The Brundtland Report: Our Common Future

By John Bacher

A critical concern to the Canadian peace movement should be the publication of Our Common Future, the report of the World Commission on Environment, headed by Norwegian Prime Minister, Gro Harlem Brundtland. The Brundtland Report underscores the concern of the peace movement for the fate of the earth and challenges it to expand into a survival movement for humanity and countless endangered species.

Media attention on the Brundtland Report tended to black out its conclusions regarding the environmental consequences of militarism and self-serving national policies. It notes that while all depend "on one biosphere for sustaining our lives," each nation "strives for survival and prosperity with little regard for its impact on others." The report shows how globally military expenditures "total about a trillion dollars a year and continue to grow." The danger of nuclear winter is noted, and also the preemption by the arms race of needed resources.

Our Common Future draws attention to the growing tendency for "poverty, injustice, environmental degradation, and conflict" to "interact in complex and potent ways." One is the growing phenomenon of "environmental refugees." As an example, the Brundtland Commission points to the Horn of Africa. It notes that the "hunger and human misery" of the Ethiopian famine "were caused more by years of overuse of soils in the Ethiopian highlands than by drought." It adds that while Ethiopia between 1976 and 1980 spent an average of $225 million a year on the military, recent U.N. studies show that no more than $50 million a year would have been needed then to counter Highlands ecological problems.

The plight of Ethiopia is shared by ten million other African environmental refugees. These movements have led to an increase in interstate tensions and deforestation. Likewise, the report points out how El Salvador, "one of the most troubled nations in Central America," is also one of the most environmentally impoverished, with some of the worst erosion rates in the region. South Africa similarly through the "homelands" system "institutionalizes both conflict and environmental degradation" by inequitably giving fourteen per-cent of the nation's land to 72 percent of the population. Conflict over increasingly scarce resources appears in disputes over river waters, fisheries, which will rise with the prospective global climate shifts caused by the warning of the atmosphere -- a result of carbon dioxide buildup.

The Brundtland Report recognizes that there are no military solutions to "environmental insecurity" and that the "nation state is insufficient to deal with threats to shared ecosystems." It recommends the establishment of an international early warning system for environmental risks and conflict. Re-prioritization is needed to cope with environmental degradation. The report stresses the need for agreement on tighter control over the proliferation and testing of weapons of mass destruction -- nuclear and non-nuclear -- including those that have environmental implications. It predicts that U.S. and Soviet reductions in strategic stockpiles will also boost efforts at limiting nuclear proliferation.

The Brundtland Commission's chapters on "managing the commons" and "institutional and legal challenges" reinforce some important concerns of the Canadian peace movement's and suggests additions to its agenda. It gives new arguments against the militarization of space. In place of adding to current space debris through the further testing and deployment of space-based weapons it makes the novel suggestion for an international clean-up effort "to retrieve the larger pieces of space debris in orbit." This would involve the design of space vehicles capable of grappling with "large, jagged, tumbling space objects." It suggests banning all radioactive materials in space -- which would keep contamination from falling on the earth, and also "severely stunt the future development of space-based warfare systems." An international system of space traffic control is also proposed.

Besides the [ ...] of space, the Brundtland Report notes the value of the fragile Antarctica treaty in keeping that region "free of all military activities, nuclear tests, and radioactive wastes." Likewise, the London Dumping Convention, rarely mentioned in the peace movement, has achieved a ban on dumping radioactive wastes at sea. It draws attention also to the need to speed the international acceptance of the Law of the Sea, which would place the sea-bed outside of recognized Exclusive Economic Zones and under the control of an International Seabed Authority. Other unfamiliar notions to the peace movement include strengthening the United Nations Environmental Program and the establishment of a Global Risks Assessment program. This would identify critical threats to survival, assess their causes and consequences, and provide advice on how to reduce them.

The Brundtland Report should not be interpreted as a blue-print for human survival. In many sections, particularly concerning nuclear power, the commissioners frankly admit their own divisions on solutions. But what should be valued by the peace movement is their broad vision of the dangers to the planet and the integrated way in which we must view the achievement of peace and ecological harmony.

John Bacher works for land conservation in the Niagara area.

Peace Magazine Aug-Sep 1987

Peace Magazine Aug-Sep 1987, page 11. Some rights reserved.

Search for other articles by John Bacher here

Peace Magazine homepage