Ward and Dubos Publish Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Only One Earth urged a global response to increasing pressures placed on Earth’s ecosystems.

Summary of Event

In May, 1971, Maurice F. Strong, secretary-general for the upcoming United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, commissioned René Dubos to chair an international committee of experts that would prepare a report on the condition of the Earth for the U.N. conference, which was to be held in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1972. Dubos then selected the prominent British environmentalist Barbara Ward to assist in preparing and writing the report. Among the international experts who participated in the project were biologist Barry Commoner, Commoner, Barry explorer Thor Heyerdahl, Heyerdahl, Thor anthropologist Margaret Mead, Mead, Margaret economist Gunnar Myrdal, Myrdal, Gunnar historian Lewis Mumford, Mumford, Lewis agriculturist Ismail al-Azzawi, and anatomist Lord Solly Zuckerman. Zuckerman, Solly Conference on the Human Environment, U.N. (1972) Environmental awareness Stockholm Conference, U.N. (1972) Conference on the Human Environment, U.N. (1972) Environmental awareness Stockholm Conference, U.N. (1972) Dubos, René Ward, Barbara Strong, Maurice F.

The experts consulted had various points of disagreement with the contents of the final report. Some thought it was insufficiently alarming, whereas others believed that the writers were overly pessimistic about the future. In fact, neither Ward nor Dubos (especially Dubos) could be categorized as pessimistic regarding the environment. The authors tried to present their material as objectively as possible.

The report, titled Only One Earth: The Care and Maintenance of a Small Planet, sought to provide a survey of the conditions of the planet as they existed in 1971. The publication was to assist the U.N. Conference on the Human Environment in understanding the limitations of Earth’s resources and also in understanding how strategies might be devised to sustain those resources for the benefit of human existence. The underlying assumption in the report is that increasing populations, seeking materialistic goals through advanced technology, will place such a heavy demand on energy and resources and create such staggering amounts of pollution that the natural biological systems of the planet will be imperiled.

Ward and Dubos point out that only one-third of Earth’s population had entered the technological age by 1972, but the pressures on resources already had reached dangerous proportions. It appeared to them that the planet was being thrown out of balance by human technology. It was time, the authors argued, to take a global approach to issues of social ecology (how people can best relate to their natural surroundings), pollution, and preservation of vital resources.

In their report, Ward and Dubos used history to show how Earth was brought to this threshold through knowledge, economics, and political power. Beginning in the sixteenth century, Europeans placed an emphasis on obtaining useful knowledge, that is, knowledge that led to the production of those things that ease the burdens of human existence. The production of such items proved profitable. Exacerbating this tendency to connect production with profit was the enormous expansion of international markets in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The allure of large profits spurred the development of new technology. The profit mentality established the prerequisites for modern large-scale industrial production, including risk capital, bank loans, partnerships, insurance, and profit sharing. The huge markets available in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries shifted emphasis from artisan handicraft to mass production.

After World War II ended in 1945, war-developed technologies resulted in the manufacture of new consumer goods that placed ever greater demands on nonrenewable resources. The enormous postwar technological boom was made all the more intense by a rapidly increasing world population. With the economies of industrial states seemingly in a permanent expansion, little thought was given to the social costs of waste pollution and unmanageable cities.

The postwar state itself played a major role in maintaining the conflict between modern technology and the environment. With the advent of power politics in the mid-nineteenth century, governments saw the acquisition of the latest technology as a way of fulfilling national aspirations. No significant change in national attitudes had appeared by 1972.

Much of Ward and Dubos’s report focused on the need to maintain the balance in the planet’s ecosystems, a balance that was in jeopardy. Rivers, choked with phosphates and other toxic wastes, were not only smelly and unaesthetic but also losing their ability to sustain marine life. Pollution;water Water;pollution Oceans were more frequently used as dumping sites for industrial and human wastes. Ward and Dubos argued that the situation could be saved only by determined efforts to pressure industries and municipalities to adjust the levels of toxic substances poured into Earth’s waters.

Convinced that the planet’s ecosystems were amazingly resilient, the authors believed that a little help from humans could achieve results. They cited the vast improvement in England’s Thames River as one example of how governments could respond positively to environmental concerns. They specifically advocated the expansion of recycling Recycling efforts as an antidote for an Earth littered with debris.

Only One Earth gave considerable attention to the human and ecological problems arising from uncontrolled urban sprawl. City life had become dispiriting for many people as a result of air, land, and noise pollution. The rapid growth of suburbs, moreover, had greatly expanded the exploitation of valuable land. As with all other environmental dilemmas cited in Only One Earth, Ward and Dubos contended that international cooperation offered the only hope for finding solutions to deteriorating urban life. Indeed, the need for international cooperation on all human and ecological issues is the central message of their work.


Only One Earth was written to inspire and guide those who attended the first U.N. Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm in 1972. The book’s impact is therefore intertwined with the significance of the Stockholm Conference. This gathering, first proposed by the Swedish government in 1968, required four years of planning with various regional conferences preceding the main event. Environmentalists generally agree that Stockholm represented a turning point in human history because it created, for the first time, a worldwide concern for conservation. Leaders were forced to recognize that pollution brought about by unbridled industrialization and urbanization could lead to the destruction of natural resources and ecosystems on which the quality of human life depended.

Those who attended the conference were, for the most part, from the industrial world and not experienced in analyzing environmental issues, and many did not fully understand the position taken by Ward and Dubos. Dubos later wrote that Only One Earth may have created more pessimism than either he or Ward had intended. It was this pessimism, however, or perhaps shock, that propelled Only One Earth into the consciousness of governments and the general public.

