It’s been 50 years since Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme spoke of the need for a sea change in humanity’s relationship with the natural world.
This conference helped catalyze a new era of multilateral environmental cooperation and treaty-making. His country also helped fund the creation of the UN’s first dedicated multilateral environmental agency (UNEP) to draw more attention to the global environmental crisis.
Yet, quite clearly, there is still a long, long way to go to realize the dreams that Palme spoke of many years ago in the Swedish capital.
To the anger of the United States, Palme lambasted “outrage sometimes described as ecocide” in the context of bombings, bulldozers and the indiscriminate spraying of toxic pesticides by the US military over large swathes of Vietnam.
He spoke about reducing fossil fuel consumption and “luxury production”, the toxic legacy of nuclear waste, the urgent need to switch to solar power and recycle scarce resources.
There was a “very genuine sense of fear among ordinary people all over the world”.
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The air we breathe is not the property of one nation – we share it
Here are some excerpts from Palme full speech“The air we breathe is not the property of any nation, we share it. The great oceans are not divided by national borders – they are our common property.
“All countries must accept responsibility for ensuring that their activities do not cause damage to the environment of others.”
“I am sure that solutions can be found. But concerted international action absolutely must be taken. It is indeed very, very urgent.
And so on.
Small wonder, then, that five decades later, UN Secretary-General António Guterres bluntly warned this week (June 2) that “global well-being is at risk, in large part because we have not kept our environmental promises”.
We must end our senseless and suicidal war on nature
“We must change course – now – and end our senseless and suicidal war on nature,” Guterres proclaimed.
“We must place a real value on the environment and go beyond gross domestic product (GDP) as a measure of human progress and well-being. Let’s not forget that when we destroy a forest, we create GDP. When we overfish, we create GDP.
“(But) GDP is no way to measure wealth in the current situation of the world. Instead, we need to shift to a circular and regenerative economy. »
Speaking this week in the same city where Palme spoke (and was assassinated 14 years later), Sweden’s current Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson spoke of humanity having reached a crucial crossroads.
“Heat waves, water shortages, droughts, storms, floods, wildfires, melting glaciers, rising sea levels, warming oceans – soon containing more plastic than fish… We are harming our planet.”
So what should be done? she asked.
“First of all, we all have to live up to our commitments. We need to start delivering on the declarations we signed and the promises we made. We already talked about the conversation…
“We are committed to reducing emissions, halting biodiversity loss and stopping ocean pollution.”
There is no magic wand when it comes to solving the multiple dimensions of the environmental crisis caused by modern “development”. But perhaps the oft-derided young Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg was right in her recent “blah, blah, blah” assessment.
In an apparent nod to the sentiments of her younger Scandinavian sister earlier this year, 64-year-old Danish economist and UNEP Executive Director Inger Andersen remarked:
“I wish [Palme’s] words did not carry the same weight today as they did 50 years ago. But they do. – DM/OBP