystem and its sub-systems. There is much we do not understand about the complex interactions between the natural order and the manifold activities of man.

But we are now beginning to understand the fundamental nature of the global environmental problems. Man's efforts over the ages to wrest a safer and more comfortable life from the resources of nature often have damaged his natural inheritance. The Gobi Desert--the sterile sand and rock of what was once the Fertile Crescent and the dustbowls of more recent years are testimony enough for this point. But such interventions, though they were certainly tragic in local terms, did not seriously threaten the entire global system. Indeed, nature was able to absorb local shocks and redress or repair the global balance of natural forces. Men were too few and their interventions too mild to endanger the life support system itself; and so man benefitted, and of late benefitted immensely, from his exploitations of natural resources and his uses of the common facilities of the natural system.

It is precisely this relationship which has changed with startling speed and effect in the very recent past. The scale of the present human population, the scale of its interventions in the natural system, and the scale of the impact of those interventions on that system have grown at such a geometric rate that the historical man/nature relationship has been turned on its head. Instead of balance we have imbalances. Instead of order of things, we have things out of kilter. For most of human history the principal threats to man came from nature. Today, the principal threats to both man and nature come from man himself. As Pogo says, "We have seen the enemy and he is us".

We do not know just where the limits are but we know that there are limits. There is growing evidence that unrestrained, undirected, unrelated and mindless intervention on this rapidly expanding scale can only bring disaster. It would be unrealistic to ignore the dire prediction of the "doomsdayer" as to assume that they were inevitable. But, I believe from all the evidence which has come to us from the world's scientific community that the choices we make in this generation will largely determine the face of the human species on this planet.

And since this is the nature and the essence of the problem, we know that in theory there are only two responses. Either we reduce the scale of our unplanned, uncoordinated interventions in the natural system or we manage them in a way that their cumulative impact is tolerable, indeed beneficial, for men and societies. In practice, of course, there is but one choice: rational management on a global scale.

This being the case, it is evident that to equate the environmental issue solely with the problem of pollution is to fail to understand the nature of the predicament. At the heart of the environmental issue is the basic question of how we are to manage the world's first technological civilization--how we apply the knowledge that science and technology make available to us and the values which endow our lives with meaning and purpose to the decisions which will determine man's future.

It is evident that environmental management is going to require wholly new levels of co-operative behaviour, new institutional arrangements involving both governmental and non-governmental organizations, and at bottom, new attitudes and ways of looking at things and valuing things. And none of us can escape this imperative any more than can our political leaders and governments.

All of these issues and concerns which are now receiving such widespread attention were only beginning to be apparent back in 1968 when the United Nations General Assembly decided to hold the Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm in the summer of 1972. The stated objectives were to focus the attention of governments and public opinion on the importance and urgency of the problem of the human environment, and to provide guidelines for action by governments and international organizations to deal with what is intrinsically a global problem.

For the natural environment on which the life of all mankind depends is a unitary system which embraces the entire planet in which the health of any part of the system can affect the whole. Thus even the most local of action must be seen in its relationship with the total system. For example 90 million metric tons of petroleum-based pollutants enter the atmosphere each year as the vaporized by-products of the internal combustion engine--particularly the automobile--and most of this ends up in the ocean. By comparison I might mention that the estimated total of all petroleum pollutants that reach the ocean from direct inputs such as oil spills is only 2.1 million metric tons. Thus the same automobiles that create problems of local air pollutions constitute one of the principal threats to the health of the oceans and to changes in the atmosphere which create risks of significant climatic shifts.

But the Stockholm Conference's principal goal will not be limited to defensive strategies for ecological survival. It will deal as well with the prospects for enhancing the quality of the human environment--for beginning the search for conditions in which man can live in a harmoniously dynamic relationship to the natural systems on which all life depends. It is to this end that after two years of intensive preparation, an Action Plan for the Human Environment has been proposed to the Conference to serve as the international community's first concerted attack on major environmental concerns. I have already described the vast effort that we made to obtain the best information and advice available to us, and I would just note that, added together, it came to a total of 12,000 pages of information and recommendations. It is on this that the Action Plan being placed before governments at Stockholm is based.

The Conference will be held in June, but in a very large sense the action process which it must launch has already begun:

- 115 Governments have been actively involved in the preparation of the Action Plan;
- 77 of these Governments have presented national reports, most constituting their first surveys ever of their own environmental concern;
- most of these same Governments have established some form of governmental machinery to begin to deal with environmental problems;
- Governments are at an advanced stage of negotiation of several conventions to deal with such specific international problems as dumping of toxic wastes into the oceans, the conservation of cultural and natural sites forming part of man's global heritage, and the preservation of wetlands and islands for science.

