United Nations Holds an Environmental Conference in Stockholm Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The 1972 Stockholm Conference alerted the world community to the importance of international cooperation for conservation of natural resources.

Summary of Event

The 1972 Stockholm Conference proved to be one of the most significant environmental events of the twentieth century. A renewed interest in environmental questions occurred after World War II came to an end in 1945. At first, this interest was confined to a few naturalists and scientists who understood that the rapid expansion of population, the unbridled use of World War II technologies, and the seemingly unlimited demand for manufactured goods would mean unrelenting pressure on Earth’s natural resources. The relationship of human beings to the natural world in which they lived became, for these individuals, an overriding concern. The first post-World War II books on this subject to capture a substantial readership were William Vogt’s Road to Survival (1948) Road to Survival (Vogt) and Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac, and Sketches Here and There (1949). Sand County Almanac, A (Leopold) Neither of these books, however, dramatically altered the thinking of the times. Conference on the Human Environment, U.N. (1972) Stockholm Conference, U.N. (1972) Natural resources, conservation Conservation;natural resources Environmental awareness Environmental policy, international [kw]United Nations Holds an Environmental Conference in Stockholm (June 5-16, 1972) [kw]Environmental Conference in Stockholm, United Nations Holds an (June 5-16, 1972) [kw]Conference in Stockholm, United Nations Holds an Environmental (June 5-16, 1972) Conference on the Human Environment, U.N. (1972) Stockholm Conference, U.N. (1972) Natural resources, conservation Conservation;natural resources Environmental awareness Environmental policy, international [g]Europe;June 5-16, 1972: United Nations Holds an Environmental Conference in Stockholm[00770] [g]Sweden;June 5-16, 1972: United Nations Holds an Environmental Conference in Stockholm[00770] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;June 5-16, 1972: United Nations Holds an Environmental Conference in Stockholm[00770] [c]Environmental issues;June 5-16, 1972: United Nations Holds an Environmental Conference in Stockholm[00770] [c]United Nations;June 5-16, 1972: United Nations Holds an Environmental Conference in Stockholm[00770] [c]Natural resources;June 5-16, 1972: United Nations Holds an Environmental Conference in Stockholm[00770] Strong, Maurice F. Dubos, René Ward, Barbara





During the 1950’s, leaders of the industrial world paid scant attention to the warnings expressed by ecologists. Politicians reflected the interests of their constituents, who were eager to take advantage of the vast economic expansion that followed the war. Progress clearly was associated with anything that provided jobs and material well-being. There appeared to be a boundless supply of natural resources for human needs. In the decade of the 1960’s, those who worried over the wholesale use and abuse of natural resources began to write more prolifically and more urgently. A spate of books and articles appeared on such issues as overpopulation, diminishing supplies of fresh water, industrial waste, and the dangers of insecticides. Some called for a reevaluation of the word “progress.” One writer, historian Lynn Townshend White, White, Lynn Townshend, Jr. Jr., began a great controversy by suggesting that those in the Judeo-Christian tradition believed that the exploitation of nature was ordained by the Scriptures, but this claim turned on how to interpret scriptural texts that can just as easily imply the obligation of stewardship.

It was in this context, then, that the United Nations, in 1968, decided to call for an international conference to discuss the human environment. It was to be held in June, 1972, in Stockholm, Sweden. Maurice F. Strong, who had a lifelong interest in environmental issues, was made secretary-general of the conference. The successful impact of the Stockholm meeting can be traced to Strong’s dedicated leadership. Preparations for the conference extended over four years. Throughout the world, regional conferences were held to explore and refine issues critical to the specific regions. These would then be presented in Stockholm. It was Strong’s opinion that environmental problems must be perceived as global and that solutions could come only through concerted international action.

To emphasize his conviction that protecting the planet required a global response, Strong commissioned René Dubos, a world-renowned environmentalist, to chair a large international committee of experts that would prepare a report for use in Stockholm. Dubos then approached the prominent British ecologist Barbara Ward to assist in writing the report. Experts who contributed to the report included Barry Commoner Commoner, Barry (biologist), Thor Heyerdahl Heyerdahl, Thor (explorer), Margaret Mead Mead, Margaret (anthropologist), Gunnar Myrdal Myrdal, Gunnar (economist), and Lewis Mumford Mumford, Lewis (urban historian). The report, published as a book, appeared shortly before the conference began. Its title, Only One Earth: The Care and Maintenance of a Small Planet, Only One Earth (Ward and Dubos) became the theme for those attending.

