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Maurice Strong: Godfather of the international environmental movement

By Neil Hrab
web posted December 24, 2001

While unknown to the general public, the name "Maurice Strong" elicits strong emotions from people who understand the politics of the environmental movement.

To his fellow environmentalists, the septuagenarian Strong is a noble, unceasing activist for the "green" cause. Strong played a major role in organizing the path-breaking United Nations Conference on the Human Environment held in Stockholm, Sweden in 1972. Two decades later he was center-stage at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, where he helped lay the groundwork for the Kyoto global warming treaty that mandates reductions in carbon dioxide emissions to combat an unproven global warming threat. This year the Bush Administration rejected the treaty citing its drastic impact on Western industrial economies and the unsettled science on global warming.

Maurice StrongStrong continues to aggressively advocate the treaty's ratification. As a leader of government and non-governmental organizations, he has rallied elite and popular opinion to support international environmental regulation. For a time, Strong led Ted Turner's Better World Society, a foundation promoting the United Nations, and he has served as chair or director in a variety of pro-environmentalist organizations, including the United Nations Foundation, the Commission on Global Governance and the Stockholm Environment Institute.

Strong has also had a major influence in helping set philanthropic giving priorities for environmental causes. Most notably, Turner named Strong a director on the board of the United Nations Foundation

that the media mogul established in 1998. The Foundation has assets of $125.4 million and has made a total of $227.7 million in grants. In this and other positions, Strong has encouraged international agencies to steer funding support to non-governmental environmental organizations.

A sympathetic biographer has observed:

Strong has not been a typical environmentalist. He hasn't made scientific discoveries like those made by Jane Goodall while observing the chimps in Africa. He hasn't started any organizations like Friends of the Earth. The idea of sustainable development isn't even his.

But his role has been no less important. Before ideas like sustainable development can change the world, they must first be brought to its attention. And that is what Maurice Strong has done…He has been a tireless worker for planet Earth.

This April, Strong published Where on Earth Are We Going? With a foreword by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and dust-jacket blurbs from World Bank president James Wolfensohn and former Colorado senator Tim Wirth, now president of Turner's United Nations Foundation, the book parades the company Strong keeps. The memoir recounts years of personal environmental activism. But, more importantly, it describes the political strategies of the international environmental movement and is a scorecard on their achievements.

Publicist for International Environmentalism

How has Strong promoted concepts like sustainable development to consume the world's attention? Mainly by using his prodigious skills as a networker. Over a lifetime of mixing private sector career success with stints in government and international groups, Strong has honed his networking abilities to perfection. He can bring presidents, prime ministers and potentates from the world's four corners to big environmental conferences such as the 1992 Rio Summit, an environmental spectacle organized by Strong and attended by more than 100 heads of state.

But the talent for networking that endears Strong to his green allies also attracts scorn. To many American conservatives, Strong is almost a sinister figure – a shadowy individual flitting endlessly from one gathering of world leaders to another, all the time promoting ominous concepts U.N. "global governance." An 1997 piece on Strong in National Review expresses this suspicion well:

"[Maurice Strong is] dangerous because he's a much smarter and shrewder man [than many in the UN system]," comments Charles Lichenstein, deputy ambassador to the UN under President Reagan. "I think he is a very dangerous ideologue, way over to the Left."

"[Strong] is kind of the global Ira Magaziner," says Ted Galen Carpenter of the Cato Institute, comparing Strong to President Clinton's chief advisor for his failed socialized medicine proposal. "If he is whispering in Kofi Annan's ear this is no good at all."

In Where in the World Are We Going?, Strong scoffs at "the right-wing media in the United States" for claiming that he is "a dangerous leader of a conspiracy to establish a world government that would subvert the sovereignty of the United States."

Strong may be right to complain about mere suspicions. What's truly alarming about Maurice Strong is his actual record. Strong's persistent calls for an international mobilization to combat environmental calamities, even when they are exaggerated (population growth) or scientifically unproven (global warming), have set the world's environmental agenda. That the Bush Administration has been forced into a feud with our European allies over the Kyoto treaty is only the most recent example of Strong's amazing influence.

An Amazing Life

Maurice Strong was born on April 29, 1929 in Oak Lake, Manitoba, Canada. His family was hardly wealthy. "We were the poorest of the poor," Strong once recalled during an interview. "When we went for groceries, the storekeeper would say, ‘Is this going on your bill again?'" Despite a difficult early life, Strong showed great promise—he claims to have skipped four grades during his schooling and qualified for university entrance at age 14. But education bored the precocious Strong, and so in 1943 he left home and worked at odd jobs, including as a fur trader in the Canadian far north, before joining a stock brokerage firm in Winnipeg.

