Citizens of the Earth

General Topics: 

Rene Wadlow

In a mixture of the titles of the “Citizens of the World” and the “Friends of the Earth” – the representatives of 40 governments speaking as the “Citizens of the Earth” called on 2 February 2007 for an improved UN system of ecological governance.

The “Citizens of the Earth” were meeting in Paris under the leadership of the French President Jacques Chirac. Chirac has always been concerned with ecological issues and had presented a strong call for action at the Johannesburg Summit on the Environment in 2002. Now, with only four months left of his presidency, he wishes to leave his mark as a champion of world action for ecologically-sound development.

The call of the “Citizens of the Earth” came two days after the UN-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change meeting in Paris at UNESCO had presented a strong report on the consequences of global warming and the responsibility of human action in provoking the climate change.

The role of the United Nations system in building awareness of ecological dangers began in 1971 with a small meeting in Founex just outside Geneva, Switzerland, organized by Maurice Strong who was the Secretary-General of the 1972 Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment. Strong is a dynamic leader who has always attracted to himself a “brain trust” of young professionals who were willing to think “outside the box”, and Strong was always ready to listen to them. The “Founex Report” set out the main points for the 1972 Conference along with the contribution of non-governmental efforts, in particular the Dai Dong The Gioi initiative named after the Vietnamese term for “a world of great togetherness”. The Dai Dong conference held in Menton, France in 1970, “a human conspiracy for a human world” produced the “Menton Statement” co-signed by some 2000 scientists, some of whom were to play key roles in political-ecology efforts such as Rene Dumont, Thor Heyerdahl and Margaret Mead.

At about the same time and with some of the same people involved, the basic needs approach to development was starting to take form. Those individuals who were concerned with ecology began looking at ecologically vulnerable areas such as deserts, swamps and mountain sides. They also looked at the persons living in such zones. People living in fragile ecological zones were among those whose basic needs were not being met and whose livelihood activities were often menaced.

Studies being made by the UN and NGOs for the 1974 World Food Conference held in Rome pointed to the same facts: Most of the undernourished people in the world live in the underdeveloped countries and the great majority of them live in the countryside. One of the major ironies of ecologically-unsound development is that many of those whose function in life is to produce food are living in poverty with an under-consumption of food. These facts led to a serious consideration of the way that cash crops for export have displaced subsistence crops for local consumption. These facts led to a serious consideration of the way that cash crops for export have displaced subsistence crops for local consumption.

The studies for the 1974 World Food Conference also put the emphasis on land tenure arrangements and related social organization. Some types of social organization (mainly the basic structure of the local village) are the pillars upon which agricultural production takes place. Land tenure issues placed a spot light on the role of large estates, plantations with salaried or servile labor and the then collectivised agriculture of the USSR and China. Thus land tenure could become a political issue and was largely set aside. However, poverty and ecologically unwise land use remained an area on which there could be international cooperation.

In 1972, there began a UN response to the consequences of the drought in the Sahel states of West Africa. The consequences underlined the dangers of ecological misuse of land, water, animals, and livelihood patterns. The ecological impact was the most obvious, and thus was a major living example for the 1972 Stockholm Conference.

The 1972 Stockholm Conference, followed by the 1974 World Food Conference set the intellectual stage for the 1976 World Employment Conference where meeting basic needs became the central policy recommendation.

The 1972 Stockholm Conference led to the creation of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) with Maurice Strong as first Executive Director. Strong pushed that UNEP’s headquarters be located in a developing country. During the Stockholm Conference there were a good number of voices from developing countries who complained that “environment” was an industrialized country’s problem while their concern was “poverty”.

"Poverty is the greatest pollution”

Poverty is the greatest pollution” became the slogan for this position. Strong hoped that by placing the UNEP headquarters in a developing country, it would show that there was a real link between environment and development issues.