But even though these results would justify the hopes and expectations of those who decided at the 1968 General Assembly to convene the Conference, the Conference itself can now be expected to produce much more.

First, a new sense of direction for mankind based on the reality that the physical interdependence of man with the natural systems on which his life and well-being depend requires new dimensions of economic and social interdependence and new standards of international behaviour and responsibility. This will be manifest in the Declaration on the Human Environment, a draft of which is now ready for consideration at the Conference. It constitutes the first attempt by the nations of the world to agree on the new principles of international behaviour and responsibility on which effective management of the global environment must be based. A vital element in this is the principle that nations accept responsibility for the effect of their activities on the environment of others or the common environment of oceans and atmosphere beyond national jurisdiction.

Second, the Action Plan which has now been delivered to governments provides a blueprint for the launching of a concerted international attack on the specific problems of preserving and enhancing the human environment, now and for future generations. It incorporates recommendations for establishment of a co-operative approach on "Earthwatch" network--a co-operative approach to the assessment of important problems and opportunities designed to place in the hands of decision-makers--and the public--the best knowledge that science and technology can make available about the consequences of their decisions. It includes specific measures in the area of "environmental management" to provide international co-ordination and support for national action in the establishment of a wide range of environmental criteria and standards, and negotiation of essential international agreements. It also includes a series of supporting measures in such important areas as public education, training, technical and financial assistance. These recommended actions are at various stages of their evolution, but together they constitute crucial first steps towards the larger goals of environmental action.

Third, to meet these goals and assure that these first steps are implemented and followed up, the means must be provided for the continuance and acceleration of the action process after Stockholm. Thus the Conference will have before it proposals to create new environmental machinery within the United Nations to give common direction and leadership to the environmental activities being carried on throughout the international community and, in particular, the United Nations system, and a special fund to help finance these activities.

A few of the action proposals being considered will indicate their scope and variety:

- a comprehensive plan for the preservation of the marine environment;
- a series of measures to deal with the serious problem of soil degradation which affect so many parts of the world;
- the setting up of an international program to preserve species of plants which are vital to man's welfare and are threatened with extinction;
- the establishment of 100 stations to monitor air pollution around the world;
- a UN advance warning system against harmful manmade pollutants;
- a 10-year moratorium on commercial whaling.

This list is, of course, incomplete and merely illustrative of the kinds of proposals that will be before the governments of the world at Stockholm. Most environmental action must be taken nationally, and the international role will be to provide the complementary and supporting services required to enable national programs to be fully effective. But I would emphasize here that there is a special need for international action to deal with that 70 per cent of the earth's biosphere that lies outside the jurisdiction of any nation--the oceans and the atmosphere above them. For at this juncture in human history, can we overlook the concept of a planet held in trust for future generations? Can we turn away from an affirmation of the inescapable physical unity and interdependence of the biosphere, and the need for all the world's people to co-operate in preserving it, sharing it, and serving it as the heritage of the whole human family? The answer we give to this question will indicate if, in fact, man the social manager, the social realist, is to exert his influence--his constructive and creative influence--over the scope and scale of his future impact on the natural environment.

For if destructive imbalances are to be avoided, indispensable factors will be:

- the speed with which industrial man rethinks his priorities;
- the extent to which he looks beyond the immediate to the future;
- the extent to which he can bring to bear the innovative and organizational genius which produced his industrial success on the problems of managing the complex system of relationships which determine the health and viability of our total society.

Within this system, causes and effects are often separated by dimensions of space and time which transcend the existing political, sectoral and institutional boundaries. Thus, activities undertaken by some people for their own benefit can have indirect effects on them as well as on others often far removed from the source of the activity who participated neither in its benefit, nor in the decision which gave rise to it. The net result is that man is more truly interdependent today than ever before in his history, and that interdependence, again, is global in scale.

The most serious imbalance that has been created is that which exists between the conditions under which the majority of the world's population lives in the less developed nations and the conditions under which the minority lives in the more highly industrialized, affluent nations where man's mastery of science and technology has concentrated such unprecedented levels of wealth. The same science and technology also offer the means to bring about vastly improved conditions of life for all people, but this can only happen through a more equitable sharing of the world's resources and opportunities than now exists. It will also require a large-scale extension into international life of the principles and practices of social and economic justice and equity that form the basis for the relationships amongst people within nations.