Some believe Strong's early experiences – especially memories of growing up during the Great Depression – help explain his Leftist politics. As Peter Foster of Canada's Financial Post has written:

"[From a young age Strong] was haunted by the spectre of an economic "system" that — as conventional leftist wisdom would have it — had "broken down." For many leftists, the Depression has always been one of the treasured rationales for government intervention (although it was in fact created by government policies), but Mr. Strong perhaps cleaves to this rationale more than most because he lived it. As a boy, he ate dandelion and pigweed. He saw his father wrap his feet in rags before going out to the bush to cut wood. He saw his educated mother lose her mind [to severe depression]. It would be impossible not to be moved by such a tale."

Ironically, a fair chunk of Strong's early resume has him working for the oil industry. In the 1950s, he worked for Dome Petroleum, traveling throughout Africa to set up a network of service stations and recruit locals to run them. In the 1960s, he re-built an ailing oil firm called Ajax Petroleum into a powerhouse renamed Canadian Industrial Gas & Oil Co. Strong's expertise in the energy field was highly respected. When Canada's Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau set up a state-owned gas company called Petro-Canada in 1975, he made Strong its president.

Subsequently, Strong combined his private sector experience with tours of duty in government and international agencies. In 1966, thanks in part to his ties to Canada's then-ruling Liberal Party, Strong became chief of the Canadian International Development Agency. He held that post for four years before leaving to immerse himself in United Nations activities. Strong was secretary-general of the 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment and later served as executive director of the UN Environment Program. During the African famine of the mid-1980s, he was Executive Coordinator of the UN Office for Emergency Operations.

During these years Strong developed his passion for environmental policy. In Where on Earth Are We Going?, he writes: "I knew there was a role for me to play here [in the environmental movement]…I also began to sense one of the great underlying truths of environmental politics. The environment is supranational. It transcends the nation state. At the very least it has to be dealt with multilaterally."

A Major Force in Environmental Philanthropy

Strong has had great success in using his industry and government contacts to generate funding for the environmental movement. Nowhere is this more apparent than in his association with Ted Turner.

In 1985, Turner established the Better World Society to promote two of his pet issues: environmentalism and the UN. In Where on Earth Are We Going?, Strong describes how in 1991 Turner persuaded him to lead the organization: "Midway through lunch, [Turner] abruptly put down his knife and fork and got down on his knees… ‘Maurice,' he said, ‘I'm down on my knees because I want you to become president of the Better World Society, and I beg you not to say no.'" Strong didn't.

The Better World Society was only the beginning. In January 1998, Turner donated $1 billion to the new United Nations Foundation. Its goal is to distribute $100 million a year for the next ten years to U.N. programs dealing with poverty, malnutrition, peacekeeping and the environment. Turner named Strong to the founding board of directors.

UN Foundation environmental grants since 1999 have included a $900,000 grant for a joint one-year project of the UN Development Program and World Resources Institute to help China develop policies to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, alleged to be responsible for dangerous global warming. The Foundation also has contributed $520,000 to teach young people about the environment and it made a similar-sized grant so that a U.N. task force could study the environment in relation to human settlements.

Turner and Strong have a mutual admiration society; they effusively praise one another for all they do on the world's behalf. Turner's penchant for insult and bombast seems not to bother Strong. In August 2000, Turner spoke to the U.N. "World Peace Summit" and denounced Christianity as "intolerant because it taught we were the only ones going to heaven. That confused the devil out of me since that would have left heaven a very empty place." Turner went on to praise "indigenous" religious faiths and all the things humans have in common, including "love of birds, butterflies, wives and flowers." Strong had enthusiastically introduced Turner, saying he had done more for peace and understanding, the environment, and the U.N. than any other person.

Strong has raised money for environmental organizations in other ways. In his book Global Greens (Capital Research Center, 1998), James Sheehan describes how Strong used his personal connections to transform the World Bank from an enemy to an ally of environmental groups – and a donor to them. Until the mid-1990s, environmentalists charged the World Bank with financing the destruction of Brazilian rainforests, and they accused it of making loans to Third World governments that forced the poor from their homes. Environmentalists were so irate with the World Bank that they called for its elimination.

