Following are some key events from 1945-2002 in the emergence of an international system for protecting the global environment – and a consciousness of the interrelationships among environment, natural resources, population, development, culture, economics, and politics. See also About environmental organizations.
IUCN: The International Union for the Protection of Nature is founded at Fontainebleau, near Paris; in 1956 it will be renamed the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. IUCN is a unique partnership of governments and non-governmental organizations, will become a keystone of the global environmental community. It is now known simply as IUCN or the International Union for Conservation of Nature. For a number of years, until March 2008, it used the awkward names "IUCN – The World Conservation Union," and then "The World Conservation Union (IUCN)."
[Fast-forward: Visit www.iucn.org]
Lake Success: The United Nations Scientific Conference on the Conservation and Utilization of Resources is held in Lake Success, New York. It is the first major UN meeting on natural resource problems
Challenge of Man’s Future: Harrison Brown’s seminal book The Challenge of Man’s Future is published in the United States; it develops themes that 25 years later were to be covered by the term "sustainable development"
Minimata: The first person dies because of mercury released into Minimata Bay, Japan; thousands are poisoned
Law of the Sea: The First United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea, Geneva, approves draft conventions on environmental protection. The UNCLOS meetings will continue for decades
[Fast-forward: Visit www.un.org/Depts/los]
3 billion people: World population reaches 3 billion, rising from an estimated 2 billion in 1927, 1 billion in 1804
[Fast-forward: See 1974, 1987, 1999]
WWF: The World Wildlife Fund, now the World Wide Fund for Nature, is created at Morges, Switzerland; it will become a leading non-governmental actor in international conservation
[Fast-forward: Visit www.panda.org]
Silent Spring: Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring is published; her warning of worldwide pollution from DDT and other chemicals receives wide attention
First Photos of "Spaceship Earth": The U.S. Lunar Orbiter takes the first photographs of Earth from the vicinity of the moon, revealing the finite and frail nature of the biosphere. As the physicist Fritjof Capra has written, these pictures "became a powerful new symbol for the ecology movement and may well be the most significant result of the whole space program"
Torrey Canyon: A tanker carrying 118,000 tons of crude oil, the Torrey Canyon, is wrecked off Land’s End, England. This is the largest oil spill to date and raises public awareness of hazards to the environment
Swedish initiative: The Swedish government places an item called "the human environment" on the agenda of the UN Economic and Social Council. This will eventually lead to the 1972 Stockholm Conference
UNESCO Biosphere Conference: The Intergovernmental Conference of Experts on the Scientific Basis for Rational Use and Conservation of the Resources of the Biosphere is held in Paris; it is a turning point in the emergence of an environmental perspective in the community of international organizations
Earth Day: In the United States, 20 million people across the country participate in peaceful demonstrations and teach-ins on Earth Day (April 21); this marks the birth of the modern environmental movement in that country
[Fast-forward: Earth Day is now celebrated in many countries each year. See the Web site of the Earth Day Network, www.earthday.net]
MAB: The Man and the Biosphere program is founded by UNESCO; it will have a major role in promoting international scientific cooperation on environmental problems
[Fast-forward: See the description of MAB on the Web site of UNESCO, www.unesco.org]
Thor Heyerdahl’s Ra II: During the voyage of his small boat Ra II across the North Atlantic, explorer Thor Heyerdahl finds all but a small part of the ocean filled with lumps of floating asphalt, the result of oil pollution from tankers
Founex Report: A meeting at Founex, Switzerland, called to prepare for the following year’s Stockholm Conference, results in the first major exposition of the links between development and environmental protection in poorer countries
Blueprint for Survival: A manifesto, signed by 36 of Britain’s leading thinkers is published in Teddy Goldsmith’s journal The Ecologist. The "Blueprint for Survival," warns of the "breakdown of society and irreversible disruption of life-supporting systems on this planet" and calls for a steady-state society
The Limits to Growth: The Club of Rome, a group of leaders and thinkers from 40 countries, issues this report written by Donella and Dennis Meadows. Based on a pioneering U.S. project of computerized global modeling, it argues that if present population, food, pollution, and resource trends continue, the limits to growth on the planet will be reached within the next 100 years; like the "Blueprint," it calls for a state of global equilibrium and stirs much controversy
Stockholm Conference: The United Nations Conference on the Human Environment is held in Stockholm, Sweden; it results in creation of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP); Maurice Strong of Canada chairs the conference and will be appointed UNEP’s first Executive Director. A simultaneous Environment Forum is an important step in recognizing the key role of non-governmental organizations, and sets a precedent for future international meetings
[Fast-forward: See the detailed description of UNEP on its Web site, www.unep.org]
CITES: The United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is opened for signature in Washington; it is an important step in controlling illegal commerce in ivory, furs, and other products of endangered species
[Fast-forward: Visit www.cites.org].
