It is ironic that Maurice Strong should pass away on the eve of COP21, the Paris climate conference. He was among the most influential of environmentalists, the first head of the UNEP, the Secretary-General of the first UN human environment conference in 1972 and of the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. He helped light the candle of environmental awareness and as it guttered over the years, he sheltered it from extinguishment, indeed gave it fuel, never losing hope nor abating in commitment, always seeking sustainable, just solutions. He was, according to John Ralston Saul, a man with “a rare talent for bringing together two opposites – highly original conceptual thinking and highly pragmatic approaches to getting things done.”
Those of you who have read A Person of Letters know that its protagonist becomes obsessed with environmental activism. When, he wonders, are extreme forms of “direct action” justified? APOL is set in the wake of the 2009 Copenhagen conference on climate change, when environmental activists demonstrated, gate-crashed events, and bannered parliaments, and concerned citizens everywhere marched in the street; but none of that was sufficient to affect the ultimate outcome. In 2009 there was no consensus, no leader who dared upset the global status quo–and thus no meaningful accord was achievable. Copenhagen was a failure, and that was enough to gird APOL’s protagonist into his own idiosyncratic form of direct action.
On its own, activism is not enough; it is helpful, necessary even, but not sufficient. What is needed above all is a genuine and widespread commitment to change. Activists can point the way but we need our leaders to lead, and we need to hold them accountable for what they do (or do not do). And ahead of that we need pathfinders, bridge builders, catalysts, never-give-up facilitators and entrepreneurs like Maurice Strong, people of vision and goodwill with an abidingly respectful and humanist worldview.
Kofi Anan once lauded Strong’s “unwavering commitment to the environment, multilateralism and peaceful resolution of conflicts.” There can be no higher accolade for anyone on the international stage.