New book out Remembering Maurice F. Strong: Tributes and Reminiscences

Edited by former UNESCO Director-General Federico Mayor, Negoslave Ostojic and Roberto Savio, Belgrade, and published by the European Center for Peace and Development it is available as a free download here. 
Contributors include;
- Gro Harlem Brundtland
- Nitin Desai
- Elizabeth Dowdeswell
- Las-Goran Engfeldt
- Peter Hass
- Nay Htun
- Enrique Iglesias
- Ashok Khosla
- Tommy Koh
- Geoffrey Lipman
- Thomas Lovejoy
-Julia Marton-Lefevre
- Rajendra Pachauri
 -Shridath Ramphal
- Klaus Schwab
- Mirian Vilela
- James Wolfensohn

My contribution to the book - The Father of Sustainable Development 

The Maurice Strong story is an amazing one.
As I was very focused in the 1980s on UK domestic politics my first awareness of Maurice was not until the preparations for the Rio Earth Summit. By then I was at the United Nations Association – UK organizing town hall conferences in preparation for the Summit and an Earth Summit Rally. To supplement this, we had asked Maurice to write an article for the magazine we were producing to be sold in WH Smiths in the UK and a free four-page tabloid that would be given out at the town hall meetings.

If you are not of that generation it is very difficult to properly understand the impact that the Earth Summit in 1992 had not only on key environmental issues but also on the opening up of the United Nations to stakeholders. It helped a lot, I think, that Maurice had already organized Stockholm in 1972 and served as Executive Director of UNEP – the first one – and been part of the Brundtland Commission. He had also been an industry leader as well as an NGO leader in the years after Stockholm. He knew how the intergovernmental world worked, knew the key issues that needed to be moved forward, knew the key players and was able to craft the right coalitions to deliver on these issues.

The preparations for the Earth Summit were very interesting. Unlike other UN Summits where the Secretary-General of the Conference would just meet with governments, Maurice met with media and stakeholders in addition to governments in each place he visited while on the road. This helped enormously to galvanize interest in the Summit.  The Earth Summit outcomes were such an achievement to not only secure Agenda 21 – a blueprint for a sustainable planet, the Rio Declaration also a set of 27 principles to guide our work - but also two conventions on biodiversity and climate change. In his final statement to the conference Maurice said:

On climate change, we have taken a historic first step, but only a first step - not a sufficient step. Stabilizing the gaseous composition of the atmosphere is clearly the most urgent problem we will face in the 1990s. Yet the agreement signed here sets neither targets nor timetables. You must now act quickly to bring the climate convention and its protocols in line with what scientists are telling us - that carbon emissions must be cut by at least 60 per cent just to put the global warming trend on hold. It is too late for protracted discussions and delay.” (Strong 1992)

Being in Rio and caught up in the energy and belief that we had identified the problems and embarked on a clear journey to address them was an indescribably empowering moment.

The Summit would have been an incredible achievement with just these developments, but on top of these developments also emerged a new UN body to monitor Agenda 21: The Commission on Sustainable Development. Within two years, a third convention on desertification and a treaty on straddling fish stocks would be agreed upon and, by the end of the decade, negotiations would begin on two further conventions regarding persistent organic pollutants and prior informed consent procedure for certain hazardous chemicals and pesticides in international trade, respectively.

These developments meant so much in terms of progress for international environmental law, and they were all put into motion by the one and only Maurice Strong.

At the time, perhaps the least appreciated part of Agenda 21 were the nine chapters dealing with what were eventually termed the Major Groups. This had massive impacts over the following decades. On stakeholders, he was so clearly a visionary. He recognized that governments alone would not make the best policy but if you created space for stakeholders to input their ideas then governments would make better informed policy decisions and if you then engaged them in partnerships with each other and governments more of the decisions would be implemented.  An example of this was the text in Chapter 28 on local authorities which said: 

“Local authorities in each country should have undertaken a consultative process with their populations and achieved a consensus on ‘a local Agenda 21’ for the community.” (UN, 1992)

Within ten years, over six thousand local Agenda 21s were created across the globe with local authorities acting as facilitators in working with their local stakeholders to imagine their communities becoming more sustainable.  Maurice recognized that there were gaps in critical stakeholder groups, so in preparation for Rio, he had helped establish the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI) in 1990 which brought together local authorities that wanted to work on sustainable development.

He was not impressed with the role the International Chamber of Commerce was playing at this time, and so he appointed Stephan Schmidheiny, a Swiss industrialist, as his Principal Adviser for Business and Industry. Schmidheiny was tasked with bringing in the progressive global business leaders. This resulted in late 1991 with Schmidheiny establishing a new organization: the Business Council for Sustainable Development. Hugh Faulkner was to be the Executive Director of the new organization; he defined the work of BCSD as to:
“solve the single most urgent problem that faces the human race today – that of preserving the environment for ourselves and for the generations to come” (Falkner, 1991) This brought the progressive CEOs into the Summit preparations.
The approach to stakeholders was subsequently picked up in the follow-up to the Earth Summit. By the ten-year review in 2002, over one hundred governments created multi-stakeholder commissions, committees or councils to develop and help implement Agenda 21. UN bodies were also reorganizing their engagement strategies around a stakeholder discourse as opposed to a civil society discourse. This was all due to Maurice’s vision.