The work by Ward and Dubos argued that Earth’s resources were limited and that strategies must be found to preserve these resources. There was considerable stress placed on the fact that advanced technology threatened to put the world’s ecological systems out of balance. Ward and Dubos provided a historical survey to show how national attitudes, particularly in the industrial states, had evolved to the point that the accumulation of material wealth had become the principal interest. They specifically focused attention on dangers created by water, air, and noise pollution as well as the threats posed by population increases and abuses of land. Much was made of the deterioration of urban life throughout industrial society. The authors proposed that humans could still preserve Earth’s ecosystems, which they believed to be wonderfully resilient, but forceful action was needed.

The Stockholm Conference, attended by delegates from 113 countries, occurred because leaders of the industrial nations had finally come to realize the potential consequences of continued pressure on natural resources. Only One Earth, therefore, gave most of its attention to concerns of these industrial giants. Third World representatives to the conferences, in fact, were extremely wary of the Stockholm deliberations. They feared that any recommendations made by the conference to the U.N. General Assembly would hamper the economic development plans of their respective countries. Environmental concerns were not uppermost in the minds of Third World leaders.

As the conference progressed, considerable debate ensued over the issues raised in Only One Earth. Water and air pollution, especially acid rain, received intense discussion, but the dwindling rain forests and the complex problems arising in urban centers also attracted notice. On these last two matters, delegates from the developing countries were effectively drawn into the dialogue. Nearly all developing countries had experienced the difficulties associated with village people seeking opportunity in a city, only to discover that there were few opportunities for employment and that services were unreliable.

During the entire conference, Maurice Strong did everything possible to keep the representatives focused on the task at hand. He continually pressed the need for international cooperation, particularly with regard to acquiring accurate information. At the end of the conference, recommendations were made to the U.N. General Assembly. Most of the recommendations focused on improvement in four general areas: evaluation and review of existing circumstances, continuing research, monitoring the environment to predict changes and provide early warnings, and facilitating the worldwide exchange of critical ecological information.


The Stockholm Conference was a reaction to public interest created during the 1960’s, but it made a considerable contribution toward expanding and defining that interest. Its impact was both general and specific. In a general way, the fact that the United Nations had called such a large international meeting on the environment, and had given it extensive publicity, signaled the need for conservation of natural resources to the world community. Many scientists and ecologists had warned about the consequences of industrialization, high technology, materialism, and population explosion, but the Stockholm Conference made these concerns more immediate than they had ever been before. Delegates from Third World countries, who came to Stockholm somewhat unenthusiastically, left with a sense that their countries, too, needed to give attention to the conflict between economic development and preservation of resources. There was something to be learned from what had happened in the highly developed states. For the first time, many Third World nations established environmental ministries and developed national programs and legislations.

In December, 1972, the U.N. General Assembly began to implement the many specific recommendations put forward from Stockholm. It created the United Nations Environment Program United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) to coordinate activities of existing organizations that had some responsibility for the global environment. UNEP also was empowered to create an international network to monitor conditions and changes in those conditions. The 1972 conference had resolved that all countries had the responsibility to ensure that industrial practices within their jurisdiction did no damage to ecological systems in other states. UNEP was to encourage, through the information gathered, appropriate conservation policies in line with concerns for the economic well-being of Earth’s population. UNEP was the first major U.N. organization headquartered in a developing country, in Nairobi, Kenya. Strong was appointed UNEP’s first executive director. This was done in appreciation of Strong’s role in the Stockholm Conference and to guarantee that the promise of Stockholm would be fulfilled.

After its formation, UNEP provided environmental principles and guidelines for all nations. Its efforts in this regard included promoting protocols and conventions relating to marine life, air and water pollution, disposal of hazardous waste, and protection of rain forests.

“Earthwatch” was one of the catchwords launched by the Stockholm Conference. UNEP thus became the parent organization for three global programs: the International Referral System for Sources of Environmental Information International Referral System for Sources of Environmental Information (INFOTERRA), the International Register of Potentially Toxic Chemicals International Register of Potentially Toxic Chemicals (IRPTC), and the Global Environment Monitoring System Global Environment Monitoring System (GEMS). Of the three, GEMS was the most successful in gathering and interpreting worldwide information. Despite the reluctance of many nations to supply needed data, GEMS remained the best source for information about the human environment. It is worth noting that, in addition to the institutions and agencies directly formed under U.N. auspices, hundreds of other regional, national, and international committees, commissions, and agencies were founded in the 1970’s and 1980’s. All, to some degree, owed their existence to the spark provided by Stockholm. These organizations’ concerns ranged over a panorama of issues related to the interaction of humans with one another and with nature.

