Norms and Values
Environmental Anniversaries: Stockholm, Rio and Limits to Growth

June 3 marks the 30th anniversary of the beginning of the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, which is now remembered as an important symbolic milestone in the perception of the concept of sustainable development in world politics and global public opinion. The  UN Conference on Environment and Development, which was held in Brazil in June 1992, was figuratively dubbed the ‘Earth Summit’. The very tradition of holding such meetings had originated twenty years earlier, in June 1972, when the first such UN conference was held in Stockholm, so this June also marks the 50th anniversary of that meeting.

Incidentally, the Soviet Union boycotted the 1972 conference because the GDR delegation was not allowed to attend. The Chinese delegation at the conference entered a heated debate with the United States. Thus, geopolitics began to have an impact on the global environmental movement from its very beginning. Another fault line that emerged at the Stockholm conference was the difference in approaches between the developed and developing countries. The states of the Third World, which had only recently freed themselves from colonial oppression, irately pointed out that the introduction of environmentalist restrictions on production without appropriate compensatory support could obstruct the development of their national industries.

Then the thesis arose that when the countries of the West carried out their industrial revolution in the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, they hadn’t thought about environmental protection at all. Thus, the argument went that the developed countries were entirely to blame for the pollution of our planet. Now, it was said, these countries are using the fashionable theme of ecology as a tool to perpetuate existing social and economic inequalities in the world, and as a result deny the poorest countries the right to development. All these views and fears took shape in the concept of “environmental neo-colonialism”. The Valdai Club has already addressed the current state of discussions in this regard; the thesis of “environmental neo-colonialism” has been supplemented by a new postulate of “carbon neo-colonialism”. In general, this emphasis on the contradiction between ecology and development has become, in our opinion, one of the main obstacles in pursuing further processes. The Rio conference tried to reconcile these two points of view.

The Global Climate Agenda and Carbon Neo-Colonialism
Climate change is becoming an increasingly important and politicised topic on the global agenda. The great challenges associated with the interaction between man and nature have begun to be perceived more and more seriously as a basis for practical action, both on the global and national levels. There is also growing support for such initiatives among the general public in different countries.
Club events

One of the institutional outcomes of the first conference in Stockholm was the creation of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). This programme later became one of the main global centres for coordinating international efforts in the field of ecology, and then to combat global warming. Later, the UN programme was one of the initiators of the creation of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. In turn, the reports of this group occupy a key, if not decisive, place in the development of global approaches to combat global warming and promote a green transformation. This was clearly seen in the context of last year's summit in Glasgow.

Looking back into history, we can argue that the year 1972 was indeed a turning point in the consolidation of the thesis of global environmental responsibility in world public opinion. Aside from the UN conference in Stockholm, the First Report to the Club of Rome, released in the same year, had an equal or greater impact on the minds of both experts and laypeople. The title of that report became famous: “The Limits to Growth”. The pronounced alarmism of this report, as well as the provocative nature of its conclusions, caused an extremely heated discussion both among specialists and in the popular press. It is still not uncommon to find both economists and environmentalists who begin to break out into angry tirades at the mere mention of “The Limits to Growth”.

What is the source of this controversy? The report states that natural resources and energy sources are both exhaustible, while production, consumption and the global population are growing. It concludes that due to these factors, a sharp and irrevocable collapse of human civilisation will occur by the end of the 21st century; the authors cite their own computer models in supporting this assertion. The report recommended that in order to survive, humanity must move from a policy of growth and development to a policy of self-restraint. It also postulates that the sooner this happens, the better.

Such conclusions contrasted with enduring popular assumptions: since the industrial revolution of the 19th century, the fundamental attitude of humanity had been a belief in progress: first technological, and then social.
Today is better than yesterday, and tomorrow will undoubtedly be better than today. “Our children and grandchildren will live better than we do” is a familiar phrase.

Even two world wars could not shake this faith in progress. After their conclusion, this belief was renewed again. Regarding global public opinion in the early 1970s, this faith in progress was almost absolute: humanity had travelled to space and put a man on the moon, introduced peaceful nuclear energy, computers, the Boeing 747, détente, etc. And here was a text that directly stated that progress, growth and development are not good for humanity, but evil. That progress directly brings the death of civilisation closer. It is only natural, therefore, that “The Limits to Growth” in this context was perceived by many as one of the greatest intellectual provocations of the 20th century.

The summit in Rio, which took place twenty years later, in its official consolidation of sustainable development, gave an answer not only (and in our opinion, not so much) to the above contradictions between rich and poor countries about ecology and development, but to the provocative pessimism of that alarmist ideology which grew out of “The Limits to Growth”. Development is not evil; it is still good. This is the main value message of the Rio summit. However, in order for the fruits of our development to be enjoyed by future generations, it must be sustainable. The Rio summit focused primarily on the environmental aspects of sustainability, social and other contexts were added later. All this systematically led to the formation of the list of Sustainable Development Goals under the auspices of the UN. Work on their implementation is being carried out today, both at the global level and in national programmes. It is possible, and sometimes necessary, to talk about the utopian and declarative nature of these goals, but nevertheless they provide an important system of guidelines for the future.

Alarmism, however, has not disappeared anywhere either. The Covid pandemic has caused a massive upsurge in this alarmism, which we have all witnessed over the past couple of years. The latest major military conflict in Europe is now also quite naturally a source of great concern, as its affects global energy and food sustainability. In an ecological context, alarmism has become the most important driver of the fight against climate change. I don’t know how appropriate it is to compare Greta Thunberg and “The Limits to Growth”, but their message that if you do nothing now, then future generations will only live worse, is in fact exactly the same. This is, perhaps the main meaning of the triad of environmental anniversaries this year.
Environmental Initiatives of Russia
The green agenda is gaining momentum in the world, and Russia cannot stand aside. In 2018, national projects were adopted. Among them, the flagship can be considered the Ecology national project. You can find out what other steps Russia has taken to protect the environment at the national and international level in our infographic.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.