Thirty years ago, in April 1987, a new United Nations report was published. It came from the recently established World Commission on Environment and Development, and its title was Our Common Future. It was 300 pages long; and its preparation, which took two and a half years, had involved 23 commissioners and 70 or so experts and support staff. In addition, they solicited inputs from people and organizations, in many different countries, who had concerns about environmental and development issues. You can find the full text of the report at [].
Today, most people seem unaware of this report. That’s a pity. For this is the document, which set in motion the green political juggernaut that has had such a huge, adverse effect on the lives of all good people in the Western world. The 30th anniversary is, I think, a good time to look back at, and to re-evaluate, this report. Not only in its own terms, such as asking how significant the issues it raised have proven to be, and how well these issues have been dealt with in the meantime. But also from a broader perspective, asking how well the process, both scientific and political, has measured up to the reasonable expectations of the people who have been subjected to its consequences.
Why have I chosen to tackle such a wide subject? First, because I’m something of a generalist; I seek to understand the big picture. And second, because in recent months, so it seems to me, the climate (sic) of thought on matters environmental has begun to change. Away from the log-jam of alarmism and green orthodoxy in which it has been stuck for 25 years and more; and slowly, oh so slowly, in a direction towards a more rational view. So if there is anything I can do to help this process along, I think, it’s in my interests to do it.
The report in context
Two strands of United Nations activity led to Our Common Future. One was environmentalist. The other was internationalist or globalist. One of the most significant things about this report, for me, is that it was the nexus where these two strands came together.
The environmentalist strand began in 1972, with the UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm. Olof Palme, the controversial Swedish socialist prime minister, was host. Maurice Strong, who will appear repeatedly in what follows, was secretary general. The conference produced a Declaration and an Action Plan; but, perhaps more importantly, it led to the creation of the UN Environment Programme, with Strong as its first director.
On the same strand, the World Charter for Nature [] was a 1982 UN resolution. This contained many of the same ideas and sentiments as later UN environmental documents like the 1992 Rio Declaration. It also included an extreme formulation of the precautionary principle, stating: “Activities which might have an impact on nature shall be controlled,” and “where potential adverse effects are not fully understood, the activities should not proceed.” The Charter was passed by 111 votes to 1, with 18 abstentions. The USA was the only country voting against.
The internationalist strand began with a 1980 commission headed by German social democrat and former Chancellor, Willy Brandt; Olof Palme was among the commission members. Its report was titled A Programme for Survival [].The general tone of the report was alarmist. And it showed signs of future convergence with the environmentalist strand. This is apparent in phrases like: “All nations have to cooperate more urgently in international management of the atmosphere and other global commons, and in the prevention of irreversible ecological damage.” And: “An orderly transition is required from high dependence on increasingly scarce nonrenewable energy sources.” The report also advocates: “A new principle for international taxation for development purposes.” “Reform of the international monetary system.” And: “Official Development Assistance from industrialized countries to the level of 0.7 per cent of GNP by 1985.” That’s a lot of money – and we’re still paying it today.
This was followed by a 1983 report from Brandt and many of the same commissioners. Its title was Common Crisis North-South: Co-operation for World Recovery []. Its main focus was on international financial reforms. A little earlier, a commission headed by Palme himself had produced Common Security: A Blueprint for Survival, addressing issues of war and international security. (Palme’s report, of course, was overtaken within a decade by the collapse of the Soviet Union.) Our Common Future explicitly acknowledges both these reports as its precursors.
The report relates how the commissioners were selected. In 1983 the UN secretary general, at the time Javier Perez de Cuellar, appointed the commission’s chairman and vice-chairman. The chairman was Gro Harlem Brundtland; Norwegian social democrat party leader, formerly (and again later) prime minister of Norway, and a vice president of the Socialist International. The vice-chairman was Mansour Khalid, a former Sudanese foreign minister with long time links to the UN. The two of them then selected the remaining commissioners, under the condition that at least half of them had to be from the developing world.
But not all the commissioners they chose came from the third world. There were two Canadians among them; one was Maurice Strong, whom I’ve already mentioned. Starting in oil, Strong had a scandal-ridden business career alongside his many projects at the UN and his environmentalist activism. And in 1997 he articulated his disdain for our civilization, as follows: “Frankly, we may get to the point where the only way of saving the world will be for industrial civilization to collapse.” The other Canadian was Jim MacNeill, one of the first career environmentalists, and a long time associate of Strong. There was an American, too: William D. Ruckelshaus, first director of the Environmental Protection Agency, and another Strong associate.
