UN Conference on the Human Environment, Stockholm

This landmark conference involved the first debate on environment and development and the first call for international cooperation to manage the future of the Earth.  The conference demonstrated international recognition of concern for the environment as related to major threats facing the planet: war, overpopulation, hunger, pollution, and depletion of natural resources.  Prime Minister Indira Ghandi of India was the only head of state to address this conference.

The Conference “considered the need for a common outlook and for common principles to inspire and guide the peoples of the world in the preservation and enhancement of the human environment.” (UN Declaration, 1972) Trying to find a balance between narrow economic and ecological views, the Conference set out a more holistic direction for development using three criteria: social equity, ecological integrity, and economic efficiency. Barbara Ward and Rene Dubos were commissioned by Maurice Strong, the Secretary General of the Conference, a Canadian, to write a report for the conference.  ‘Only One Earth: The Care and Maintenance of a Small Planet’ was published and also made into a documentary film ‘Survival of Spaceship Earth’ involving John Holdren and Dirk Summers. 

”The first debate on environment and development: the landmark UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm in 1972 tried to steer a middle path between two extreme and still influential views: the narrowly economic and the unconditionally ecological.  […] The middle path suggested by the UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm in 1972 consisted in reaffirming the need for further growth with equity while incorporating explicitly a concern for the environment as a dimension of development conceived as a positive-sum game with Nature. Hence the challenge of applying simultaneously to development thinking the following three criteria: equity in the formulation of social goals of development, as an ethical imperative expressing the synchronic solidarity with all the present travellers on the Spaceship Earth; ecological prudence as an ethical postulate of solidarity with the future travellers and, also, as a means to improve the present-day quality of life;  economic efficiency instrumental in making good use of the manpower and material resources from the macrosocial point of view, i.e. by taking into consideration the hitherto externalized social and ecological costs.” (Salomon et al, 1994, online)



Salomon, J-J., Sagasti, F.R. and Sachs-Jeantet, C. (ed) (1994) ‘The First Debate on Environment and Development’ in The uncertain quest: science, technology, and development. United Nations University Press (Tokyo).  Available online at: http://www.unu.edu/unupress/unupbooks/uu09ue/uu09ue00.htm

Declaration of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment 

See Maurice Strong, Where on Earth Are We Going (New York: Texere, 2001), for a personal account of the process toward Stockholm and also Rio in 1992. Documentary Film: ‘Survival of Spaceship Earth’  http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0278756/plotsummary