Strong has always presented a holistic philosophy, first articulated by the philosopher-political leader of South Africa Jan Christian Smuts. As Strong has stressed, sustainable development links together the economic, social, population, gender and human settlement dimensions of development. For Strong a sustainable future requires significant cultural change – “ a reorientation of the ethical, moral and spiritual values which provide the primary motivations for human behaviour. Concepts of caring, respect, sharing and cooperation with others must be at the centre of the motivational system that undergirds the transition to sustainability.” (1)

The UNEP was located in Nairobi, Kenya, which creates difficulties for interaction with other parts of the UN system located primarily in New York, Washington, Geneva, Rome, Paris and Vienna. UNEP has never been able to play the leading role that its friends hoped for it. Strong left the Executive Director post once the program created, and Mostfa Tolba, an Egyptian scientist took his place. Tolba was a respected environmental scientist, but he did not have Strong’s facility to bring together a loyal “brain trust” and to sell his ideas. Strong had made a good deal of money as a “self-made” businessman in Canada and had an outgoing personality so he could interact with business, government leaders, UN civil servants, and NGOs with the same warm, open but demanding personality. Tolba was a quiet scholar, and UNEP slipped from public attention and from influence in the UN system during his period of leadership.

By the late 1970s-early 1980s, environmental leadership had flowed away from UNEP and had been taken over by an NGO, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and its fund-raising arm, the World Wildlife Fund. The IUCN is located just outside Geneva and so its staff can interact easily with the UN and its specialized agencies in Geneva which have environmental concerns such as the World Meteorological Organization, the World Health Organization and the International Labour Organization. Thus the IUCN developed the World Conservation Strategy which was the first to stress sustainability, especially of natural life-support systems in the context of human needs. The Conservation Strategy led to the 1982 UN General Assembly adopting the “World Charter for Nature” which is the intellectual high-water mark of ecological concerns in the UN – an equivalent of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights but not as well known.

Certain states, in particular Japan, became increasingly concerned that UNEP was not playing the leadership role that it should. The Japanese government thought that there should be an independent evaluation of the ecological agenda and of the ways to meet new challenges 10 years after the creation of UNEP. Since Japan was chairing the UNEP council, and the Japanese government was willing to put up considerable funding, in 1983, the World Commission on Environment and Development was created. The Commission became popularly known as the Brundtland Commission after the chair, Gro Harlem Brundtland, at the time Prime Minister of Norway. The Commission had its secretariat in Geneva and interacted with the UN system and NGOs.

The Commission Report Our Common Future was published in 1987 – a time when the Cold War was winding down with the changes taking place in the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev.(2) The Brundtland Commission popularized the term “sustainable development” defined as the ability to “meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Since the report, the term “sustainable development” has become a central tenet in the international environmental-governance discourse. The Brundtland Commission report helped create the momentum which led to the 1987 negotiations on the Montreal Protocol on Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer.” The Montreal Protocol built on the hope of the management of international environmental issues through diplomatic means and international environmental law based on treaties.(3)

There are now some 500 international treaties and agreements on environmental concerns. Many observers of ecological issues believe that now is the time to bring together into a single UN Specialized Agency the many different efforts being made. Such an ecological agency needs to have a “high visibility” to be able to discuss as an equal with the World Bank, the Food and Agriculture Organization and the International Labour Organization. Such a new UN Agency needs to have the drive and also the outreach to be able to associate the large number of NGOs involved with ecological issues. There needs to be visible leadership so that people know where to turn for advice, help, and support.(4)

The “Citizens of the Earth” have pointed out the need. Now is the time for us who are “citizens of the world” and “friends of the earth” to build upon this momentum and to push for the creation of a strong agency for ecological issues. The relation between ecologically-sound development and a basic needs approach is clear and should be a focus for common efforts. Today we need coordination and leadership to meet the challenges facing the human family.

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  1. Maurice Strong. Where on Earth are We Going? (Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf-Canada, 2000)
  2. World Commission on Environment and Development. Our Common Future (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987)
  3. Richard Elliot Benedick. Ozone Diplomacy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991)
  4. Peter M. Hass, Robert O. Keohane, Marc A. Levy (Eds.). Institutions for the Earth: Sources of Effective International Environmental Protection (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1993)