But the new dimensions of co-operative behaviour needed to achieve this require changes in attitudes and values based on a much wider understanding by people, particularly in the industrialized countries, of the basic nature of global environmental interdependence and what it requires of them.

Indeed, it is rapidly becoming a truism that human progress can no longer be equated merely with economic growth, spiraling economic indices of railroad carloadings, steel production, automobile assembly lines. All these, vital as they are, are not the measure of the quality of life. Unless more basic human needs are fulfilled, no amount of steel produced and, for that matter, no amount of goods traded will create an enduring social fabric.

This is not to assert that economic growth and environment are on a general collision course, as some people today seem to believe. It is not the world of nature versus GNP; it is a reconciliation between the needs for material progress and our fundamental social goals, between short-term advantages for some and the long-term interest of all men and nations.

The industrialized countries are not the only ones which face these difficult choices. In many ways, the developing countries face environmental problems that are even more severe and immediate than anything found in our technologically advanced, wealthy societies. For they already have many environmental problems--without the benefits that come from industrialization and without the means for a major attack on those problems.

It should surprise no one that nations just beginning the industrialization process are not at all reluctant to accept a bit of factory smoke, industrial effluents and automobile exhaust if it will bring them the jobs and the material goods they so desperately need to build better lives for their people. After all, is that not what the industrialized countries did at the same stage of their development and what most still do when faced with this choice?

But any assumption that environmental concerns can be set aside until a later stage of development is a particularly dangerous one. Cleaning up after rivers, lakes and estuaries have become polluted, water supplies contaminated, agricultural and forest desecrated, marine and animal life depleted, and cities hopelessly congested and decayed will often not be possible and in any case will cost far more than developing countries could possibly afford. For them the only practical answer is prevention. This fact has now been recognized by most of the governments involved, and they are well aware of the inevitable relationship that now binds their development and environment together in one inseparable mix.

This recognition, however, does not lessen the potential for conflict between environmental control and development unless the industrialized nations allay the fears of the developing countries that their development programs will be set back and that their products will be discriminated against through trade restrictions imposed in the name of environmental protection. These issues are very real and they deserve careful study by all nations, especially the major trading nations, the principal donors of aid.

The environment issue will be disruptive in many areas. We are just beginning to see the major shifts in comparative advantage that nations and industries will have to accommodate. In Japan recently I heard from Japanese business leaders of plans they are making to develop new industries that are high energy using, pollution intensive and labour intensive in other countries which still have underutilized environmental capacity. Oil industry leaders tell me that at least five new major refineries are needed on the U.S. east coast but that not one will be built; mining executives tell me that it is becoming virtually impossible to conceive of locating smelters in many parts of the industrialized countries. All these illustrate that the environment is providing a major impetus to effecting a broader distribution of industrial capacity--both within nations and to an important degree internationally.

But whether in the industrialized world or in nations now developing their industries, the key question is what will environmental management cost and where will the money come from? Possible answers here suggest other questions. In international life, as in national life, should not the operative principle be that "the polluter pays?" Is it not after all, a basic tenet of the free-enterprise philosophy that costs should fall on those who create them--and who reap the benefits? And could it not also be said that the most industrialized nations, moreover, have special responsibilities to abate and control global environmental degradation for the sake of their own people and for all mankind? That has it not been their activities that have given rise to most of the global environmental problems, and do they not have most of the resources required to deal with them?

I suggest no easy answers. I do suggest, though, that answers are essential, and that, perhaps, we have not given sufficient thought to them. And part of the reason is that up to now there has been a misunderstanding of the phrase "human environment" as well as a tendency to narrow its use to pollution and difficulties in societies of high technology, or to the effect of their activities upon areas of unspoilt nature.

However, the concept of the environment upon which the approach of the United Nations Conference is based is a much broader one. It includes the use man makes of his resources. It takes account of the concentration of wealth that his past uses have created. It covers the needs of peoples in developing lands whose environment is among the worst ever experienced in organized societies. It accepts development as a primary need for all stages, in wealthier lands through forms of activity less demanding and less polluting in their impact, in poorer states through kinds of industrialization which, with needed financial and technical assistance, draw on all the new non-polluting technologies and all the new concepts of rural-urban balance which may permit growth in a less damaging fashion than has been too often the case in the past.

The United Nations Conference on the Human Environment therefore has a profound significance and serious responsibility in the search for man's new environmental perspective. And the real test of Stockholm will be the extent to which it points up to the world the new direction man must take in this search if he is to avoid the risks and realize the benefits which his command of science and technology now makes possible--the concrete first steps it enables him to take in this new direction, and the political vehicle it provides to facilitate the rest of the long journey on which the Conference will launch us.