Here are brief bios of the other commissioners. A German social democrat politician and former minister of transport. A member of the Italian Agnelli family who control Fiat, also a centre left politician. A Japanese economist and politician, executive committee member of the Club of Rome and chairman of World Wildlife Fund Japan. A Saudi engineer. A Mexican sociologist, who resigned from the commission before the report was published. A Zimbabwean politician with strong UN connections. A Côte d’Ivoire military man and politician. A Hungarian scientist and environmentalist, later associated with Mikhail Gorbachev’s activist Green Cross International. A Chinese professor with “more than 40 years’ experience in ecological and environmental research and education.” A Colombian environmentalist. An Indian judge at the World Court. A Brazilian environmentalist, head of the first federal environmental agency there. A Guyana politician, who had earlier been on Willy Brandt’s commission. An Algerian diplomat with a long UN connection. An Indonesian politician, who had held a succession of environmental posts. A Nigerian diplomat and former agriculture minister. A Russian zoologist, described as “one of the pioneers of the Russian environmental movement.” And the last president of Slovenia before the fall of communism; another with a long history at the UN.
What connected these commissioners to each other? A strong, deep seated environmentalist conviction was common to many of them. A long connection with the UN was also shared by several. Socialism was a third connecting thread. No less than four of the commissioners came from communist countries; two more, including the chairman, were social democrat politicians.
Moreover, everyone on the commission was a beneficiary of big government; and therefore would tend to favour anything that expanded it. And the third world commissioners would surely have had, at the backs of their minds, a desire to use this opportunity to screw as much wealth out of the West as possible.
Who was there, on that UN commission, who both would and could stand up for us honest Western business and working people against socialism and deep green environmentalism? I can’t see one. Can you? Worse; the commission was ripe for group polarization [], which can lead a group to reach a more extreme position after discussion than they would have done as individuals before it. Brundtland herself says: “As we worked, nationalism and the artificial divides between ‘industrialized’ and ‘developing’, between East and West, receded. In their place emerged a common concern for the planet and the interlocked ecological and economic threats with which its people, institutions, and governments now grapple.”
The issues raised
Here’s a list of the main environmental issues, on which Our Common Future raised alarms 30 years ago. (1) Desertification, notably in the Sahel area just south of the Sahara. (2) The clearing of forests, particularly in the tropics. (3) Loss of species and of biodiversity. (4) Acid rain, resulting from pollution, and killing forests, lakes and soils. (5) Catastrophic global warming caused by CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels. (6) Depletion of the Earth’s ozone layer. (7) Loss of coral reefs. (8) Military proliferation and the threat of nuclear war. (9) Toxic and nuclear waste disposal. (10) Increasing incidence of disasters.
Interestingly, scarcity of fossil fuel resources, while mentioned in the report, was not seen as a major issue in itself. It was the consequences of using those fossil fuels, CO2-caused global warming and to a lesser extent pollution, that the commissioners saw as major problems.
Opining that “Environment and development are not separate challenges; they are inexorably linked,” the report also raised alarms on: (11) Population growth. (12) Poverty. (13) International economic inequality. (14) The interests of future generations. It is in this last context that the report introduced its novel and central concept of “sustainable development.” Such development, it says, “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
No doubt, some of these concerns were both real and apparently pressing back in 1987. But what the commission did was, in effect, to mix them all up and turn them into a single giant bogeyman. From there, it wasn’t hard to move on to demanding that Action! be taken against this bogeyman. That Action! had to be political. And it had to be taken Now! So, the report calls for “sustainable development by the year 2000 and beyond.” And it abounds with phrases like: “We call for a common endeavour and for new norms of behaviour at all levels and in the interests of all.” “Development involves a progressive transformation of economy and society.” And: “We are serving notice… that the time has come to take the decisions needed.”
Furthermore, the Action! the report demanded was intended, all along, to be very painful to ordinary business and working people in the West. Maurice Strong may well have been licking his chops at what he and his fellow commissioners had in mind to do to us and to our Western civilization. The phrase “The industrial world has already used much of the planet’s ecological capital” gives the game away. As does: “Many of us live beyond the world’s ecological means, for instance in our patterns of energy use.” And: “The transition to sustainable development will require a range of public policy choices that are inherently complex and politically difficult. Reversing unsustainable development policies at the national and international level will require immense efforts to inform the public and secure its support.”
Thus was born the green leviathan.
I couldn’t resist quoting a few assorted low-lights from the report.