Bucharest Population Conference: The first World Conference on Population is held by the UN in Bucharest, Romania; 135 countries participate
Cocoyoc Declaration: A symposium in Cocoyoc, Mexico, identifies maldistribution of resources as a key factor in environmental degradation. The UN-sponsored meeting, chaired by economist Barbara Ward, calls for development action focused on filling basic human needs
Rome Food Conference: The World Food Conference is held in Rome; this UN meeting lays the groundwork for a strategy to attack the world food problem and results in creation of the World Food Council and World Food Programme
[Fast forward: Visit the Web site of the World Food Programme at www.wfp.org. Responsibilities of the World Food Council were subsequently absorbed by WFC and FAO]
4 billion people: World population reaches 4 billion, rising from 3 billion in 14 years
[Fast-forward: See 1987, 1999]
Dag Hammarskjöld Report: Sweden’s Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation brings together leading thinkers to produce an influential report, What Now: Another Development, which builds on the Founex and Cocoyoc documents and calls for development in poor countries that is need-oriented, endogenous, self-reliant, ecologically sound, and based on self-management and participation
[Fast-forward: DHF continues its cutting-edge work on sustainable development. Visit its Web site, www.dhf.uu.se]
Habitat Conference: Held in Vancouver, Canada, Habitat: The United Nations Conference on Human Settlements focuses world attention on the plight of cities and results in establishment of a new Habitat program in the UN system
[Fast-forward: Visit Habitat's Web site at www.unchs.org]
Green Belt Movement: In Kenya, Wangari Matthai organizes the pioneering Green Belt Movement to plant trees
Desertification Conference: The United Nations Conference on Desertification, held in Nairobi, Kenya, raises awareness of desertification - the destruction of the biological productivity of the land which ultimately leads to a desert-like condition - and produces an international plan of action
[Fast-forward: Visit the Web site of the UN Secretariat of the Convention to Combat Desertification at www.unccd.int]
Water Conference: The United Nations Water Conference, held in Mar del Plata, Argentina, sets a goal of providing clean water and adequate sanitation to all in the world by 1990; this will prove to be far from realistic, but the meeting points attention to the central role of water in public health and environmental planning
Greenhouse Effect: A World Climate Conference in Geneva, sponsored by the World Meteorological Organization, concludes that the "greenhouse effect" from increased buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere demands urgent international action. With few exceptions, government leaders and the press will not take this seriously until the late 1980s
[Fast-forward: See 1992: Rio Conference, below]
Brandt Commission Report: The Independent Commission on International Development Issues, chaired by former West German Chancellor Willy Brandt, issues its report, North-South: A Program for Survival, which recommends a massive increase in aid to developing countries and also calls for environmental impact assessments of development proposals
World Conservation Strategy: The World Conservation Strategy is released by IUCN, UNEP, and WWF. Bold in its purpose and scope, it calls for "global coordinated efforts" for "sustainable development" (the first time this term is used in an international document), based on "will and determination"
Global 2000: The Global 2000 Report to the President, commissioned by U.S. President Jimmy Carter, is widely publicized; it projects what the world might be like if present trends continue and calls for "vigorous and determined new initiatives" to deal with environmental deterioration of "alarming proportions"
Charter for Nature: The UN General Assembly adopts a World Charter for Nature prepared by IUCN
Bhopal: A leak of deadly methyl isocyanate at a Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, kills some 2,800 people and injures tens of thousands of others, many mortally; as of 2008, it is the still world’s worst industrial accident ever
Ozone hole: Discovery by British scientists of an ozone "hole" over the Antarctic spurs action to regulate ozone-destroying chlorofluorocarbons
[Fast-forward: See 1987: Montreal Protocol, below]
Chernobyl: An accident at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station in Ukraine spreads radioactive material throughout the Northern Hemisphere; it is the worst nuclear accident to date
Ottawa: The Conference on Conservation and Development: Implementing the World Conservation Strategy is held in Ottawa, Canada, to evaluate progress in implementing the 1980 Strategy and consider proposals for revising it
Brundtland Report: The World Commission on Environment and Development issues its report, Our Common Future. The Commission, created by the UN and chaired by Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland, calls for "a new era of economic growth, one that must be based on policies that sustain and expand the environmental resource base"
