The first week of June 2022 has become a rare “environment week” as it witnessed two consecutive global environmental milestones ahead of World Environment Day (June 5). June 2-3 marked the 50th anniversary of the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (Stockholm) and June 4 marked the 30th anniversary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) . What does it portend for our environmental future?
In his opening address on June 2 in Stockholm, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres lamented the grim environmental scenario in which “global well-being is at risk” and “the Earth’s natural systems are not cannot respond to our requests”. “We have not kept our promises on the environment,” said António Guterres, admitting collective failure.
Likewise, the Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), Inger Andersen, expressed her guilt for what has gone wrong in the five decades of the global regulatory enterprise. “If Indira Gandhi or Olof Palme were here today, what excuses would we offer for our inadequate action? None that they would accept. They would tell us inaction is inexcusable,” Andersen said without hesitation.
On the one hand, the celebrations of these environmental anniversaries show the penchant for “global problems need global solutions”. Yet global environmental conditions have only gotten worse over the years, despite all the mega global conferences, the plethora of multilateral environmental agreements, the creation of an institutional maze and the spending of astronomical sums.
The world appears to be in dire straits as the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are about to go haywire, the 2021 Global Hunger Index shows the alarming situation of chronic hunger, FAO report 2021 shows that 2.37 billion people do not have access to adequate food and the 2022 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change showing that the world is not ready to take measures to reach the greenhouse gas targets of 1.5°C.
So what went wrong?
It seems humanity is facing one of the greatest tests because much of today’s development is unsustainable. Conflicting national interests and the quest for material wealth litter the path. The graphic description of “two worlds, two planets, two humanities” by economist Mahbub ul Haq before UNCHE haunts the world. “In your world, the concern today is with the quality of life; in our world, there is concern about life itself which is threatened by hunger and malnutrition,” said Mahbub ul Haq. Gandhi’s (1908) warnings about the choice between human needs and greed as well as Tagore’s (1908) lament about “progress towards what and progress for whom” have all been left out.
The prognosis of the world we live in shows a senseless quest for development that endangers the survival of life itself on earth. The quagmire of debauched lifestyles and wasteful consumption patterns stares us in the face. The world’s population of 7.9 billion today is expected to reach a frightening 10 billion by 2050. What kind of life will that mean for future generations? The words of the late Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, poetically expressed in Hindi, came true that “man has reached the moon but does not know how to live on earth!”
As the world gathered again in Stockholm after 50 years, it was a good opportunity to look back to look forward. In his speech on June 6, 1972, the then Prime Minister of Sweden, Olof Palme, prophesied: “The decisive question is in what direction we are going to develop, by what means we are going to grow, what qualities we want to achieve and what values we wish to guide our future… there is no individual future, neither for peoples nor for nations.
The only other head of government present in Stockholm in 1972 was Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. The Indian delegation included three Cabinet Ministers: Karan Singh, C Subramaniam and IK Gujral. “Indira Gandhi did not look at the environment from an elitist point of view. She did so because of her sincere belief that the destruction of the natural habitat would harm not only wildlife but also the lives of people living in the area,” Karan Singh said while sharing his memories with me. .
In her Stockholm address, Indira Gandhi painted a realistic global portrait of the times, emphasizing that development is “one of the main means of improving the environment”. She invoked the wisdom of the Atharva Veda, thus: “What do I unearth from you? Let it grow quickly; Don’t let me touch your vital signs or your heart.
At Stockholm 2022, sovereign states should have assessed the 50-year trajectory, what went wrong and how the world needs to move forward. However, Stockholm+50 ended with a strange 10-point ‘Chairman’s Concluding Remarks to Plenary’.
The speech of the Indian Prime Minister on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the United Nations General Assembly (September 2020) makes it clear that “we cannot meet today’s challenges with outdated structures”. This would require comprehensive UN reforms. In fact, an explicit reference to the “tutelage of the planet” by the Indian Prime Minister during the virtual G-20 summit in Riyadh (2020) provides such an indication. The 2021 UNSG report hinted at such a reform for a “reoriented” Trusteeship Council. Will UN member states accept the idea of making the Trusteeship Council the main trusteeship forum on the planet?
The “Stockholm moment” of 2022 provided a unique opportunity for government leaders to make history. Unlike Olof Palme and Indira Gandhi at Stockholm 1972, no world leader has stepped forward at Stockholm 2022 to take on the role of lifting the planet out of the crisis of survival. Ironically, the UNSG’s call to “get us out of this mess” remained a cry in the desert. As the grueling period of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020-22 proved, nature is the final arbiter in showing humans the “limits”.
I hope this will bring people and nations to their senses before it’s too late.