On global warming, we have: “This ‘greenhouse effect’ may by early next century have increased average global temperatures enough to shift agricultural production areas, raise sea levels to flood coastal cities, and disrupt national economies.” Well, here we are a sixth of the way through that next century. And how much have global temperatures risen? From satellite measurements, the rise from 1987 to 2015 (stopping there to avoid the perturbations caused by the recent El Niňo) looks to be about 0.3 degrees Centigrade []. And how much sea level rise has there been? In most of the world, sea levels are rising between zero and 3 millimetres per year []. And in several coastal cities with long and reliable sea level records, levels are rising 1 to 2 millimetres per year, without much change in the rate since the early 20th century [].
Then: “There is a growing scientific consensus that species are disappearing at rates never before witnessed on the planet.” That’s over the top, particularly since it goes on to say: “The world is losing precisely those species about which it knows nothing or little.” And later: “We have no accurate figures on the current rates of extinctions.”
In the area of energy, the report discussed a number of alternatives to fossil fuels, including solar and wind. It claimed that wind power in California “may possibly be competitive with other power generated there within a decade.” But it failed to mention the intermittency of both solar and wind power, and that because of this they need to be backed up by other sources of power, which must also be paid for. Was that, perhaps, lying by omission?
Chernobyl is cited as a disaster which “appeared to justify the grave predictions about the human future that were becoming commonplace during the mid-1980s.” The report acknowledges that the cause of the explosion was “a series of infringements of the official safety regulations.” But despite this, it generally plays up the risks of nuclear energy, while downplaying its benefits.
As to transport, you can see in embryo the arguments about fuel economy and air pollution, which environmentalists and politicians have since used to demonize cars and car drivers. But the report focused in this area mainly on third world countries and cities. The agenda of forcing drivers in the West out of our cars and into public transport seems to have come along later. And interestingly, Our Common Future doesn’t mention air transport at all. Nor even does Agenda 21, which followed it five years later. Hatred of the aeroplane is another skein of the neo-luddism, which greens have continued to develop during the last 30 years.
Consequences of the report
Just as Our Common Future represented a convergence of two strands of UN activity, so it subsequently provided impetus in several different directions. Most notably, at the Rio “Earth Summit” in June 1992, whose secretary general was Maurice Strong. (Him, again!)
At that conference, a number of proposals were agreed. They included a binding “Framework Convention on Climate Change,” which led to the yearly “Conference of the Parties” meetings. These meetings included those in Copenhagen (2009) and Paris (2015), both of which set out to reach binding agreements to keep global temperatures below some completely arbitrary limit.
The agreements in Rio also included a “Convention on Biological Diversity,” Agenda 21 [] and the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development []. I recommend a quick read of the latter, if you have a sick bowl handy. It talks of living “in harmony with nature,” but it never mentions human nature. It fails to recognize that this is our planet, our environment. It fails to uphold our freedom to use our creativity and dynamism to make our planet a better place – a warm, comfortable home and a beautiful garden for humanity. Instead, it sets out a series of politically correct platitudes, which amount to awarding politicians and bureaucrats powers to micro-manage all our lives in the name of the environment.
As to Agenda 21, I don’t recommend reading it. It consists of 350 pages of bureaucratese, in which the word “women” occurs more than 250 times. And it takes up where Our Common Future left off. “Significant changes in the consumption patterns of industries, Governments, households and individuals.” Recycling as a religion. “Favouring high-occupancy public transport.” A “culture of safety.” And much more. But the clever thing about Agenda 21 – another Strong brainwave, I guess – is that it is to be implemented at the local government level. So, because it wasn’t seen as a national political issue, it passed under many people’s radar.
Who signed up to all this stuff? It was your (and my) supposed “representatives.” And it wasn’t only socialists that were eager to sign up. President George H.W. Bush signed for the USA. And the UK prime minister at the time was John Major, a Tory. I find it hard – no, impossible – to believe that they did these things by mistake. No; knowing what they were doing, they sold us all down the Rio.
Misuse of the precautionary principle
The most egregious of all the enviro abuses, however, is a more abstract one. That is, the misuse – indeed, inversion – of the precautionary principle.
In Our Common Future, the relevant words are these. “How much certainty should governments require before agreeing to take action? If they wait until significant climate change is demonstrated, it may be too late for any countermeasures to be effective against the inertia by then stored in this massive global system.” And, later in the same paragraph, it recommends: “the development of internationally agreed policies for the reduction of the causative gases.”
What is the precautionary principle? In its original form, it’s usually put as “look before you leap.” Though some go further, and equate it with the Hippocratic oath for doctors: “First, do no harm.” All this is very sensible advice. Before they put a new product on the market, for example, sane business people will test it thoroughly to check it has no bad side-effects. If they don’t do this, and something goes wrong, they will face lawsuits, and perhaps worse.
