The world's environmental movement has changed its strategy. During the 1960s and part of the 1970s, environmentalists saw their role as one of blocking economic developments when they damaged nature or of fighting to remedy previous environmental damage. Save a forest, a fish, or a meadow. Stop a dam or a highway. Clean up a waste dump, the air, or the water.
Though their actions were widely regarded as needed, environmentalists were also seen as a negative force. In parts of the third world, where leaders were concerned with lifting their people out of poverty through economic development, the environmental worries of northerners were ignored as either irrelevant or colonial.
Development and conservation ``used to be perceived as mortal enemies, mutually exclusive,'' recalls Peter Jacobs, a Montreal professor of landscape architecture.
That view, according to environmental leaders, has been fading. ``The essential integration of conservation and development has been recognized,'' notes Maurice Strong, former head of the UN Environment Program.
Mr. Strong maintains that for economic policymakers, integrating conservation and ecological matters into their planning is ``just sensible growth strategy.''
Today, most nations, including third world nations, have environmental ministries. Some 30 nations have established or are developing national conservation strategies that set out priorities and methods for dealing with environmental problems.
However, it could be a generation before all nations have such national strategies, according to Jos'e Furtado, science adviser to the Commonwealth Secretariat in London, and Mark Hall of the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), in Gland, Switzerland.
The two were reporting to the World Conservation Strategy Conference, a gathering here last week of some 400 environment experts and environment ministers or other high officials from around the world.
This was the latest in a series of major international gatherings sponsored by the UN, starting with the UN Environmental Conference in Stockholm in 1972 and leading to the World Conservation Strategy Conference of 1980. The latter was commissioned by the UN Environment Program, which was itself set up in 1972.
The Ottawa conference was intended to refine and promote the implementation of the plan of action adopted at the 1980 Conservation Strategy Conference. ``We want to make the livelihood and security of the poor the foundation of environmental planning,'' said M. S. Swaminathan, president of the IUCN at the conference.
His comment reflects a further shift towards emphasizing ``sustainable development.'' If development does not include environmental considerations, he says, the soil will be washed away or left infertile, the water poisoned, the forests cut down. Thereby the livelihood of future generations could not be assured.
Mr. Jacobs, chairman of the Commission on Environmental Planning of the IUCN, spoke of an increasing understanding that natural resources are not a ``free good,'' but that they must be maintained by a conservation strategy.
The tragedies of the 1984 chemical gas leak in Bhopal, India, the African famine, and the recent nuclear accident at Chernobyl in the Soviet Union, have boosted public awareness of environmental dangers.
``But awareness doesn't mean we are tackling the problems,'' says Mr. Jacobs.
The conference here made three major suggestions for advancing its conservation strategy:
Perfect ``an international code for the sustainable and equitable use of the environmental systems of the planet.'' The word ``equitable'' can apply to the distribution of benefits both within a nation or among nations.
Create an international environmental watchdog.
Dr. Swaminatham calls this proposed watchdog organization Amnesty Environment, a counterpart of Amnesty International. Whereas Amnesty International draws attention to violations of human rights, the new group would publicize major violations of the environment by corporations or governments and their agencies.
The sponsors of the conference (IUCN, the UN Environment Program, World Wildlife Fund, Environment Canada, and Canadian Wildlife Federation) should promote a quality of life index and an environmental wealth index as indicators of sustainable development. The first of these indexes measures such things as infant mortality rates, longevity, sanitation, adequacy of water supply, and so on. The second looks at indicators of environmental soundness.
Taghi Farvar, a senior adviser to the IUCN, said the ultimate message of the environmentalists today is that ``you can have your cake and eat it.'' With proper development, the environment needed in making a living can be maintained and used again. ``We have not inherited the world from our parents,'' says Dr. Farvar. ``We have borrowed it from our children.''