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Book review: UNEP: The First 40 Years – Stanley Johnson (2012)



The environmentalist Stanley Johnson’s latest book charts the United Nations Environment Programme’s progression over the four decades since its establishment in 1972 in captivating detail.

On December 15 1972, exactly six months after the now-historic United Nations Conference on the Human Environment took place in Stockholm, Sweden, the UN Environment Programme, or UNEP, was officially established. Building on the recommendations to come out of the June conference, the 27th UN General Assembly voted unanimously, 112-0, to create a new body that focused on the environment and conservation.

The decision was both significant and timely. In the same year as UNEP was created, The Ecologist magazine published its Blueprint for Survival manifesto and the Club of Rome thinktank released its seminal book, The Limits to Growth. Both were to become important texts for the environmental movement.

Charting in detail the beginnings and development of the organisation is the environmentalist and writer Stanley Johnson in UNEP: The First 40 Years, which is available to download for free from the UNEP website. He recalls how it progressed from a simple idea tabled in Stockholm in June 1972; to an official UN body approved in December of the same year; right through to the impact and legacy of the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summits, held two decades apart in 1992 and 2012.

Having spent time as a Conservative MEP and as vice-chairman of the European parliament’s environment committee, and with a collection of environmental publications and accolades to his name, Johnson displays almost unrivalled knowledge of UNEP in the book.

He dedicates chapters to some of the key issues the agency sought to address in its formative years, including marine pollution, ozone depletion, hazardous waste and desertification.

The author also talks about the 1988 formation of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), whose work on understanding climate science and future trends is still revered today. UNEP, alongside the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) and the International Council for Science (ICSU), had initially proposed creating an Advisory Group on Greenhouse Gases (AGGG). Johnson quotes UNEP’s atmospheric scientist Peter Usher, who says that this “panicked governments who were concerned that they would lose control of the assessment process”.

So, instead of the AGGG, the IPCC was formed as an intergovernmental body – as its name suggests – endorsed by the WMO and UNEP.

Two years later, UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher gave an impassioned speech on global warming and the threat it poses to potentially all of Earth’s inhabitants. She knew what she was talking about, Johnson writes.

What’s perhaps most interesting about UNEP: The First 40 Years is it reveals the considerable levels of understanding we have had about environmental issues for four decades and longer. Johnson quotes former UN secretary-general Kurt Waldheim in the opening chapter of the book. In his introductory address at the UN Conference on the Human Environment in 1972, Waldheim said, “No crisis ever before has underlined to such an extent the interdependence of nations. The environment forces us to make the greatest leap into worldwide solidarity.”

While the rhetoric is indeed fascinating to read and some of the action, particularly on issues like ozone layer depletion, helped prevent environmental degradation, Johnson told Blue & Green Tomorrow in April that most actions were “of the ‘too little, too late’ variety”.

He added, however, “Environmental policies and programmes over the last 40 years have been aimed at holding back the deterioration of the environment and it is indeed possible that without some of these plans and actions, things might be even worse today than they actually are.”

UNEP: The First 40 Years offers a detailed overview of the work conducted by the United Nations Environment Programme in the 40 years after its formation in 2013, drawing in comments from a wide range of high ranking figures from its past.

The author looks back with nostalgic affection. Readers will struggle to find a more comprehensive, engaging and interesting account.

For details on how to purchase or download UNEP: The First 40 Years, visit the UNEP website

Further reading:

Stanley Johnson, environmentalist: a lifelong fight to diminish humanity’s negative footprint

‘Green economy’ achievable, says UN report

The six industries that are crucial to sustainable economic development


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