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Centuries ago in England and Wales, livestock farmers began a practice of setting aside plots of grassland for use by all the members of a village. These common areas were owned by no one and provided benefits for all. From time to time, though, short-sighted villagers would release too many cattle at once onto the commons, rendering it barren and driving the livelihood of the entire community into collapse.

Like the village commons of ages past, the earth is home to precious natural resources -- the air we breathe, the water we drink and our diverse plant and animal life -- that are the property of no single owner. But with no one government charged with their care, decades of exploitation and negligence have degraded these resources -- our global commons. As threats ranging from global warming to depletion of the ozone layer and the extinction of countless wildlife species loom, the long-term health and wellbeing of the world community hangs in the balance.

Pollution does not observe national boundaries -- it spreads throughout the world's ecosystems and affects us all. Factories burning coal in China emit mercury that contaminates fish in San Francisco Bay. Carbon dioxide emissions from those same factories and many other sources worldwide contribute to global warming, which could have disastrous impacts on Iowa's crops, Florida's coasts and other U.S. interests. Persistent toxic chemicals can be found in human and animal tissue far removed from their place of initial use.

Addressing international environmental problems requires the cooperation of all nations. In 1972, a growing awareness of global and transnational environmental issues led to the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, Sweden, and the formation there of the United Nations Environmental Programme. Over the next few years, nations signed on to international treaties to preserve natural and cultural heritage, control the trade in endangered species and reduce air and ocean pollution. These agreements led to others to protect the ozone layer, to regulate the use of ocean resources and to control transboundary movements of hazardous waste.

By the late 1980s, dozens of international treaties and agencies existed, yet new challenges had come up. Developing countries around the world were finding it impossible to meet their obligations to protect globally important resources, and it became apparent that global environmental problems could not be solved in isolation from the social and economic challenges facing individual nations. The leaders of the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil -- known as the Earth Summit -- embraced the concept of sustainable development and of common, but differentiated, responsibilities among rich and poor nations concerning the protection of global resources. The summit included the adoption of treaties on global warming and biodiversity that incorporated these principles. The summit also raised recognition of the important role that citizen organizations play in holding global financial and trade institutions accountable for their lending practices and decisions.

Since the 1970s, the world community has developed a large body of international environmental laws, including more than 1000 treaties. Yet this process has not included sufficient attention to the implementation and enforcement of these commitments. The 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa, encouraged the creation of more informal partnerships among governments, agencies, businesses and citizen groups to take action on existing promises related to sustainable development. Some nations have called for the creation of a global environmental organization with real international regulatory powers. We can expect the debate over how best to protect the planet to continue and grow in the coming years.

Landmarks in international environmental cooperation:

  • The United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, held in Stockholm, Sweden, in June 1972, marked the emergence of international environmental law. There, countries adopted the Declaration on the Human Environment or Stockholm Declaration which set out the principles for many international environmental issues, including human rights, natural resource management, pollution prevention and the relationship between the environment and development. The conference led to the creation of the United Nations Environment Programme.


  • The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in June 1992, marked a turning point in the history of international environmental cooperation. The Earth Summit attracted more than 110 presidents and prime ministers and thousands of nongovernmental organizations. The Earth Summit developed the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development and Agenda 21. It also led to the establishment of the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development and the Global Environment Facility.
  • .

  • The World Summit on Sustainable Development held in Johannesburg, South Africa, in August 2002 helped heighten attention to the critical role of civil society in a globalized world. The summit stimulated the announcement of more than 200 partnerships and initiatives involving not only governments, but also citizen groups and businesses for implementing commitments at the domestic level.

last revised 5/18/2005

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