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Maurice Strong: a study in leadership - Concrete Measures

Based on analyses of materials received and of the political will of governments, Strong concluded that “knowledge” was the only theme on which governments would be prepared to take the kind of decisions that could lead to concrete measures within reasonable time. In other words, if the Action Plan focused on improving knowledge about the problems, it would build a stronger base for taking further action.

With this understanding, it was felt the Plan,17/ could consist of the following elements: monitoring, information exchange, research, education and training, natural resource overview, and institutional and financial implications. In addition, it could offer a series of specific recommendations in areas such as urbanization, criteria and standards for environmental quality, and the link between development and environment.18/ This course of action set the overall direction for the Action Plan, embodying the bulk of the decisions of the Conference. Judging by later developments, it is clear that Strong’s political assessment at the time was correct.

One victim of this inevitable choice was that it was not possible to include the major issue of factoring environmental issues into economic decisions. The true societal costs of environmental degradation as well as the benefits of environmental protection were not part of conventional economic theory and did not figure in calculations of gross national product (GNP). This fundamental – and controversial – issue had been mentioned in the early UN speeches and had been proposed as an item for the Conference in an internal memorandum to Strong during the preparations for the informal meeting of the Preparatory Committee in November 1970.19/

Strong raised the matter in a speech in May 1971, emphasizing mankind’s joint responsibility for the basic components of the global, life-supporting system. In this connection, he stated that “industrialized countries of the western world must be prepared to accept a much greater degree of public intervention in the processes of economic decision-making. … Economic policy must become much more clearly an instrument for achieving the goals of society than an end in itself.”20/ Strong reverted to the matter in more speeches before the Conference, and in his opening statement at the Conference itself, he rejected a “no growth” policy, but stated that the opportunities to express the creative drives of people “can only be provided within a total system in which man’s activities are in dynamic harmony with the natural order.”21/ In this way, externalities would not arise but would become internalized.22/

In the final analysis, Strong could not bring up these issues for specific action at the Conference because it would have required the active encouragement and participation of finance ministers of the leading industrialized countries. In terms of international cooperation, these highly influential ministers were more focused on World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) than the UN. Strong tried to see finance ministers during his travels, it was clear that they were not inclined – or expected – to play any role of importance in the Stockholm Conference.23/

17. During this time, it was felt that Stockholm Conference would probably have a follow-up conference, perhaps to be held in 1976,

18. Message Swedel NY 1971-08-31.

19. Internal memorandum by Chef de Cabinet Marc Nerfin to Maurice Strong 1970-10-27 (with author).

20. Queens University, Kingston, Ontario, 1971-05-28 (Maurice Strong’s papers, Harvard University).

21. Part III of opening statement, 1972-06-05.

22. Maurice Strong, interview by author, 2008-04-05.

23. Ibid.