An important characteristic of the principle is that the burden of proof must always be on those who want to make change. But over the years, green and big-government activists have contrived to pervert the principle, and reverse the burden of proof. A brief article written back in 1999 by the Social Issues Research Centre [] shows how they did it.
Our industrial civilization has existed since the late 18th century – longer than most of the world’s nations, and way longer than the UN. And it has brought us – all of us – huge nett benefits over that time. Therefore, the burden of proving the case, that human CO2 emissions would cause severe environmental damage, had to be on those seeking change; that is, on the accusers. However, their clever reversal of the burden of proof leaves those of us, who dispute their accusations, in the impossible situation of having to prove a negative. As the SIRC article points out, it’s like being required to prove that there are no fairies at the bottom of your garden.
Those that sought to pervert the precautionary principle also used another, very dishonest, sound-bite. This was an aphorism attributed to Carl Sagan: “Absence of evidence of risk is not evidence of absence of risk.” But this statement, while true in a strict sense, is very misleading. In reality, absence of evidence of something is evidence towards the non-existence of that thing. Absence of evidence that there is an elephant in your living room doesn’t, indeed, prove that there is no elephant in your living room. But, particularly when the search is repeated many times with negative results each time, it suggests that there very probably isn’t.
Imagine, if you will, the judge in a murder trial telling the jury: “Absence of evidence of guilt is not evidence of absence of guilt.” Would a jury, believing this, convict the defendant even if there is no evidence against him? That would go against all sane norms of justice. And yet, that is how they wanted us to think.
To top all this, the activists and their politician and media friends have not behaved well in their dealings with us.
At the scientific level, as those who follow the facts will know, they have doctored evidence, such as past temperatures. They have presented chicanery like Mann’s hockey stick as if it was science. They continue to claim that their models are “robust,” even when their predictions repeatedly fail. They call those who disagree with them nasty names like “deniers.” They have tried to stop publication of scientific papers that disagree with their agenda; and they have persecuted scientists who have opposed it, like Willie Soon.
Furthermore, the politicians and activists are hypocrites, trying to coerce us out of cars and planes while they themselves continue to use them. Their media spout a torrent of propaganda, with a new, unfounded scare every few days. And they use bait and switch tactics, for example in the recent UK diesel scandal; having created incentives for manufacturers to make, and for people to buy, more polluting cars rather than less polluting, they then slap heavy “toxin taxes” on these cars. If these are the “new norms of behaviour” Our Common Future was calling for, I think we’d all be better off without them.
To return to the murder trial analogy. Not only has the court inverted the burden of proof. But the prosecution have presented false evidence, committed perjury, and – increasingly – failed to produce hard, factual evidence of their case. The judge has forbidden the defence to call its most expert witnesses. The prosecution have insulted and libelled those defence witnesses who do manage to testify, and the judge has allowed them to continue doing it. It is as if the court is set up to reach only one possible verdict: Guilty. Such conduct would be unacceptable in a murder trial. How much more reprehensible, then, is it when the defendant in the dock is our entire civilization? When the prosperity and the freedoms of everyone on the planet are at stake?
So, how did we do?
Now, I’ll look at the current status, as far as I can work it out, of each of the accusations against us. Correction of any misapprehensions, or provision of further details, will be much appreciated.
(1): Desertification. The Sahel has recovered from the droughts of the 1980s []. On the wider scale, NASA publishes an animation [] of world-wide vegetation activity over the period 2000 to 2016. While there’s an obvious yearly cycle, I would expect any areas suffering desertification to show less and less vegetation as the years go on. There are good years and bad years; but I, at least, don’t see any particular trend.
(2): Forests. Tropical deforestation halved between 1980-95 and 1996-2010, and loss of temperate forests is now very small [].
(3): Species loss. It’s difficult to find hard data on this. Even the number of species on the planet is hugely uncertain; the best estimate I could find is 8.7 million “eukaryotic” (multi-cellular) species []. As Our Common Future admitted, there were no accurate figures on extinction rates in 1987. Nor have I been able to find any today. So, this accusation cannot be substantiated or denied without far more specifics. At least down to the level of individual species, with proof of their former existence, proof of extinction, approximate date of extinction and evidence that proves, beyond reasonable doubt, that humans caused it.
(4): Acid rain. The cause of acidification seems to have been oxides of sulphur and nitrogen in the atmosphere. Emission of sulphur oxides from coal fired power has been cured by technology []. Nitrogen oxide emissions from vehicles have been greatly reduced, first by unleaded fuel, then by catalytic converters, and in diesel engines technologies like exhaust gas recirculation and soot traps. The fix to the problem is in.
