Stockholm+50: How do we prepare for the next half century

When we mark the 50th anniversary of the 1972 Stockholm conference, we need to discuss consumption and production in a globalised world

By Sunita Narain
Published: Monday 01 March 2021

It’s been a generation since global leaders met in Stockholm in 1972 to discuss environmental challenges. Then the concerns were for the local environment; there was no talk of climate change or even the depletion of the ozone layer. All that came later. In 1972, the discussion was on the toxification of the environment as water and air were foul.

Anil Agarwal, Centre for Science and Environment’s founder-director, was in Stockholm for this first-ever UN Conference on the Human Environment and he spoke often about how the lakes of this city were so polluted with industrial effluents that you could develop a camera film in the waters. These lakes are now pristine.

So you could argue that much has changed in the past 50 years. But not really. The toxification of the environment is still a pressing concern; countries have indeed cleaned up locally but added to the emissions in the global atmosphere. Now, we are out of time as climate change impacts are spiralling out of control.

This is why as we approach Stockholm+50, we are looking at an increasingly inequitable world; where poverty and marginalisation are growing and where climate change risks are reaching not just the homes of the poor but also of the rich. We need, therefore, to change paths; to re-configure, not just our language but also our approach to, what we can call, our common future.

This is why next year, when the world marks the 50th anniversary of the Stockholm conference, it must stand differently — not to state the problem but to show the way ahead. This is also why we need to discuss consumption and production. We cannot sidestep this anymore. This is the most inconvenient of all discussions.

The fact is when we stitched up the global ecological framework in terms of the many agreements — from ozone, climate and biodiversity to desertification and hazardous waste — the world realised that the actions of one country exceeded its boundaries. It had to act globally and cooperatively as we live in an interdependent world.

During this time, we also signed another agreement on free-trade — the economic globalisation agreement. But we never really understood how these two frameworks — ecological and economic globalisation — would counteract each other. As a result, we have worked to build an economic model based on discounting the price of labour and of the environment.

We have pushed production where these costs are cheaper; we have built for overproduction as goods have become cheaper and more disposable. But we have also made sure that all countries are now vested in this model of growth.

All countries want to be part of the global factories that produce goods as cheaply as possible. This comes then at the cost of environmental safeguards and labour conditions. The poor in the world are on the aspirational ladder to get richer with more goods and more consumption and more waste.

Today, COVID-19 has disrupted this out-of-control journey to produce as cheaply as possible and to consume as much as possible. But as the world builds back, it has the choice to do things differently. This is also because COVID-19 has brought us lessons that we must not forget.

One, we have understood the value of labour — migrant labour — that was invisible and unwanted; today it has become important for the industry. We have seen how labour returned home — not just in India but across the world. And how this impacted production. We can see already that the industry is working hard to bring back its workers; it is offering them better pay and better working conditions. This will increase the cost of production.

Two, we understand today the value of blue skies and clear lungs — we know that the lockdown resulted in lowered pollution and we value this now. This investment in the environment will increase the cost of production as well.

Three, we understand the value of investing in land-agriculture-water systems. People who went back to their villages are rebuilding their livelihoods. It is time to secure resilient futures there with food production systems that are sustainable, nature-friendly and good for health.

Four, we are now in the world of work-from-home; even when the new normal comes, we will want to have hybrid systems that will allow us to work remotely, reduce travel stress, and also have interactions and collaborations that enrich our world. This will change consumption patterns as well.

And five, governments are financially strapped. So they have to spend much more and therefore, cannot waste. This is where they will want to invest in circular economies — find ways of making resources out of waste; do more with less.

All this has the potential to change the way we consume and the way we produce. So as the world meets again next year to mark 50 years of when the conversation started on human beings and their impact on environment, we have an opportunity to do it right by nature this time.

This time, we have the existential crisis of climate change staring us in the face. We cannot waste more time talking the talk anymore. It’s not an option. Not anymore.


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