Maurice Strong (29 Apr 1929 – 28 Nov 2015) – The UN Voice for Environmental Action

OBITUARIES, 30 Nov 2015

Rene Wadlow – TRANSCEND Media Service

René Wadlow

René Wadlow

Just on the eve of the Paris Climate Conference (COP 21) and the coming discussions on climate change and a sustainable world society, Maurice Strong died on 28 November 2015. Strong more than any other person in the United Nations system had been the driving force to put action on the environment on the “world agenda” for both government and non-governmental action. For Strong, to protect the Earth’s environment, its biodiversity and life-support system was a cause for cooperative action to transform society, a cause to which government and business leaders could rise above lesser concerns and act together to protect the planet.

In practice, but not in theory, there is only one major topic on the “world agenda” per decade. Thus for the 1960s, after the independence and entry into the UN of the African states, the terms of trade between developed and less developed countries was the issue on the world agenda. This concern was manifested in 1964 by the first UN Conference on Trade and Development, followed by the creation of a large UNCTAD secretariat in the UN to help developing countries on conditions of trade, prices of raw materials and the transfer of technology. These are still important issues but have become ‘routine’ and do not hold center stage. Trade and development may not have been central on everyone’s mind during the 1960s. I recall chatting with Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara in the halls of the Palais des Nations during the first UNCTAD when he was the Minister of Commerce of Cuba. While recognizing the importance of trade, he probably had other aims in mind.

The Honourable Maurice F. Strong, P.C., O.C., LL.D.

The Honourable Maurice F. Strong, P.C., O.C., LL.D.

The 1970s was the decade of ecology, intellectually highlighted by Rene Dubos’ Only One Earth. (1)

The 1980s world agenda item was East-West nuclear policies in Europe, the end of the Berlin Wall and of Soviet power.

The 1990s focused on the violent rise of ethnic-based separatist movements, basically the breakup of former Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union — the nature and future of such movements, an agenda item which has carried over in the long 2000-2015 Decade in which ethnicity has combined with religious motivations.

Before a topic becomes the focus of the world agenda, there is a good deal of intellectual preparation needed, usually first outside of governments. During the 1960s, the framework of the ecological challenges was being put into place by a number of authors and the development of specialized non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was first published in the New Yorker in 1960 and as a book in 1962. The book focused on the impact of pesticides, especially DDT. Silent Spring brought to wide public attention a rich history of US writers and their efforts to build awareness of the need to develop harmony between humans and nature. There has been a strong ethical dimension to ecological thought in the US as seen in the writing of Aldo Leopold (1886-1948.) (2)

Kenneth Boulding, a Quaker, economist and peace researcher starting writing what is now called “ecological economics”. Boulding along with Buckminster Fuller and Barbara Ward developed the concept of ‘Spaceship Earth’ . Boulding stressed the need to modify education in light of the ecological realities. He wrote, “It is obvious today that we can no longer think in terms of single static entities — but only in terms of dynamic changing processes and series of interacting events. The content of our education requires restructuring into new understandable wholes that it may be imparted, even at the primary levels, in terms of whole systems. Thus the principal task of education in this day is to convey from one generation to the next, a rich image of the total earth, that is, the idea of the earth as a total system…What formal education has to do is to produce people who are fit to be inhabitants of the planet. This has become an urgent necessity because for the first time in human history we have reached the boundaries of our planet and found that it is a small one at that. This generation of young people have to be prepared to live in a very small and crowed spaceship. Otherwise they are going to get a terrible shock when they grow up and discover that we have taught them how to live in a world long gone. The nightmare of the educator is what Veblen called ‘trained incapacity’ and we have to be constantly on the watch that this does not become one of our main products.” (3)

The first step to having an impact on the UN conference was to draft a statement setting out in broad terms the challenges faced and some of the steps to be taken. The statement had to be drafted and signed by individuals who had some expertise in the ecology field which was then a relatively new field and largely related to biology and the study of wildlife. Six environmental scientists were gathered by Dai Dong at Menton, France, a summer resort, in May 1970. The Menton text is called “A Message to our 3.5 billion neighbors on Planet Earth.” Although we have now seven billion neighbors, the text is still worth reading. It was published in the UNESCO periodical Courier and co-signed by over two thousand biologists and others whose name carried weight on such issues such as Thor Heyerdahl and Margaret Mead.

Dai Dong representatives met a year later in May 1971 with UN Secretary-General U Thant, a Burmese Buddhist sensitive to the same vision of a delicate equilibrium between humans and nature.

