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The 1970s: the foundation of modern environmentalism

The world of 1972 was very different from that of today. The Cold War still divided many of the world's most industrialized nations, the period of colonization had not yet ended and, although e-mail had just been invented (Campbell 1998), it was to be more than two decades before its use became widespread. The personal computer did not exist, global warming had only just been mentioned for the first time (SCEP 1970), and the threat to the ozone layer was seen as coming mainly from a large fleet of supersonic airliners that was never to materialize. Although transnational corporations existed and were becoming increasingly powerful, the concept of globalization was still 20 years away. In South Africa, apartheid still held sway and in Europe the Berlin Wall stood firm.

Principles of the Stockholm Declaration
  1. Human rights must be asserted, apartheid and colonialism condemned
  2. Natural resources must be safeguarded
  3. The Earth's capacity to produce renewable resources must be maintained
  4. Wildlife must be safeguarded
  5. Non-renewable resources must be shared and not exhausted
  6. Pollution must not exceed the environment's capacity to clean itself
  7. Damaging oceanic pollution must be prevented
  8. Development is needed to improve the environment
  9. Developing countries therefore need assistance
  10. Developing countries need reasonable prices for exports to carry out environmental management
  11. Environment policy must not hamper development
  12. Developing countries need money to develop environmental safeguards
  13. Integrated development planning is needed
  14. Rational planning should resolve conflicts between environment and development
  15. Human settlements must be planned to eliminate environmental problems
  16. Governments should plan their own appropriate population policies
  17. National institutions must plan development of states' natural resources
  18. Science and technology must be used to improve the environment
  19. Environmental education is essential
  20. Environmental research must be promoted, particularly in developing countries
  21. States may exploit their resources as they wish but must not endanger others
  22. Compensation is due to states thus endangered
  23. Each nation must establish its own standards
  24. There must be cooperation on international issues
  25. International organizations should help to improve the environment
  26. Weapons of mass destruction must be eliminate
Source: Clarke and Timberlake 1982

The world of the early 1970s was thus fiercely polarized, and in many different ways. Against this backdrop, it was surprising that the idea of an international conference on the environment should even be broached (by Sweden, in 1968); it was even more surprising that one should actually take place (in Stockholm, in 1972); and it was astonishing that such a conference could give rise to what later became known as the 'Stockholm spirit of compromise' in which representatives of developed and developing countries found ways of accommodating each other's strongly divergent views. The conference was hosted by Sweden following severe damage to thousands of Sweden's lakes from acid rain falling as a result of severe air pollution in Western Europe.

'One of our prominent responsibilities in this conference is to issue an international declaration on the human environment; a document with no binding legislative imperatives, but - we hope - with moral authority, that will inspire in the hearts of men the desire to live in harmony with each other, and with their environment.'

- Professor Mostafa K. Tolba, Head of the Egyptian delegation to the Stockholm Conference, UNEP Executive Director 1975-93