In assessing the impact of the Stockholm Conference nearly a decade after it was held, Maurice Strong pointed to some notable successes, but also to some disappointments. On the positive side, the apparatus for collecting and analyzing environmental information was falling into place. He had great hopes for UNEP and its subsidiaries. He was pleased that the impact of the conference’s concern about water resources had led the U.N. General Assembly to declare the 1980’s the International Water Supply and Sanitation Decade. There was, as well, new interest in curtailing such dangers as acid rain, the dumping of toxic chemicals, the depletion of wildlife, deforestation, and excessive energy demands. Many countries, including developing ones, had been inspired by Stockholm to begin national strategies for sustainable development. The Regional Seas Program of UNEP had created purposeful international cooperation for the protection of marine life.

On the other hand, Strong could see that Stockholm had been only a beginning and not a great leap forward. In fact, there were many reasons to be disappointed. World population continued to grow, and despite warnings from Stockholm, pressures on Earth’s resources had increased. Leaders of developing countries found it difficult to adhere to plans for local industry and limited technology in the face of huge money put forward by timber, mining, and oil cartels. Even as national strategies to protect natural resources were being put in place, agreements were signed permitting corporate plunder of those resources.

Notwithstanding setbacks and lack of progress in many areas, Strong remained reasonably optimistic about the future. He expected that the Stockholm initiatives, particularly UNEP, would bring the anticipated international cooperation and that all countries would eventually realize that it was in their own long-term interests to reject unlimited industrial and technological expansion. Strong maintained that optimism into the early 1990’s, but it is a fact that the agenda for the 1992 U.N. Conference on the Human Environment held in Rio de Janeiro included all the concerns raised in Stockholm in 1972. Many of the problems cited in Stockholm had intensified, although successes could also be counted. Conference on the Human Environment, U.N. (1972) Stockholm Conference, U.N. (1972) Natural resources, conservation Conservation;natural resources Environmental awareness Environmental policy, international

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Blackburn, Anne M., ed. Pieces of the Global Puzzle. Golden, Colo.: Fulcrum, 1986. Essays by leaders in banking, industry, and conservation. There is a useful time line of major global environmental events from 1948 to 1986. Blackburn then analyzes the significance of these events. Appendixes, brief index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Botkin, Daniel B., et al., eds. Changing the Global Environment. Boston: Academic Press, 1989. Compendium of twenty-seven essays, nearly all of which focus on issues raised in Stockholm. Articles range over economic, ethical, and technological questions. All emphasize the need to develop a global vision for the environment. Substantial notes at the end of each essay, index. Recommended.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Clapp, Jennifer, and Peter Dauvergne. Paths to a Green World: The Political Economy of the Global Environment. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2005. Presents four original worldviews on environmental change and uses these perspectives to analyze links between ecological change and the global political economy. Accessible, comprehensive, and succinct.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Conca, Ken, and Geoffrey D. Dabelko, eds. Green Planet Blues: Environmental Politics from Stockholm to Johannesburg. 3d ed. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2004. Collection of classic essays and new material on global environmental politics. See Part I, “The Debate at Stockholm.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dubos, René. The Wooing of the Earth. London: Athlone Press, 1980. Supports the view that humans can create circumstances that provide prosperity and beauty and that will protect the biosphere. The focus is on human management of the environment. Useful appendixes, notes, index. Recommended.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dubos, René, and Barbara Ward Jackson. Only One Earth: The Care and Maintenance of a Small Planet. New York: W. W. Norton, 1972. The book that, in effect, provided the agenda for the Stockholm Conference. Maurice Strong, secretary-general of the Stockholm Conference, maintained that the writing of Dubos and Ward inspired the initiatives and recommendations that came out of Stockholm. Highly recommended.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mathews, Jessica Tuchman, ed. Preserving the Global Environment. New York: W. W. Norton, 1991. Includes essays on protecting the ozone layer, deforestation, population growth, economic circumstances, and international cooperation. Lists the names and associations of those who participated in the Challenge of Shared Leadership Conference at Columbia University in April, 1990. Index.

Ward and Dubos Publish Only One Earth

Schumacher Publishes Small Is Beautiful

U.N. Global Environment Monitoring System Is Inaugurated

United Nations Creates a Panel to Study Climate Change

Earth Summit Convenes in Rio de Janeiro

Kyoto Conference on Greenhouse Gases

Categories: History Content