The UN secretariat started its efforts for the Stockholm conference in Geneva in the Palais Wilson, the original League of Nations headquarters just across the street from my office in the Graduate Institute of Development Studies. Thus I often talked with the UN staff which would eat in our building since we had a cafeteria, and they did not. The head of the preparatory secretariat was Maurice Strong who became the Secretary General of the Conference itself. Strong was a Canadian who made a great deal of money early in his business life dealing with oil fields in Canada, and thus could spend the rest of his life in UN-related activities, not as a volunteer but paid much less than as head of a corporation. Strong was an intense, self-motivated person and the people who worked with him were driven by the same energy. There are, no doubt, people who did not appreciate Strong, but they faded from the scene, and those who were left with him would not be surprised to see Strong walking across Lake Geneva.

Since Strong came from the business world and not from the regular governmental diplomatic service, he had the respect for government representatives that is needed but not much more. Rather he has a high regard for ‘the people’ — at least those organized in non-governmental organizations and who are willing to try out new ideas and new methods of work. Thus, in Geneva, there was a group of us, UN Secretariat, university teachers and NGO representatives united by the desire to place ecological issues at the center of the ‘world agenda’ despite a rather timid response from national governments.

It was natural for Strong and his team to reach out to Hassler and the Dai Dong effort. Thus began what has become an institution with UN conferences: a parallel conference held a few days earlier in the same city with representatives of NGOs — now called ‘civil society ‘ — who write a statement of what governments should say if they had the intelligence and courage of NGOs. Now, the NGOs work on their statement and alternative plan of action for many months in advance. A good example is the statement and alternative plan of action developed for the Beijing conference on the Status of Women (1995).

In 1972, however, the process had not yet been so set out, and Hassler and Dai Dong organized a first parallel conference in Stockholm of 31 people. Dai Dong had already prepared the statement and as is often the case in such efforts, people unrelated to the original drafting process can object to certain paragraphs but can rarely propose new ideas. Thus at the Dai Dong- sponsored independent conference, the conflicts predictably arose over population issues. At all international meetings going back to the League of Nations debates, when population questions are mentioned, there are those who suspect family planning as being a way to limit the number of the poor (usually seen as being of a different color or ethnicity than the rest) or as a way of promoting teenage sex. Thus, ten persons among the 31 attending the Dai Dong conference wanted to take some distance from the short paragraph on population without presenting any alternative to unrestrained population growth.

Once the Dai Dong statement written, Alfred Hassler read the text to the governments assembled in the UN conference. In many ways, the Dai Dong “Independent Declaration on the Environment” is well worth the text of the governments — largely drafted by the UN Secretariat since expertise among government representatives was generally at a low level.

The 1972 Stockholm Conference led to the creation within many governments of a ‘Ministry of the Ecology’ or a sub-section of an existing ministry. The United Nations created the UN Environment Program (UNEP) of which Maurice Strong was the first Director.

Basically, Dai Dong’s work finished with the 1972 Stockholm conference. Ecology with a broad poverty-reduction, social justice, harmony with nature focus was on the world agenda. Strong, influenced by the idea of the importance of the ‘Third World’ pushed to have the UNEP headquarters in Kenya. However, Kenya had no other UN Specialized Agencies and so there was little informal cooperation with other UN Agencies such as the Food and Agriculture Organization, the International Labour Office or the World Bank.

After his retirement from UNEP, Strong continued to be a strong voice for ecological action. He was asked by the UN to be Secretary General of the Rio Conference on 1992, often called the “Earth Summit” which started to popularize the idea of sustainable development. Maurice Strong is in many ways the model of the world citizen, deeply rooted in his Canadian experience and open to the world, an active agent at the world level for ecologically-sound development.


(1) Barbara Ward and Rene Dubos. Only One Earth: The Care and Maintenance of a Small Planet (New York: W.W.Norton, 1972)

(2) See: Victor B. Scheffer. The Shaping of Environmentalism in America (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1991). Robert C. Paehlke. Environmentalism and the Future of Progressive Politics (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989).

(3) For a good overview of Kenneth Boulding’s many interests and activities see Cynthia E. Kerman. Creative Tension: The Life and Thought of Kenneth Boulding (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, ). See Kenneth Boulding and Henry Clark. Human Values on the Spaceship Earth (New York: National Council of Churches, 1966). For others using the spaceship image see: Barbara Ward Spaceship Earth (New York: Columbia University Press, 1966). Buckminster Fuller. An Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth (New York: Pocket Books, 1970)


René Wadlow, a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation and of its Task Force on the Middle East, is president and U.N. representative (Geneva) of the Association of World Citizens and editor of Transnational Perspectives. He is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace, Development and Environment.


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 30 Nov 2015.

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One Response to “Maurice Strong (29 Apr 1929 – 28 Nov 2015) – The UN Voice for Environmental Action”

  1. rosemerry says:

    Thanks for this. I remember the 1972 Conference when I was living in the coral islands now called Kiribati, only a metre or so above sea at their highest point even then.

    I will never forget one comment about the conference from a skeptic whose name I do not know-

    “There are wider issues at stake than the global environment.”

    Sadly, many of our “leaders” seem to hold this view even now.