Of course, green activists never let any excuse for alarm go to waste; they have now re-badged the problem as one of air quality. And there is a particular difficulty with vehicle emissions in the European Union, where it seems that as soon as manufacturers catch up to one set of standards, the EU significantly tightens them again.
(5): Catastrophic global warming due to human CO2 emissions. To those who look at the facts with an unbiased eye, this accusation is no longer scientifically credible. The issue is now entirely political. This makes it more important than ever for those who understand the facts to communicate them as best they can. I do think we’re starting to make a tiny bit of headway; but there’s still a long way to go.
(6): Ozone depletion. In my own mind, I’m not sure whether this really was caused by CFCs, or just part of a natural cycle. But as of 2016, the problem – if there was one – is said to be all but solved [].
(7): Coral reef depletion. Here also, I found quantitative information hard to find. Back in the 1970s, estimates of total reef area were about 600,000 sq.km. More modern estimates are in the 250,000 to 350,000 sq.km. range. With this level of uncertainty, any claim of loss is unverifiable. However, the statement in Our Common Future that “Coral reefs … are being depleted at rates that may leave little but degraded remnants by early next century” has clearly not been borne out.
(8): Military proliferation and nuclear war. Some progress has been made here; the collapse of the Soviet Union helped a lot. And, despite the wars in the Middle East, statistics do seem to show that deaths in war are gradually going down. But consider this: It isn’t ordinary people who start wars, but politicians. The problem is theirs, not ours.
(9): Toxic and nuclear waste disposal. Progress on this one seems to be very slow; the delay to the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste facility is a case in point []. There is also opposition to deep landfills for the storage of toxic waste. But it’s curious that much of this opposition comes from the very same quarters that have been touting the problem. To accuse us of causing a problem, and then to seek to block proposed solutions, seems to me to be a glaring case of bad faith.
(10): Increasing incidence of disasters. As far as natural catastrophes go, including flood and drought, deaths fell from the 1920s through to the 1990s, and have been roughly flat since then []. As to human caused disasters, there has been nothing even near the scale of the Bhopal chemical leak of 1984. Trawling Wikipedia’s list of disasters for human-caused civil disasters with over 1,000 deaths since 1986, I could see only one building collapse, three shipwrecks and two crushes during the Hajj pilgrimage.
(11): Population growth. This has been greatly lessened, particularly in the West. According to the CIA World Factbook [], in 2016 only 105 countries out of 224 had fertility rates above the replacement level. The overall world fertility rate was 115% of replacement rate.
(12): Poverty. We’re making progress here. According to the World Bank, “The world attained the first Millennium Development Goal target—to cut the 1990 poverty rate in half by 2015—five years ahead of schedule, in 2010.” []
(13): International economic inequality. This is a difficult one; since in most poor countries a major reason for the poverty is government corruption, which makes it hard for people to do business and to lift themselves out of poverty. However, what can be said is that exports and imports of developing countries have seen good growth. According to the World Trade Organization, “Between 1980 and 2011, developing economies raised their share in world exports from 34 per cent to 47 per cent and their share in world imports from 29 per cent to 42 per cent.” []
(14): The interests of future generations. It’s now 30 years since Our Common Future was published; more than a generation. During that time, the bulk of the costs of its recommendations have been borne by Western people in the productive part of their lives. So, haven’t we done our share – and far more? Isn’t it time that someone else started picking up the tab?
To sum up
After 30 years, each of the issues raised in Our Common Future is either fixed, well on the way to fixing, only a problem because standards are being relentlessly tightened, unverifiable, no longer credible as a problem, or Somebody Else’s Problem. I think we’ve done rather well – even looking at the matter in the politicians’ and environmentalists’ own terms. Isn’t it now, therefore, time to call off the dogs?
Instead of hounding us, will the green activists now shower us with the thanks we have earned? Will their politician friends stop tightening the regulatory noose with which they are strangling us, and get rid of all regulations that damage our environment? Will their media stop bombarding us with scary falsehoods? Will they all apologize to us, and compensate us for the waste of our money on all the green projects that failed to improve our environment? Will they censure the politicians that signed up to an agenda they must have known was against the interests of those they were supposed to represent? Will they denounce those that have corrupted and politicized science, and those that have persecuted, and suppressed the voices of, the experts who would speak up for us? Will they condemn those that perverted the precautionary principle, and those that have sought to pronounce us guilty without even a semblance of due process?
I think I hear a deafening silence.
[] http://files.globalmarshallplan.org/inhalt/psu_2.pdf. (Al Gore is credited with inventing the idea of a “global Marshall plan.”)
[] As reported by Wikipedia at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_sovereign_states_and_dependencies_by_total_fertility_rate