It all starts with HögertrafikomläggningenSweden for “right traffic reorganization”.
On September 3, 1967, Sweden switched from driving on the left to driving on the right. The changes mainly occurred at night, but in Stockholm and Malmö all traffic stopped for most of the weekend while intersections were reconfigured.
So sweet was the city air that weekend that environmental enthusiasm skyrocketed. It was a moment that would change the world.
Three months later Sweden, citing air and other pollution, asked the United Nations to convene its first international environmental conference, initiating a process that would lead to the first meeting in its capital on 5 June 1972, the 50th anniversary of which would be marked next week. This was the start of a long and slow struggle to find and agree on a global solution to this newly understood global environmental problem. Twenty years later, the Rio conference will follow in the same month, kicking off the UN climate summit, the most recent of which was held in Glasgow last fall.
Yet a critical error was made at this starting point. Progress, as we know it, has been glacial in the years since. Now, looking back on the first steps on that journey, it’s hard not to see that, while there were so many issues of right conferencing, there were also some important issues that went wrong.
The Stockholm conference – held at the city’s Folkets Hus, home to a former prison and theater specializing in theatrics – provided an international import of green issues. In the 1960s, environmental issues seemed local, not global. In England, for example, the last haze in London killed 750 people in 1962, while tragedy struck four years later in Aberfan, Wales, with the collapse of a coal mine tip. In Japan, people wear masks to fight air pollution. There is a drought in the Sahel. And in 1969 a passing train ignited oil in Ohio’s Cuyahoga River, setting it ablaze.
But this was also the decade where there was an early uprising against environmental destruction. The World Wildlife Fund was launched in 1961 with a special edition of the Daily Mirror with the front page title “DOOMED”. Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring savaged pesticides the following year, and in 1969 a scholar Prince Charles first entered the fray, lobbying then British prime minister, Harold Wilson, about Atlantic salmon at an event at the Finnish embassy.
But these are isolated voices, denounced and dismissed by those in power. Carson said the US chemical industry wants to return to the “dark ages” where “insects and pests will once again inherit the Earth”. The then US secretary of agriculture wrote to former US President Dwight Eisenhower, saying that because Carson was unmarried, although “interesting”, he was “probably a communist”.
Plans for an international conference in Stockholm initially received so little support that it was referred to as the “Swedish problem” at the United Nations. It took two years of lobbying, against British and French opposition, before the general assembly backed the proposal. As it happened, this was (January 1970) when I was told by the far-sighted editor at the Yorkshire Post that we needed to cover this and my long-standing stint in the beating environment – the longest in the world as far as I am aware – began.
Now the problems are starting to take off. The number of Americans concerned about air and water pollution more than doubled between 1965 and 1970, to 70%. That April, 20 million people demonstrated on the first Earth Day, leaving – to the delight of opponents – a lot of trash in their wake. Environmental chief Richard Nixon described Washington’s mood as “hysteria”, and the then US president devoted a quarter of his State of the Union address that year to the issue. Over the next three years, he brought in 14 laws that laid the foundations for US environmental policies and institutions.
In England in 1970, Ted Heath came to power and founded one of the world’s first environmental ministries (he initially wanted to call it the Department of Life until he realized it would be his minister who forced Peter Walker to become “secretary of state for life”).
The leaders of the developing world are becoming concerned, afraid that rich countries will use environmental concerns to resist their development. Those concerns were not appeased by the publication of two best-selling books: The Growth Limits of the Roma Club (the title says so) and Blueprints for Survival by Britain’s top 30 scientists, who called for deindustrialization and praised tribal society. Alarmed, some are considering boycotting Stockholm, with Brazil calling it a “rich man’s show”, and India and Nigeria also publicly expressing concern.
The books have another effect, mistakenly focusing on limited “non-renewable resources,” such as minerals and fossil fuels, which are projected to run out. Limits to Growth has had a particularly strong impact, because – at a time when computers were thought to be omniscient – the author of the book has run a series of models showing inventories crashing as economic growth continues, causing “a rather sudden and uncontrollable decline” in industrial capacity.
His fans generally don’t care much about “renewable” resources like forests, fisheries and land, as these, by definition, will replenish themselves. However, in practice, these wear off so quickly that they have no chance of recovery, and their devastation has been at the core of most major environmental crises in the past half century.
Meanwhile, mineral shortages have never occurred on the dreaded scale – and we now know that we have more oil, gas and coal than we can burn without destroying the climate.
That’s the backdrop for the Stockholm conference. In retrospect, too little attention has been paid to climate change – which is just beginning to cause concern, despite having been identified as a potential crisis more than 100 years earlier – and biodiversity. And, although the conference produced 109 recommendations, there won’t be another major global summit on the environment for another 20 years.
The outcome of the conference was uncertain until the last minute. The latest edition of his newspaper, Eco, said negotiators could only agree on one thing as the end drew near: “The declaration will be finalized – or not.” After a 14-hour non-stop session, that – along with a 109-point plan of action.
A series of international treaties followed – on marine pollution, endangered species, world heritage, acid rain, whaling, and more, culminating in one of the most successful treaties of all time, saving Earth’s vital ozone layer.
The concept of sustainable development also emerged from the conference: equitable economic growth that preserves the environment for future generations. Nurtured by prominent economists such as Barbara Ward and driven by the insistence of then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi that poverty is the worst form of pollution, poverty is one of the conference’s enduring legacies.
Others pioneered pressure group participation: 258 attended, from Greenpeace to the International Federation of Beekeepers. And they are making a difference – effectively pushing calls for a ban on whaling.
But the momentum soon slowed down. The 1973 oil crisis appears to have strengthened environmentalism for the first time, emphasizing resource insecurity. But attention was turned to the economic crisis, and then another price shock occurred. Nixon – who went green because of political opportunism, not faith – quickly toppled him (his famous tapes recorded him equating environmental activists with “a bunch of cursed animals”) as other leaders did. And the environment is pushed to the back of the shelf.
Now there is another moment. Last year’s Cop26 summit in Glasgow achieved more than expected, with governments giving themselves this year – until another summit, in Egypt in November – to do more. So far, not much has happened, but there is potential, at least to reduce emissions of methane and similar pollutants, hitherto neglected measures that could halve the rate of warming.
Also this year another summit will be asked to agree on a 10-year strategy to protect nature and biodiversity.
And what about the economy, which was once thought to be at odds with the environment? It is increasingly being recognized that they must unite, that the old model of extractive capitalism is not working, that the only way forward is to embrace a circular economy and go green. Just this week a study by Deloitte said achieving net zero carbon emissions would benefit the world economy by $43tn (£34tn) over the next half century.
It’s very late, passed a long time to stop driving, full slope, down the wrong side of the road. Who for the global Högertrafikomläggningen?