By Alan Hecht
On November 27, 2015 Maurice Strong of Canada died at the age of 86. No one deserves more credit than him for advancing the goals of sustainability. Delegates at the recent Paris climate conference payed tribute to his vision and accomplishments.
He organized the Stockholm Conference in 1972, subtitled “Only One Earth” and the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, subtitled “Our Last Chance to Save the Earth.” The Stockholm Conference is recognized as a major landmark in launching a new era of international environmental diplomacy. After the 1972 Summit he served as the first Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).
His leadership in 1972 was crucial to beginning to address a host of emerging threats to the natural environment and advancing the critical role of the United Nations. He was clever enough to commission an historic study (“Only One Earth”) by Barbara Ward and Rene Dubos which underscored the growing industrial stressors on the environment and depletion of natural resources. This was the first “State of the World” Report
The 1972 Report was the first to emphasize the potential for depletion of natural resources and to project that the impacts of global population growth and urban development would be critical lessons of world history. The Report was a flashing yellow light of caution. Today global population is projected to be 9 billion by 2050 and 10 billion by 2100, with more people living in cities than ever before. This has prompted the current UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to note that, “our struggle for global sustainability will be won or lost in cities.” Today this is a flashing red light.
Twenty years later Maurice Strong was key in organizing the Rio Earth Summit. It was there that the head of the US Delegation, EPA Administrator Bill Reilly, and I met with him. Since then he played a key role in many UN activities helping to advance a more sustainable and resilient world. In his book in 2000 “Where on Earth Are We Going?” he predicted that in three decades environmental catastrophes could wipe out as much as two-thirds of the world’s population. He strongly pushed for business-government collaboration to get out front on key issue. After the Earth Summit, Strong continued to take a leading role in implementing the results of Rio through dozens of international organizations.
Over his life time he strongly advanced the concept of sustainability. Unfortunately what he advanced in 1972 and 1992 is still an issue today. Today, achieving the goal of sustainability is even more urgent. While it has taken decades to reach this point, there is a need for accelerated action due to pressures and trends that will impact society over the coming decades. It is here that EPA can help shape and protect the future world.
About the Author: Alan Hecht is the Director for Sustainable Development in EPA’s Office of Research and Development.