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June 07, 2002
Rio + 10 Series: A Brief History of the Earth Summits--From Stockholm to Rio
    by William Baue examines the significant events, theories, and people that contributed to the first two global summits on human interaction with the environment. (the first in a series of articles leading up to the Johannesburg Summit.)

Later this year, the World Summit on Sustainable Development, also called the Johannesburg Summit or Rio + 10, will present to the global community action plans that attempt to reconcile economic growth, social equity, and environmental preservation. Many of these action plans have been developed and will be presented by coalitions of publicly traded companies. A number of the issues that the plans address have concerned social investors for years. It appears that there will be unprecedented corporate participation in discussions about key issues concerning socially responsible investing (SRI); the summit should therefore be of keen interest to social investors.

In discussing the future, it is often instructive to review the past. It was thirty years ago this week that the first global environmental summit was held in Stockholm, Sweden. The 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment helped establish the fledgling environmental movement by placing it in an economic and social context.

Canadian entrepreneur Maurice Strong, who described himself as "a socialist in ideology, a capitalist in methodology," chaired the summit. His global networking skills secured the attendance from 113 nations. In addition, many non-governmental organizations (NGOs) participated and subsequently proved instrumental in promoting environmentalism through education and activism.

The conference produced several concrete results, including the 26 principles outlined in the Declaration of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, as well as an Action Plan for the Human Environment and an Environment Fund. The conference also revealed a rift between developing and developed countries over the latter's exploitation of natural resources in ways that both damaged the environment and perpetuated the unequal distribution of wealth. This divide persists and arguably has widened.

Another significant outcome of the Stockholm conference was the 1973 establishment of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in Nairobi, Kenya, with Mr. Strong serving as its executive director. UNEP has been coordinating the United Nations' global environmental initiatives since.

In 1983, the UN General Assembly created the UN World Commission on Environment and Development, and appointed Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland, the first woman prime minister of Norway, as chairperson. Four years later, the Brundtland Commission published a seminal report, Our Common Future, which coined and defined the term "sustainable development," fusing environmental and economic sensibilities.

"Humanity has the ability to make development sustainable--to ensure that it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs," the report stated.

Nitin Desai, a member of the Brundtland Commission who now serves as Secretary-General of the Johannesburg Summit, explained the concept of sustainable development in an interview recently published in UN Chronicle.

"Think of it as an adverb rather than as an adjective," said Mr. Desai. "It is a description of a process, not of a state of affairs." He illustrated this point with the example of women in India who cook with wood indoors, and posed the possibility of designing better stoves or using safer forms of energy. "With one invention I would simultaneously address an environmental problem of deforestation, a developmental problem of meeting rising energy needs, and a social problem of women's health."

Instead of trying to solve multiple problems separately, sustainable development creates synergies that integrate multiple solutions simultaneously. Sustainable development became the linchpin of the next Earth Summit, which marked the twentieth anniversary of the Stockholm conference. The 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, or the Rio Summit, institutionalized the theory and practice of sustainable development, as well as the continuing convergence of environmental, economic, and social considerations.

The business community recognized its responsibility to contribute to the dialogue concerning environmental, economic, and social issues by establishing the Business Council for Sustainable Development (BCSD). In preparation for the Rio Summit, the BCSD published Changing Course in 1992, a book that added yet another new term to the lexicon: "eco-efficiency," or the corporate practice of maximizing the sustainable use of resources while minimizing environmental impact. Sustainable development and eco-efficiency encapsulate the goals of the Earth Summits.

Next week: From Rio to Johannesburg


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