The path to the Johannesburg Summit.

Author:Runyan, Curtis
Position:Johannesburg World Summit

In the 1960s, many people around the world began to face critical environmental issues in their communities: forests were being destroyed by acid rain, rivers poisoned beyond use by industrial wastes, cities choked by pollution from automobiles and industry, rural farmers hit by famines, and once-rich resource reserves wearing thin.

A few scientists began to speak out about the global interconnectedness of these problems, and they warned that we humans were quickly becoming victims of our own success--that we now had the ability to entirely despoil the Earth that sustains us.

In 1972, at the U.N. Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, Sweden, delegates from around the world came together to address these warnings. While the conference produced a series of recommendations for government action, environmental turmoil continued.

Twenty years later, leading up to the U.N. Earth Summit in Rio in 1992, the Royal Society of London and the U.S. National Academy of Sciences--two of the world's most prominent scientific bodies--issued a joint declaration calling for action. "The future of our planet is in the balance. Sustainable development can be achieved, but only if irreversible degradation of the environment can be halted in time. The next 30 years may be crucial."

The scientific warnings have continued to grow in severity and urgency, but progress on making change since the Stockholm conference has remained painstakingly slow. And new international challenges--terrorist attacks, military responses, and mounting tensions around the world--have threatened to sidetrack the building momentum to address chronic environmental problems. At the forthcoming Johannesburg World Summit, environmentalists will aim to refocus the world on some of the most critical threats to global security. That will mean seriously responding to environmental tragedies and rapidly building on hard-won gains of the past four decades, which are summarized in the following chronology.

World leaders will meet August 26 for the World Summit in Johannesburg, South Africa, to address once again, the multitude of environmental threats destabilizing the planet. The question at the top of the agenda: what progress have countries made in the past 30 years to halt environmental hemorrhaging, and where will we go from here?


1962 Marine biologist Rachel Carson publishes Silent Spring, calling attention to the threat of toxic chemicals to people and the environment.

1967 The Torrey Canyon oil tanker hits ground and spills 117,000 tons of oil into the North Sea around Cornwall in the United Kingdom. The massive local pollution helps prompt legal changes to make ship owners liable for all spills.

1968 Paul Ehrlich publishes The Population Bomb, describing the ecological threats of a rapidly growing population.

1968 Experts from around the world meet for the first time at the U.N. Biosphere Conference to discuss global environmental problems, including pollution, resource loss, and wetlands destruction.


1970 The first Earth Day is held in the United States. Millions of people gather around the country to demonstrate against environmental abuses, sparking the creation of landmark environmental laws including the Endangered Species Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act.

1971 2,200 scientists, gathered for a conference in Menton, France, present a message to the U.N. stressing the need for environmental action: "Solutions to the actual problems of pollution, hunger, overpopulation, and war may be...

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