Then in 1995, a new president, James Wolfensohn, took charge of the agency. A Wall Street investment banker, Wolfensohn was critical of Bank projects he considered environmentally harmful. He was also a Strong protégé. Strong watched approvingly as Wolfensohn instituted environmentalist-friendly policies, including the appointment of environmental NGOs to World Bank advisory committees. Many of these organizations received World Bank grants to implement biodiversity and global warming projects in developing nations. Says Sheehan, "The World Bank has done an excellent job of co-opting the environmental movement by re-packaging itself as a ‘sustainable development' agency." Strong was pivotal in this dramatic transformation of the Bank from foe to friend.

Strong's Environmental Philosophy

Strong's environmental views are distilled in a speech he gave as head of the United Nations Environment Programme more than 25 years ago. The Feb. 13, 1974 address at Iona College in Windsor, Canada contains what is still the core of his thinking.

At the outset Strong noted: "I speak to you as a layman – one who has had the great privilege of receiving the help and advice in my work [at the UN] of a significant cross section of the world's scientists and environmentalists. I would not pretend that I have been able to assimilate all of it or to draw the soundest conclusions from it [italics added]."

The problem as Strong saw it was not the threat of environmental cataclysm, but the danger of "a series of more limited catastrophes affecting large segments of the world's population and posing an acute moral, economic and political dilemma to the whole global community."

Their source was Western Man and his abiding "preoccupation with the physical, the material, the quantitative aspects of our lives – an obsession with the notion that more is better in all things…The relentless application of purely economic criteria to decision-making has grossly distorted allocation of resources in favour of the areas of highest economic return rather than of social priority."

Strong reviewed the assorted environmental dangers: "Scientists advise me that there is a possibility that we may already be in the beginning stages of a major shift in the dynamics of the earth's climate system." Next he worried about "forcing the oceans to bear an impossible burden as final global reservoirs of waste" and then shifted to population – "…the headlong pace of mass migration from rural areas to the cities, the rapid growth in unemployment, and escalating pressure on already overstrained resources and services, particularly in the developing world, will almost surely get worse before they can get better."

Strong said the right policies could prevent ecological disaster. "We urgently need an anti-disaster strategy. We need to find and repair to a safer course."

· Population growth had to be curbed "by improving the incentives to reduce family size by spreading the benefits of [economic] development more widely and by developing improved techniques of family planning for those with the incentive to use them."

· "The ethic of abundant resources must give way to the ethics of scarcity and conservation."

· Incentives should be created to move industry from the developed to the developing world—a giant job redistribution. The imperative here is "the need to avoid overburdening the environment in any particular area [of the world]…" The developed world must tighten its belt in other ways – people dwelling there must embrace "alternative life styles and patterns of consumption, oriented more to quality and non-material satisfactions and less to quantity."

What Strong's sweeping call for "non-material satisfactions" meant for American consumers is now discernable in many environmentalist policy proposals. Environmental organizations, echoing Strong's criticisms, frequently condemn the American lifestyle as wasteful and ecologically unsustainable. To "reform" public behavior, they argue for coercive laws and regulations to force people out of their cars and into mass transportation, out of single-family homes in spacious suburbs and into smaller apartments in congested cities, and out of jobs in industries like fossil fuels that they consider threats to the environment.

But restrictions on domestic living standards are only the beginning. Strong's speech asked the U.S. and First World nations to commit to an additional sacrifice – they should dedicate themselves to "a much larger flow of resources between rich and poor countries with heavy emphasis on the provision of basic social services to the poorest sectors." In other words, Strong would have the U.S. spend billions on international aid programs.

Key Environmental Strategy: Strengthen the U.N.

Twenty-five years ago Strong sketched out a global political framework that would curtail the sovereignty of nations and expand the power of the U.N. and other international organizations. Strong's downpayment on this vision have been the policies he subsequently has helped advance at a series of U.N.-sponsored conferences from Stockholm and Rio to Kyoto and, next year, Johannesburg.

Strong appears to rule out a formal world government when he suggests that "the technological society [his shorthand expression for life in a globalized world] cannot be managed by traditional systems of hierarchical control." Instead, "it requires a network of institutions, governmental and non-governmental, local, regional, national and international, to perform the wide variety tasks and functions necessary to the operation of that society."

This new network does not exactly end nation-state sovereignty. Instead, it should lead to the creation of a formalized "system of international organizations" whose purpose will be to "provide the instrumentalities for carrying out those common tasks which it is either not feasible or advantageous for [individual nation-states] to carry out themselves."

