The 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment marked a watershed in world environmental politics. Gathered in Stockholm, Sweden, the international community collectively recognized that the technologies and economic models that enable modern development were also driving unsustainable environmental degradation, compromising the vital natural systems on which human well-being depends.

The Stockholm Conference helped launch a global boom in environmental action and awareness. Countries worldwide established environmental ministries, enacted new environmental legislation, and entered into multiple international environmental agreements. Yet in the decades since 1972 many environmental and development problems persist and difficult new issues, such as climate change, have emerged.

By declaring environmental protection an imperative goal to be pursued jointly with peace and development, the Stockholm Conference set essential foundations for concepts of human security. Today’s interconnected environmental, peace and development challenges require a renewed commitment to cooperative action.

Intertwined challenges to the environment, development and peace

The policymakers and practitioners involved with the Stockholm Conference understood that humanity’s technological prowess had given society previously unimaginable power to improve, but also to annihilate, the very conditions of its existence. Nuclear power embodied this dichotomy. Radioactive fall-out from atomic weapons tests, potential accidents at nuclear power plants, and nuclear waste all constituted dangerous byproducts of modern development, much like heavy metals and persistent pesticides. Ecological systems and natural cycles transported DDT and radioactive isotopes between the far corners of the Earth and spread them throughout the food chain, placing populations everywhere at risk.

Nuclear power for civilian use posed particular challenges for policymakers . Then, as today, much of humanity lacked access to sufficient energy supplies, particularly in developing nations. Expanding civilian nuclear power in developing states could bring modern energy services to millions, but it also entailed risks to health, security and the environment. Constraining or blocking the spread of nuclear power would limit the risks, but potentially deny adequate energy access to large parts of the world, perpetuating under-development and possibly stoking social unrest. The resulting turmoil could destabilize vulnerable countries and might well embroil the wider world.

Pervasive pollution and despoilment of the natural world, like the ever-present spectre of nuclear accident or nuclear war, were recognized as existential threats. Many analysts saw the same competitive dynamics behind both the environmental crisis and the nuclear peril, pitting national priorities against the global good. Both in the environmental and nuclear arenas, individual countries hesitate to compromise their own economic and security objectives – whether by reducing their stocks of atomic weapons or reducing their consumption of shared natural resources – for fear that other states could then take advantage by declining to follow suit, undermining the collective interest by shirking collective action.

The Stockholm Conference thus placed both protecting the environment and preventing nuclear risks into the same frame of collaborative commitment to safeguarding human survival. Together with calls to preserve natural resources and halt hazardous levels of pollution, the Conference urged the cessation of nuclear testing and the total abolition of nuclear weapons. Significantly, the Conference not only issued a vigorous Declaration advocating extensive national and international cooperation across all levels of society, but also formulated a detailed Action Plan advancing dozens of policies and measures for environmental management, research and monitoring, financing, and technical coordination.

From Stockholm 1972 to Stockholm+50

Fifty years after the Stockholm Conference, the international community again gathered in Stockholm for the Stockholm+50 International Meeting in June 2022. Despite the Stockholm Declaration and Action Plan, and the many treaties, conferences and other steps to protect the environment in the interim, human pressures on the global environment have continued to escalate. Economic growth, resource use, population, urbanization and globalization have all dramatically increased , bringing new or intensified environmental dangers, some reaching planetary scale , from climate change and biodiversity loss to disruption of global chemical and hydrological cycles. Unsustainable development patterns still risk undermining the foundations of human welfare, threatening to overwhelm the coping capacities of the most vulnerable countries and communities. Conflict and instability could in turn degrade some societies’ abilities to answer environmental and development challenges, perpetuating vicious circles of insecurity .

Meeting global energy demands continues to pose environmental and geopolitical dilemmas, even as the challenges have expanded and evolved in response to climate change. Decision-makers are once again debating the costs and benefits of nuclear power in the context of the green energy transition. Crucially, different approaches to navigating these issues could themselves raise new concerns. Energy alternatives such as wind and solar, for example, also carry their own risks. Many renewable technologies require certain critical minerals that are often concentrated in countries afflicted by conflict or in ecologically sensitive regions, including the deep seabed. Many analysts fear that the surging global demand to exploit these mineral reserves could spark geopolitical competition to secure supplies, fuel environmental degradation in vulnerable areas or fan further instability in fragile countries .

Collective action in the “single security space”

Security and development are two imperatives that both depend, in the long term, on a healthy natural environment and sustainable social-ecological systems. In 2022 as in 1972, realizing these objectives requires recognition of these essential interdependencies. To do this, it is helpful to think of 21st century risks to peace and prosperity, a healthy environment and social equity as unfolding in a “single security space” of interlocking challenges. Within this space there will be unique configurations of interlocking and interacting risk factors specific to a given context. The appropriate responses are equally diverse and context-specific, and will often fall outside the traditional realm of security.

Tackling the multi-faceted risks within this single security space will require collaboration across all sectors of society and levels of governance. Five principles can guide this endeavour.

  • Cooperate to survive and thrive. No society can secure its citizens’ well-being without cooperation to tackle common threats.
  • Act now. Think ahead. Policymaking must combine current action with forward strategic planning to effectively engage interconnected issues.
  • Expect the unexpected. Adaptive decision-making will be needed to anticipate and adjust to complex and evolving potential risks.
  • Equitable approaches enhance legitimacy. To successfully navigate contending interests and values surrounding complex challenges, potential environmental, development, and security risks must be appropriately assessed and fairly managed.
  • By everyone, for everyone. Decision-making processes at every level will be fairer and more effective if they are inclusive and the interests of those affected are reflected in the outcomes.

The 1972 Stockholm Conference crystallized the growing public and policy consciousness that, in the words of the conference slogan, there is “Only One Earth”. On this One Earth, environmental integrity, peace and development are collectively interdependent and mutually reinforcing goals. Today’s environmental and security challenges require a renewed commitment to cooperative, collective action. To this end, we must find the will and the ways to build governance systems that are adaptive, inclusive and responsive to the needs of all.