Environmental Sustainability: 50 years on from Stockholm

14 September 2022

A guest post by SMP member, Jill Matthews.

Following the SMP’s ‘Summer Session 2’ open space discussion on Sustainability, SMP Member Jill Matthews, shares her views on sustainability, 50 years on from the 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm.

Sustainable or Unsustainable Development? What are we doing?

We are half-way through the timetable (2015-2030) for the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. The latest report says that in the first five years the world made progress (albeit too slowly to meet the target) but ‘for the second year in a row the world is no longer making progress on the SDGs’. We’ve been talking about sustainable development for 50 years, but what have we actually done? And what will we do next?

Sustainable development – a sprint through the last 50 years of talking

  • 1972 - As an environmental student I was inspired by the UN Conference on the Human Environment held in Stockholm in 1972. I was optimistic it would set the world on a new track. The Stockholm Declaration (26 principles) formally acknowledged the link between the environment and development. Key ideas such as “sustainable development” grew out of this conference, recognising the three main pillars of sustainable development as economic growth, environmental protection, and social equality. The conference laid the foundations for new Institutions like United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).
  • 1987 - Fast forward 15 years and the Brundtland Report, ‘Our Common Future was published. The work was commissioned to respond to the conflict between globalized economic growth and accelerating ecological degradation by redefining "economic development" in terms of "sustainable development". The most prevalent definition of sustainability emerged from the work: "Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."
  • 1992 – Five years later The Earth Summit in Rio in 1992, the Rio Declaration (on Environment and Development) set out 27 principles intended to guide countries in their future sustainable development with Agenda 21. New institutions were established such as the Commission on Sustainable Development and the Conventions on Climate Change, Biodiversity and Combatting Desertification.
  • 2012 – Skip forward another 20 years and Rio+20 (the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development) was the third international conference on sustainable development aimed at reconciling the economic and environmental goals of the global community. The ‘Future We Want’, opens with: "We… (the leaders)…. renew our commitment to sustainable development and to ensuring the promotion of an economically, socially and environmentally sustainable future for our planet and for present and future generations. This led to the development of the SDGs following on from the MDGs.
  • 2020 – The ‘super year for nature’ that never was! The pandemic delayed key meetings on Biodiversity and Climate Change. The Climate COP26 took place in Glasgow in 2021, but the targets for the next Biodiversity programme have not yet been agreed.
  • 2022 – Now we’re up to date. In June this year, the Stockholm+50 conference looked back at the past 50 years and concluded the world has changed in many ways – but not in the direction called for in 1972, plus the track record of delivering on the ambitions of half a century ago remains poor.

Sustainable Development – so what in the world did we do?

During the last half century I’ve witnessed the world making great progress on two of the three of pillars of sustainable development, namely economic development and social development, but we have largely failed on the environment.

  • Economic development – Economic measures show most of the world (not every country, nor every person) has become wealthier during the last 50 years – despite there being twice as many people living in the world now than in the 1970s. Love it or loathe it, the measure of GDP shows most of us are better off. However, as Oxfam regularly reports, inequality is increasing “The gap between the richest and the rest, especially those living in poverty is out of control. While people at the top get influence, opportunities and power, people living in poverty miss out on the basics they need – like a decent education, healthcare, and jobs. We can reform our economy to ensure people come before profit.”
  • Social development - The Human Development Index also shows a positive trend in most (but not all) countries. HDI measures average achievement in key dimensions of human development: a long and healthy life, being knowledgeable and have a decent standard of living. The Gapminder project tells uplifting stories of how the world has developed socially over the last 50 years. Our health has improved, we have medicines for malaria, cancer and Covid. We are much better educated too, today there are educated children where in the 70s there were neither schools nor teachers.
  • Environment - The environment has been the loser in the trio. Many environmental measures record how things have worsened in 50 years. We have polluted the air we breathe so badly that we are changing the climate. We need water to drink, but we have recklessly polluted this water and the oceans with plastics and a toxic mix of forever chemicals. We need soils to grow food, but we continue to abuse and degrade this key resource. Since 1970 our unsustainable consumption habits have tripled the amount of natural resources we use. Measures like ecological footprints, carbon footprints and water footprints, all paint much the same picture - wealthy countries and wealthy people use far more resources than poorer people and countries. Our recklessness not only damages environment for people, but it also wrecks it for other species too. WWF’s latest Living Planet Report reports a 68% decline in monitored vertebrate species (mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles, fish) since 1970. Taking just one charismatic species, the lion, as an example - in the 1970s there were 5 times as many lions living wild in Africa, today there only 20,000 left – the same as the number of people living in Dumbarton, a small town in a small country on the edge of Europe.

Sustainable Development – skipping to 2072, the next 50 years

The 1972 Stockholm Conference identified a theme the centre of international environmental discourse: sustainable development. The debates held in 1972 foreshadowed discussions ever since: Who bears the blame for pollution? How can we lift people out of poverty while conserving ecosystems? What is the relationship between human and environmental health? Can economic development be sustainable? But we haven’t solved them.

Now semi-retired, I remain a passionate environmentalist. I won’t be around in 2072, but my hope is the world is in a much better place than it is now. I hope sustainable development is mainstream action, not just talk.

The core driver of many of our problems has been our economic systems and the push for perpetual economic growth . This needs to change. Most of all we need to put economics back in its box, we need an economic system which is as our servant, not our master. There are encouraging discussions about re-forming economics with well-being economies, circular economies or doughnut economies but short-term thinking prevails.

I hope there will be less inequality in the world with societies taking good care of all its citizens, including the weak and the poor, for this is truly a sign of ‘civilisation’.

But most of all I hope we learn to live in harmony with nature. The planet will survive whatever we do or don’t, but will we survive on the planet? We are damaging the life support systems which maintain us and other species – air, water – freshwater and the oceans, land – the trees which give us oxygen and the soils which we grow our food. Aid is not enough. Those of us living in wealthy countries have to change our ways, we have to consume less, so that those in poorer countries like Malawi - can have their fair share of resources from our magical planet earth.

The sustainable development route maps for Scotland and Malawi will be very different. Members of SMP and MaSP all live in the same unequal world, and we can all share the same ambition of ensuring our projects make the human world fairer for people and the natural world greener by reducing destruction and pollution. This would contribute to inter-generational equity which lies at the heart of sustainable development. Will you rise to the challenge?

Jill Matthews, SMP member.

If you would like to share your views on this topic, or any other relating to the Scotland-Malawi relationship, please contact jade@scotland-malawipartnership.org. We want to create a space to help share opinions, learning and stimulate constructive debate and critical analysis.