It will not be an easy task. The environment issue is moving out of the "motherhood" stage to the point where it is now being seen as one of the most pervasive, profound and revolutionary issues that man has ever faced. I have mentioned but a few of the fundamental issues it requires us to face:

- the possible limitations to growth;
- the purposes of growth;
- the control of technology, the utilization of the world's resources and distribution of its opportunities;
- the need for new attitudes and values, a redirection of man's scientific and technological drives;
- a more balanced distribution of the world's industrial capacity, the widest possible dissemination of new environmentally sound technologies and changes in the organizations and institutions of society;
- and the compelling new imperative the environmental problems provides to the priority task of accelerating the development of the majority of mankind whose principal environmental concerns derive from their very poverty and underdevelopment.

The Action Plan being proposed to the Conference does not provide final solutions. But it does offer important "first steps"--first steps that only Stockholm can make possible on the long march to the kind of world order which the environmental crisis makes necessary to the survival and well-being of the whole human species.

It is precisely in this context that the new vision and new opportunities to which the world's attention will be directed at Stockholm is so important. For if it is vital for men to change the context of their thinking and the direction of their imaginative thrust, the Conference can help achieve the new dimension most needed in the thought of technological man. This is to see himself not as a separate, antagonistic, exclusive exploiter of unlimited earthly resources, but as the careful manager of a precious and limited planetary inheritance. If this vision prevails, the effects of separate activities and policies can be refashioned, enhanced and co-ordinated, and the environment may yet be the key to realization of the larger ideals of world community that inspired the architects of the United Nations.

And this, in essence, is the challenge that lies beyond Stockholm--that is at the heart of all the ferment and frustration of our times: to achieve not just international security in the absence of war, not just dignity and justice through the prevalence of equality, not just satisfaction through the relief of poverty, but to bring reality to the vision of a vast, diverse, co-operative global quest for a reconciliation between the imperative for a healthy natural environment and the imperative for a healthy human environment conducive to the fullest attainment of the potential of every individual human being:

This must be our hope for Stockholm--and if we realize these hopes at Stockholm I am convinced that all mankind can face a perilous and uncertain future with new hope.

Mr. Strong was thanked on behalf of The Empire Club of Canada by Mr. Marvin B. Gelber.

EDITOR'S NOTE: In 1968, the United Nations General Assembly decided to hold the Conference on the Human Environment in June of 1972. Canada's Maurice Strong had been seconded from his position as head of the Canadian International Development Agency to be the Conference's Secretary-General.

Mr. Strong undertook the work of directing thousands of experts from over one hundred countries who completed the necessary preparatory work containing some 500 recommendations and suggestions.

In Stockholm, less than three months after this Address was given to the Empire Club, delegates from almost every nation in the world representing a complete cross-section of the world's 3.5-billion people, of radically contrasting ethnic, political and economic backgrounds unanimously acknowledged that a worldwide environmental emergency existed, in areas ranging from ocean pollution to urban poverty. The Conference produced agreement in principle that nations, despite their sovereignty, have mutual responsibilites to each other for both constructive environmental action and international environmental damage. The delegates also produced a 200-point program of international efforts; designed a permanent organization within the United Nations to co-ordinate those activities; and adopted a code of "principles" to serve as guidelines for future national performance.

By all accounts, the Conference was considered a success as almost all of the recommendations on the agenda were approved in spite of the very real differences in the nations represented.

After the Conference was over the New York Times editorialized

"This planet is in debt to the indefatigable Maurice F. Strong, the Stockholm Conference's tireless organizer and moving spirit".

Powered by / Alimenté par VITA Toolkit

My favourites lets you save items you like, tag them and group them into collections for your own personal use. Viewing "My favourites" will open in a new tab. Login here or start a My favourites account.


An International Response to the Human Environment

Preparation, events and issues leading up to the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, to be held in Stockholm, Sweden from June 5-16, 1972. Principal issue: global environmental problems. Principal goal to deal with the prospects for enhancing the quality of the human environment. Action Plan for the Human Environment. A review of the countries involved in the Conference and what they have done already. Expectations of the Conference: a new direction based on the Declaration on the Human Environment; an Action Plan with specific goals and measures; set means to the goals and follow-up. A review of the action proposals. Different factors affecting global environmental management in different parts of the world. Cooperative behaviour, economics and costs. A recognition of urgency. A realization of larger ideals, inspired by the United Nations: international security in the absence of war; dignity and justice; relief of poverty; a cooperative world and a healthy environment.