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The Birth of Global Environmentalism

Commemorating 1972 and its (Legal) Implications for the Human-Nature Relationship


50 years ago, at least three events occurred that had a major and lasting impact on the (legal) relationship between human and nature. The release of the photograph “The Blue Marble”, the publication of the Club of Rome’s report “The Limits to Growth”, and the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (Stockholm Conference) for the first time revealed the vulnerability of nature and the human dependence on its natural environment on a global scale. In doing so, the three events heralded a new phase in the Anthropocene characterized by a global human sense of responsibility for the natural environment, thus making 1972 a fateful year for the human-nature relationship, and for international environmental law in particular. 50 years later, on 2 and 3 June 2022, the international environmental meeting “Stockholm+50: A Healthy Planet for the Prosperity of All – Our Responsibility, Our Opportunity”, which is convened by the United Nations and embedded in the Decade of Action, takes place in Sweden’s capital. Its aim is to commemorate the 1972 Stockholm Conference and to accelerate the implementation and advancement of international environmental law and action. This occasion offers the opportunity to look back at the beginnings of global environmentalism and to take stock of its past 50 years.

The Blue Marble: A Finite Planet

When the first terrestrial globes were produced on European soil at the beginning of the modern era in the 15th century, they initiated a new chapter in the relationship between human and nature in the West. Whereas the human had previously seen herself as a part of nature under God’s rule, the globe presented the world as a spherical model and thus as a tangible object – one that could be contemplated, explored and later appropriated and exploited by the human subject (Ingold). At the same time, international law started to legally entrench this worldview by facilitating access to and allocation of territory and legitimizing colonial exploitation of humans and nature, as can be seen with the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas or Grotius’s Mare Liberum of 1609, for example (Hey).

Half a millennium later, on 7 December 1972, NASA’s Apollo 17 mission delivered the “Blue Marble”, the first ever photograph of the entire and fully illuminated planet earth. Just as the terrestrial globes of the 15th century, the image presented the earth as a definable and tangible object. However, against the backdrop of increased scientific evidence of environmental degradation and the subsequent rise of environmental activism in the 1960s, the image now did not become a symbol for the planet’s exploitability, but, on the contrary, for its finity, fragility and vulnerability. As Petsko puts it: “Our whole planet suddenly, in this image, seemed tiny, vulnerable, and incredibly lonely against the vast blackness of the cosmos. It also seemed whole in a way that no map could illustrate. Regional conflict and petty differences could be dismissed as trivial compared with environmental dangers that threatened all of humanity, traveling together through the void on this fragile-looking marble.” As the comment shows, the photograph vividly invalidated the artificial separation between human and nature and the human self-exaltation that had dominated the human-nature relationship until then.

The Limits to Growth: Pushing Against Planetary Boundaries

Some months before the Apollo 17 mission delivered Blue Marble, the Club of Rome published its report “The Limits to Growth”, which warned of the impact of economic and industrial policies on the future life on earth. More precisely, the team of researchers calculated that if the growth trends in world population, industrialization, pollution, food production, and resource depletion at the time continued unchanged, the limits to growth on earth would be reached sometime before 2072 (p. 23). As a numbers-based report on the impact of human activity, compiled by several highly respected scientists and published with media attention in numerous languages, the “Limits to Growth” contributed to a rethinking and the realization among policymakers and in civil society that there are limits for the human enterprise. Even though some predictions of the report have not come true or remain disputed, the key message remains as true and relevant as it was in 1972. As it is shown by the current scientific planetary boundaries concept, which was influenced by the 1972 report, the growing and expanding human enterprise is crossing key environmental thresholds and is thereby leaving its safe operating space.

Stockholm 1972 and the Birth of Modern International Environmental Law

The most important event in 1972 concerning international environmental law and policy took place in Stockholm. The United Nations Conference on the Human Environment was the first international conference to make the natural environment a major issue, resulting in the adoption of a Declaration containing 26 principles as well as the creation of the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) and bringing about a major rethinking of the relationship between human and nature among policymakers. The preamble recognizes that humankind is “both creature and moulder of his environment”, “has acquired the power to transform his environment in countless ways and on an unprecedented scale” (para. 1) and “can do massive and irreversible harm to the earthly environment on which our life and well-being depend” (para. 6). Principle 1 was the first international provision seeking to establish a human right to a healthy environment and stressed the human “responsibility to protect and improve the environment for present and future generations”.

