Time is of the essence; it waits for no one. After half a century, the historic ‘Stockholm Moment’ arrived on 2–3 June 2022. It seems like only yesterday that the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (UNCHE) took place in the Swedish capital of Stockholm, so this was a poignant moment. After a long generational hiatus, the world once again assembled in Stockholm to reflect upon time passed and the time we live in, and ponder on the rapidly depleting time we have left for remedial action to safeguard our future amid warnings of impending environmental catastrophe. Time has eventually taught us how much the Earth matters for the survival of all forms of life.
The question looming over the Stockholm gathering was: what went wrong? The address by the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres reflected signs of helplessness and grave concern as he told us that global “wellbeing is at risk...Earth’s natural systems cannot keep up with our demands...We have not kept our promises on the environment”. He pleaded before the delegations of the UN member states for them to “lead us out of this mess”. Taking a cue from the anguish of the UNSG, Inger Andersen, executive director of the UN General Assembly’s environment program (UNEP), recalled the presence of only two heads of government – those of India and Sweden – at the 1972 Stockholm Conference and posed a question: “If Indira Gandhi or Olof Palme were here today, what excuses would we offer up for our inadequate action?” She then gave the answer herself: “They would tell us that further inaction is inexcusable”.
It was a cathartic moment for the 50-year long journey of the global environmental movement. Ironically, despite the hypothesis that “global problems need global solutions” and the deliberations of all the global conferences (1972 Stockholm; 1992 Rio de Janeiro; 2002 Johannesburg; 2012 Rio de Janeiro and 2022 Stockholm), mega regulatory processes, negotiation of the policy, legal and institutional maze and the spending of staggering amounts of money, global environmental conditions have only worsened. Has it really been worth it?
Time Standing Still
Time has almost stood still when it comes to addressing the “world problematique” prophesied in the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth (1972). It continues to haunt humankind. In a way, the Stockholm+50 Conference remained a low-key affair. The moral halo that awoke the global environmental consciousness at Stockholm 1972 seemed to be missing at Stockholm 2022. The meeting ended with a joint statement issued by the host countries, Sweden and Kenya, as mandated by the UNGA’s enabling (75/280 of 24 May 2021) and modalities (75/326 of 10 September 2021) resolutions. Instead of a much-anticipated uplifting Stockholm+50 declaration, it took the form of a strange, ten-point “Presidents’ Final Remarks to Plenary”. Devoid of a clarion call to “arise, awake and not stop until the goal is reached”,1unmapped: fn unmapped: label 1 उत्तिष्ठत जाग्रत प्राप्य वरान्निबोधत – Katha Upanishad, 1.3.14 chapter; Swami Vivekanand
उत्तिष्ठत जाग्रत प्राप्य वरान्निबोधत – Katha Upanishad, 1.3.14 chapter; Swami Vivekanandit was insufficient to wake the conscience of peoples and nations to take action to avert the existential planetary crisis. The time in which we live meant Stockholm 2022 was a timid acknowledgement that things are going wrong, and lacked the courage for a decisive course correction.
Envisioning Our Environmental Future
In the light of these questions and the environmental problematique which continues to haunt us, it makes sense to assess the trajectory followed this far, as well as what lies ahead. How can we move forward? This was the impetus behind a process curated in Environmental Policy and Law over the course of sixteen months (2021–2022), a process which sought to engage in and present a challenge to leading thinkers to envision our environmental future at the 2022 ‘Stockholm Moment’. This has brought together the visionary ideas of 31 outstanding scholars from around the world in 22 contributions [EPL issues 51.6. 2021 (one); 52.1. 2022 (two); 52.2. 2022 (eight) and 52.3. 2022 (eleven)] which look ahead in time. It has been a modest but positive quest – within the limits of time, space, energy and resources and undaunted by the unprecedented difficulties of the Covid-19 pandemic – to find pathways to extricate the world from the global environmental morass. It is a sequel to the similar Our Earth Matters (IOS Press: Amsterdam, 2021), which put forward the cutting-edge ideas of 23 outstanding scholars.
Stockholm+50 and Beyond
The book contains all of the above mentioned 22 articles, curated in EPL. They are divided into three parts. Part I. Testing Times (Nicholas Robinson; Peter Haas; Elisabeth Dowdeswell; Karan Singh; Donald Kaniaru), provides an insight and reflects upon the fifty-year trajectory of legal and political aspects of the global environmental regulatory process, the role of one of the principal torchbearers (Indira Gandhi) and the principal instrumentality (UNEP). Part II. Global Ideas (Yann Aguila; Bharat Desai; David Hunter; Owen McIntyre; Jordi Jaria-Manzano; Klaus Bosselmann; Anna Sundström; Krishna Oli; Jonas Ebbesson), envisions global ideas for the overhaul of future approaches, legal processes and the marshalling of the potent instrumentality required to grapple with environmental challenges in the state-centric system. Finally, Part III. Sectoral Ideas (Eleanor Sharpston; Shailesh Nayak; Kirk Junker; Philippe Cullet; Chris Backes; Surya Subedi; Oliver Ruppel; Gregory Rose), seeks to probe solutions for some of the sectoral challenges. If diligently put in place, these would serve as reparative measures for course correction, as well as helping to heal some of the challenges of planetary health.
I take this opportunity to express my deep sense of gratitude to all the distinguished scholar colleagues who heeded the call and made the effort to contribute. I am touched by the way in which they have risen to the occasion, seeding futuristic ideas at this critical juncture.
Time Running Out
The ‘Stockholm Moment’ 2022 provided a unique opportunity for all the heads of government to go down in history for leading us out of the crisis of planetary survival. As the grueling spell of the Covid-19 pandemic from 2020–2022 showed us, time has its own ways of defining the limits of our existence. The Earth does not have enough for everyone’s greed, so we need to prioritize our needs. We can hope that the peoples and nations of the Earth will heed the alarm bells before our dwindling time actually runs out.
I would like to express my thanks to IOS Press colleagues Marten Stavenga and Reina Steenhuizen for their strong support for my work and for facilitating the timely publication of this book. I humbly dedicate this modest collective work to the provision of a pathway to a healthy future.
Bharat H. Desai