Our Burning Planet


50 years of warnings that we are killing our planet – and still we destroy global wellbeing – like lemmings over a cliff

50 years of warnings that we are killing our planet  – and still we destroy global wellbeing – like lemmings over a cliff
Former Swedish politician and Prime Minister Olof Palme in Stockholm, Sweden, 12 December 1983. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Anders Holmstrom)

In June 1972 Swedish prime minister Olof Palme spoke about the need for far-reaching changes in attitudes and social structures in his historic and prescient address to the first United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm. This month, five decades later, UN Secretary General António Guterres warned bluntly that global wellbeing is in jeopardy. Not much has changed.

It has been 50 years since Swedish prime minister Olof Palme spoke of the need for a radical shift in humanity’s relationship with the natural world.

It was a conference that helped to catalyse a new era of multilateral environmental cooperation and treaty-making. His nation also helped to fund the establishment of the UN’s first dedicated multilateral environmental agency (UNEP) to bring greater focus to the global environmental crisis.

Yet, very clearly, there is a long, long way to go to realise the dreams Palme spoke about those many years ago in the Swedish capital.

To the ire of the United States, Palme blasted the “outrage sometimes described as ecocide” in the context of the US military’s indiscriminate bombing, bulldozing and spraying of toxic pesticides over large swathes of Vietnam.

He talked about curbing consumption of fossil fuels and “luxury production”, the poisonous legacy of nuclear waste, the pressing need to shift to solar power and to recycle scarce resources.

There was a “very genuine sense of fear among ordinary people all over the world”.

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The air we breathe is not the property of any one nation – we share it

Here are a few extracts from Palme’s full speech: “The air we breathe is not the property of any one nation – we share it. The big oceans are not divided by national frontiers – they are our common property.”


“All countries must accept the responsibility to ensure that their activities do not cause damage to the environment of others.”


“I am certain that solutions can be found. But it is absolutely necessary that concerted, international action is undertaken. It is indeed very, very urgent.”

And, so it goes on.

Little wonder then, that five decades later, UN Secretary General António Guterres warned bluntly this week (2 June) that “global wellbeing is in jeopardy, in large part because we have not kept our promises on the environment.”

We need to end our senseless and suicidal war against nature

“We need to change course – now – and end our senseless and suicidal war against nature,” Guterres proclaimed.

“We must place true value on the environment and go beyond Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as a measure of human progress and wellbeing. Let us not forget that when we destroy a forest, we are creating GDP. When we overfish, we are creating GDP.

“(But) GDP is not a way to measure richness in the present situation in the world. Instead, we must shift to a circular and regenerative economy.”

Speaking this week in the same city where Palme spoke (and was assassinated 14 years later) the current Swedish prime minister Magdalena Andersson talked about humanity having reached a crucial crossroad.

“Heat waves, water scarcity, droughts, storms, floods, wildfires, melting glaciers, rising sea levels, warming oceans – soon containing more plastic than fish … We are hurting our planet.”

So, what needs to be done? she asked.

“First of all, we must all live up to our commitments. We must start delivering on the declarations we have signed, and the pledges we have made. We have already talked the talk…

“We have made commitments to reduce emissions, halt biodiversity loss and stop ocean pollution.”

There are no magic wands when it comes to resolving the multiple dimensions of the environmental crisis wrought by modern “development”. But perhaps the young, often derided, Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg was correct in her recent “blah, blah, blah” assessment.

In an apparent nod to the sentiments of her younger Scandinavian sister earlier this year, the 64-year-old Danish economist and executive director of UNEP, Inger Andersen, remarked:

“I wish [Palme’s] words didn’t carry the same weight today as they did 50 years ago. But they do.” – DM/OBP


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Absa OBP

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Ritchie Morris says:

    Excellent and pertinent reminder. Simply put, ‘human behaviour is destroying the Earth’s Carrying Capacity. One cannot easily get out of a problem you behaved yourself into. Behaviour must change first’.

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