In contrast to the previous hundred years, international environmental law and policy no longer justified environmental protection solely with the aim of ensuring sustainable economic exploitation. Instead, they began to recognize nature as a vital habitat whose healthy condition provides the basis for human life, health and well-being. Against this background, the conference heralded a period in which the international community concluded several international treaties on environmental protection and successfully addressed some major global environmental problems such as the depletion of the ozone layer. Humankind began to realize its adverse impact on the natural environment and to take respective action.

The Third Phase of the Anthropocene and Ongoing Anthropocentrism

Against this backdrop, the Stockholm Conference also heralded a new phase of the Anthropocene. With the Industrial Revolution, and its massive use of fossil fuels in particular, the world had entered the Anthropocene, a new geological epoch in which humanity has become a major geological force (see first Stoermer/Crutzen, pp. 17 et seq.). After World War II, rapid economic and population growth linked with an exponential increase in consumption and transportation had led to the Great Acceleration of the human impact on nature as the Anthropocene’s second phase (Steffen et al. 2007, pp. 617 et seq.). Now, in 1972, the Stockholm Conference as a first attempt “to build global governance systems to manage humanity’s relationship with the Earth system” (Steffen et al., p. 856) marked the beginning of the third and current phase of the Anthropocene – a period characterized by a “modern planetary ecological conscience” (Steffen et al. , p. 845) and by growing global efforts to govern and reduce the human impact on nature.

Despite these remarkable developments in Stockholm, the conference did not lead to a radical turnaround in the human-nature relationship but remained overtly human-centered. This is shown, inter alia, already by the conference title, by para. 5 of the declaration’s preamble, which proclaims that “[o]f all things in the world, people are the most precious”, and by Principle 1, which stresses the human responsibility to protect and improve the environment “for present and future generations”. Put briefly, nature’s value remained instrumental, as the service provider for human health and well-being. Coincidentally, also in 1972, Christopher Stone with his seminal article on the rights of nature marked the beginning of non-anthropocentric legal thinking. Since 1972, the intrinsic value of nature has only occasionally been recognized in international environmental treaties (see, e.g., the preambles of the 1979 Bern Convention, the 1992 Biodiversity Convention and the 2015 Paris Agreement). International environmental law therefore remains predominantly anthropocentric, as can be seen with most of international environmental treaty law, existing and emerging human rights to the environment or the Sustainable Development Goals, for example.

Back in Stockholm

50 years after the groundbreaking conference, the international community meets again in Stockholm. And there is little reason to celebrate. The very fact that this conference is taking place shows that neither Stockholm 1972 nor the numerous follow-up conferences have led to a comprehensive solution to the environmental crises. This is also due to the general weakness of international environmental law, which reveals gaps and deficiencies at multiple levels. While the realities of the Earth system have changed dramatically in recent decades, law, by hardly reflecting the ongoing transformation and our knowledge thereof, lags behind those realities. In addition to its general lack of effectiveness, it is still based on a strict and scientifically untenable human-nature dualism. Against this background, it is barely able to counter the contemporary environmental crises. A ray of hope, however, is the increasing reflection among lawyers on the role of law in the Anthropocene, and the growing awareness that law is not a neutral and value-free instrument but itself protects and reproduces existing power imbalances, also with regard to the human-nature relationship.

After 500 years of human separation from and oppression of nature, in 1972 the insight began to take hold globally and at the institutional level that humans are part of nature, that they have an adverse impact on nature and that their existence depends on nature. 1972 with its three outlined events therefore marked a turning point not only for international environmental law, but also in the human-nature relationship more generally. While, taking into account the current state of the planet, 1972 did not lead to a necessary radical turnaround with considerable long-term improvements in environmental law and policy as well as in social and individual behavior, it is still in the hands of humanity, including (international) lawyers, that the world will look different in 2072, and that 1972 can then be celebrated as the beginning of the end of human environmental and self-destruction.

Jasper Mührel

Jasper Mührel is a doctoral candidate and research assistant at the Chair of Public Law, Public International Law, EU Law and Comparative Law at the University of Jena.

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