Ward and Dubos succeeded in their principal concern, which was to force global recognition of environmental issues. Conferees in Stockholm agreed that cooperation among nations and the creation of international agencies to keep watch on pollution were required. The Stockholm Conference made 109 recommendations for international environmental action in five general areas gleaned from Only One Earth: human settlements, management of natural resources, pollutants, education, and development.

There was no escaping the conclusion that the global environment had to be closely watched. “Earthwatch” became one of the key concepts inspired by Ward and Dubos, and the Stockholm Conference established the United Nations Environment Program United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) to coordinate global observation. The objectives included environmental assessment, research, monitoring, management, and exchange of information. Information was generated by two agencies created under UNEP: the International Referral System for Sources of Environmental Information International Referral System for Sources of Environmental Information (INFOTERRA) and the International Register of Potentially Toxic Chemicals International Register of Potentially Toxic Chemicals (IRPTC).

The most important agency to be inspired by Only One Earth was the Global Environment Monitoring System Global Environment Monitoring System (GEMS), created in 1972. It became instrumental in keeping the world alert to potential dangers related to human health, marine and air pollution, and depletion of natural resources.

Beyond the Stockholm Conference, Only One Earth influenced conservation policies and projects throughout the world. Officials in the U.S. government used the ideas in Only One Earth to focus the work of the Council on Environmental Quality Council on Environmental Quality, U.S. and the Environmental Protection Agency. Environmental Protection Agency In the 1970’s and 1980’s, a wide range of U.S. environmental legislation (nuclear waste, drinking water, noise pollution, marine life) was based heavily on concerns raised by Ward and Dubos. More important, major court decisions relating to pollution issues were often founded on the dangers discussed in Only One Earth. Subsequent U.N. conferences on the human environment continued to rely on the information and suggestions made by Ward and Dubos.

It is important to see Only One Earth in context, for it was just one of many books, articles, and reports on the environment published in the early 1970’s, and it was not the most alarming among them. Its powerful influence came, in part, from the fact that it represented the ideas of world leaders in conservation, and in part from the fact that it was published and distributed by the United Nations. It also benefited from its connection with the Stockholm Conference and from the tireless promotion given to it by Maurice Strong, the person who had originally commissioned the report, and who held a variety of environmental positions in Canada, the United States, and with the United Nations. In the years following the publication of Only One Earth, the report’s principal goal of encouraging global awareness of serious ecological problems was realized. Hundreds of international associations were established to monitor critical aspects of the environment. Conference on the Human Environment, U.N. (1972) Environmental awareness Stockholm Conference, U.N. (1972)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Barrett, Richard N., ed. International Dimensions of the Environmental Crisis. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1982. Essays originally given as lectures at the University of Montana. Part 1 deals with practical and philosophical problems, and parts 2, 3, and 4 deal with specific issues in Europe, Asia, and Africa. Each essay is followed by a useful bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Blackburn, Anne M., ed. Pieces of the Global Puzzle. Golden, Colo.: Fulcrum, 1986. A collection of essays by world leaders in banking, industry, and conservation. Includes a time line of major global environmental responses from 1948 to 1986, followed by Blackburn’s analysis of achievements. Appendixes, brief index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dubos, René J. The Wooing of the Earth. London: Athlone Press, 1980. Presents the basically optimistic view that humans can develop environments that support prosperity and beauty and that will protect the biosphere. Wide-ranging work focuses on human management of the environment. Useful appendixes, notes, index. Highly recommended.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gosovic, Branislav. The Quest for World Environmental Cooperation: The Case of the U.N. Global Environment Monitoring System. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1992. History of the U.N. Global Environment Monitoring System, which was inspired by Only One Earth. Provides a historical perspective on the 1972 Stockholm Conference and discusses in depth the nature of monitoring undertaken by GEMS. Includes informative notes and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schumacher, E. F. Small Is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered. 1973. Reprint. Point Roberts, Wash.: Hartley & Marks, 1999. Best-selling, highly influential work by a British economist was influenced to some extent by Only One Earth, especially those sections dealing with the need for new attitudes on technology. Highly recommended.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shah, M. M., and Maurice F. Strong. Food in the Twenty-first Century: From Science to Sustainable Agriculture. Washington, D.C.: World Bank, 2000. Well-written report looks at challenges faced by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research system, including increases in world population and poverty.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ward, Barbara. Progress for a Small Planet. New York: W. W. Norton, 1979. Brings together themes from Spaceship Earth and Only One Earth. Strongly supports the opinion that technology should never intrude on the environment. Very supportive of Schumacher’s ideas. Includes glossary, suggestions for further reading, index. Highly recommended.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Spaceship Earth. New York: Columbia University Press, 1966. A gracefully written, highly suggestive essay that clearly influenced a wide range of environmental literature. Not concerned directly with ecological issues, Ward’s major interest is the unbridled advance of science and technology and whether humans can regain control of the planet. Includes index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ward, Barbara, and René J. Dubos. Only One Earth: The Care and Maintenance of a Small Planet. New York: W. W. Norton, 1972. The report commissioned by the secretary-general for the U.N. Conference on the Human Environment.

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Schumacher Publishes Small Is Beautiful

Heilbroner Predicts Growth Limits

U.N. Global Environment Monitoring System Is Inaugurated

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The Global 2000 Report Is Issued

Our Common Future Is Published

Categories: History