There's no need to describe the peril of handing over U.S. sovereignty – a sovereignty that guarantees the freedoms of U.S. citizens – to a centralized and often corrupt foreign bureaucracy whose agenda is frequently at odds with U.S. policies and values. Strong's enthusiasm for the U.N. completely ignores its history of failure in numerous policy areas. In the years since Strong's 1974 speech the U.N. has failed to alleviate poverty – and ecological devastation – in Africa and other developing nations. And its peacekeeping efforts in Somalia, Rwanda and Bosnia failed to deter aggression in the 1990s.

Global Warming Alarmism

Critics say Strong and other environmentalists are transfixed by disaster scenarios built on junk science. Nowhere is this more apparent than Strong's attitude toward global warming.

Global warming is the theory that rising man-made carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, autos and other industrial activities will cause a dangerous increase in temperatures that will wreak havoc on the planet's climate in myriad ways, from melting the polar ice caps to causing powerful storms and severe droughts.

In Where on Earth Are We Going? Strong presents a fictional "Report to the Shareholders, Earth Inc." bearing the date January 1, 2031 and built around the imagined impact of global warming. In Strong's telling North America will be a hell on earth. The Midwest will be struggling through a tenth straight year of drought, and New Orleans will be ravaged by tropical diseases to such an extent that it becomes little more than a "shrinking fortress held only with poisonous amounts of lethal pesticides." In Los Angeles, "water vendors with armed guards roam the streets…" Both cities are better off than the state of Florida, which will have fallen under the sea.

Strong advocates ratification of the Kyoto treaty to stop the impending crisis. Negotiated by the Clinton Administration in December 1997, the treaty requires the U.S. to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 30 to 40 per cent by 2010. But according to the U.S. Energy Information Agency, that could cost the economy $400 billion per year, raise electric utility rates by 86 per cent, hike the cost of heating oil by 76 per cent, and impose a permanent "Kyoto gasoline tax" of 66 cents per gallon. In total, each U.S. household would have to spend an extra $1,740 per year on energy. WEFA, an economic information and consulting firm, reports that 2.4 million jobs would be lost and manufacturing wages cut by 2.1 per cent.

This gives Strong no pause. Indeed, he seems to want to inflict economic damage on Western industrial democracies. When it comes to environmental policy, Strong says, "Economic growth is not the cure, it is the disease."

Strong supports Kyoto despite the scientific evidence. The U.N. has repeatedly scaled down its prediction of rapid temperature increases in coming decades. In 1990, for instance, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicted that global temperatures would rise six degrees farenheit by 2100. Just three years later, the IPCC adjusted its projection downward to a rise of less than two degrees farenheit. NASA satellites, the most accurate measure of global temperature, show that the Earth has slightly cooled since 1979, contradicting doomsayers who predicted global warming should have caused the temperature to increase six-tenths of a degree by now.

Scientists who once strongly believed in the theory are now more skeptical. Dr. James Hansen, the NASA scientist who inaugurated the global warming debate in 1988, said then that rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere would cause the temperature to increase and lead to increased drought by the end of the 20th century. In 1998, Hansen candidly admitted his predictions had not come true because he didn't know enough about the climate system. In 2000, Hansen went further and said carbon dioxide is not responsible for global warming. Hansen still subscribes to the global warming theory but he believes the treaty should be abandoned because it targets the wrong greenhouse gas and harms international relations by turning developing and developed nations into "adversaries."


Environmental politicians like Maurice Strong don't follow the science. They push for power. Strong has devoted his life to establishing international legal procedures to enforce his vision. And his imagination is haunted by a parade of environmental horribles. Scientists doubt they may ever come to pass, but Strong, like many contemporary environmentalists, is motivated more by fervent conviction than scientific evidence. Paul Ehrlich's "population bomb" never exploded, and the Club of Rome's reports on the limits to growth are famously wrong. Not one catastrophe hypothesized by Strong and other environmentalists has occurred. But that hasn't stopped them from building the environmental movement.

Neil Hrab is a graduate of the University of Toronto and served as a Charles G. Koch Summer Fellow at Capital Research Center.

Other related articles: (open in a new window)

  • Global snake oil salesman by Alan Caruba (April 16, 2001)
    Alan Caruba is happy that Maurice Strong recently had his memoirs published. It gives every one a chance to see what a crackpot leftist is like
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