Montreal Protocol: A protocol designed to reduce depletion of the ozone layer is negotiated in Montreal under UNEP auspices; it sets limits on production and consumption of certain chlorofluorocarbons and halons. UNEP Executive Director Mostafa K. Tolba states that "This is the first truly global treaty that offers protection to every single human being on this planet"
[Fast-forward: Visit the UN Ozone Secretariat's Web site at www.unep.org/ozone]
5 billion people: World population reaches 5 billion, rising from 4 billion in 13 years
[Fast-forward: See 1999]
Chico Mendes: The charismatic founder of the Brazilian rubber tappers’ union is murdered in December. Mendes had led a non-violent campaign to stop the slash-and-burn conversion of Amazonian rain forest to pastureland; his death focused attention on the destruction of the world’s largest remaining tropical forest
Caring for the Earth: In October, IUCN, UNEP, and WWF issue Caring for the Earth: A Strategy for Sustainable Living as a sequel to the World Conservation Strategy they released in 1980. Prepared under the direction of David A. Munro (who also supervised production of the 1980 Strategy), and directed more toward process and policy than the 1980 document, it sets forth 132 actions required to increase human well-being and halt the destruction of Earth’s capacity to support life
Global Environment Facility (GEF): The World Bank, UNDP, and UNEP created GEF as a major independent intergovernmental financial organization to provide grants to developing countries for projects that benefit the global environment and promote sustainable livelihoods in local communities.
[Fast-forward: Keep track of GEF's progress via its Web site, www.gefweb.org]
Rio Conference: In June, twenty years after the landmark 1972 Stockholm Conference, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) is held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The largest gathering ever of heads of state, the "Earth Summit" acts on international conventions on global climate change and biological diversity, forest principles, a fundamental statement called the Rio Declaration, and a detailed plan of action called Agenda 21
[Fast-forward: Visit the Web sites of the following UN units created to implement the Rio agreements, and also the listing immediately below for the Commission on Sustainable Development: Climate Change Secretariat, www.unfccc.int. Secretariat for the Convention on Biological Diversity, www.biodiv.org. Inter-governmental Panel on Forests, www.un.org/esa/forests/about-history.html.] See also 2002: Johannesburg Summit, below. In 2012, twenty years after the 1992 conference, Rio+20, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development is held: www.uncsd2012.org]
Commission on Sustainable Development: The United Nations General Assembly sets up the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) to oversee implementation of Agenda 21 into the programs and processes of the UN system
[Fast-forward: Visit the CSD Web site, www.un.org/esa/sustdev]
Cairo Conference: In September, the UN holds the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, Egypt; the meeting adopts recommendations for improving reproductive health services and the position of women in society that go far beyond those of earlier population meetings
Habitat II: In June, the Second United Nations Conference on Human Settlements, called Habitat II or the "City Summit," is held in Istanbul, Turkey
[Fast-forward: Visit Habitat's Web site at www.unchs.org]
Kyoto Protocol: Meeting in December in Kyoto, Japan, delegates to the third meeting of the Conference of Parties to the UN Climate Change Convention adopt a landmark agreement to reduce global emissions of greenhouse gases
[Follow-up: The Web site of the UN Climate Change Secretariat, www.unfccc.int, keeps track of ratifications of the protocol]
6 billion people: World population reaches 6 billion, adding a billion in only 12 years
Millennium Development Goals: At the United Nations Millennium Summit, the UN General Assembly approves eight Millennium Development Goals, all of which are interrelated, and one of which calls for ensuring "environmental sustainability"
[Follow-up: A UN Web site keeps track of progress: www.un.org/millenniumgoals]
Johannesburg Summit: Ten years after the 1991 Rio Conference, the United Nations holds a World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Johannesburg, South Africa, to assess the global situation and progress in implementing international agreements adopted at Rio in 1992 and at the 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, Sweden. Some see Johannesburg as the "Empty Summit," one without concrete results. Others see its lesson, as one prominent participant puts it, that "leadership for development will come from civil society," not from governments
Source of historical population figures: United Nations Population Division
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Landmark events in protecting the global
1966. First Photos of "Spaceship Earth": The U.S. Lunar Orbiter takes the first photographs of Earth from the vicinity of the moon, revealing the finite and frail nature of the biosphere. [Restored photo, NASA]