I didn’t engage much with Maurice in the 1990s except around commentary on some of the reform activities he was spearheading for the UN Secretary-General.

We both spoke in September 2001 at the International Eminent Persons Meeting on Inter-Linkages in Tokyo on how to bridge the problems and solutions to address sustainable development in preparation for the World Summit on Sustainable Development. In our conversation, I remember him vividly promoting that it should address the emerging environmental security agenda. It was an agenda I had been aware of; in the Earth Summit 2002 book I edited, there was a chapter by Margaret Brusasco McKenzie on the subject. WSSD didn’t address this agenda, but by the 2005 World Summit it was in the political discourse at a level never seen before.  Water, Energy, Food or Climate Security, and Resilience stories were now common in the news media. Again, Maurice was ahead of his time.

In 2009, IUCN hosted an 80th birthday party for Maurice in preparation for the Copenhagen Climate Summit and the possibility of a Rio+20. He reminded everyone that he had raised the issue climate change a long time ago:

"If you look at the agenda of the first world environment conference, the UN Conference on what we called the ‘Human Environment,’ which was held in 1972 in Stockholm, most of the issues we are discussing were there. Of course, they had varying degrees of priority and interest. In my opening speech at Stockholm, I cited climate change as one of the key issues. Nobody was really listening. It was not seen as it is seen now, with a sense of urgency. We thought it was a long-term issue and we didn't get much action about the issue.” (Strong, 2009)

My memories of that event were discussing in the margins with Maurice and Andrew Steer, who was then Director General at the UK Department of International Development (DFID), the idea of Maurice again being Secretary General for a UN Conference – Rio+20. It wasn’t going to happen, but he would be able to play a supporting role throughout. In preparation for Rio+20, Michael Strauss and I had the pleasure of working with Maurice on the book Only One Earth: The Long Road via Rio to Sustainable Development. The book told the intergovernmental story from before Stockholm to the final preparations for Rio+20. Our hope was for the book to highlight the successes, but at the same time provide a realistic assessment of the failures. In particular, we reminded readers that the dialogue on sustainable development happens in a world where peace and security issues tend to trump (no pun intended) any progression on sustainable development.
Maurice would play an important role in helping to mobilize interest in Rio+20. Like Copenhagen, he was disappointed with the outcome from Rio+20. However, without Rio+20 there would never have been Paris or the Sustainable Development Goals. In his final remarks to the UN General Assembly in 2014 at a President of the UN General Assembly High Level Event (the remarks had to be delivered in writing as he was not well enough to attend), he was, as always, challenging:

“Many of you in this room today will play a significant role in what will be achieved or not. We live in a time of great challenges on so many fronts that sometimes the issues we talk about today are lost in the noise of war and peace. But there are also great opportunities with building an inclusive and green economy that will bring jobs and a cleaner and more sustainable planet.

The roadmap that started in Stockholm, continued in Rio and Johannesburg and in Rio-20 must now become a reality. Our essential unity as peoples of the Earth must transcend the differences and difficulties, which still divide us. You are called upon to rise to your historic responsibility as custodians of the planet in taking the decisions in the next year that will unite rich and poor, North, South, East and West, in a new global partnership to ensure our common future I ask you to work together to make it such for your time has come to make those  changes.” (Strong 2014)

In the final analysis, all that can be asked of us is whether or not we tried to contribute to make the planet a better place for the next generation to live in.

In the case of Maurice Strong – the father of sustainable development – there is no question he inspired us all to do more, he cajoled us when we were faltering, he berated us when we were going in the wrong direction. He kept us on the path or as close to a path towards a more sustainable world and for that, we should all rejoice in being part of the life and times of Maurice Strong.  I know I do.

“Indeed, it has never been more important to heed the evidence of science that time is running out in our ability to manage successfully our impacts on the Earth’s environment, biodiversity, resource and life-support systems on which human life as we know it depends. We must rise above the lesser concerns that pre-empt our attention and respond to the reality that the future of human life on Earth depends on what we do, or fail to do in this generation.” (Strong 2012)


Strong, M. (1992) Speech at the end of Earth Summit. Available on line at the Maurice Strong website:

Strong, M. (2009) Speech at the IUCN 80th anniversary party for Maurice Strong – the Strong Dialogues: Available on line at the Maurice Strong website:

Strong, (2012) from a speech in preparation for Rio+20. Available on line at the Maurice Strong website:

Strong, M. (2014) Speech to the PGA High Level Event on the Sustainable Development Goals. Available on line at the Maurice Strong website:

United Nations (1992) Chapter 28 of Agenda 21, UN, New York. Available online:


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