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Secretary-General of the United Nations Kurt Waldheim, right, speaks with Canadian commissioner of the World Conference Maurice Strong, left, during the United Nations Conference on the Environment, on June 9, 1972 in Stockholm.PRESSENS BILD/AFP via Getty Images

During the last night of the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, things looked to be in serious trouble.

Representatives from 114 countries had come together for the first time to make the environment a matter of mutual co-operation and concern. But they could not agree on language for a declaration of principles that was supposed to be released to the public the next morning.

As the wrangling between delegates stretched into the predawn hours, the secretary-general of the conference, Maurice Strong, abruptly pulled the plug on their audio. The gesture shook participants and gave Mr. Strong an opening to get the conference back on track.

It was a gutsy move by the Canadian businessman-turned-diplomat who died in 2015 and is credited with pulling off what The New Yorker once called the most important ecological meeting in history.

“Let me tell you, there were a lot of gutsy moves on his part,” said Hanne Strong. Born in Copenhagen, she first met Mr. Strong while working as a designer on a UN project a year before the Stockholm conference. The two were married in 1980.

Half a century after the conference commenced on June 5, 1972, it is hard to overstate its importance in laying the foundations for what might be called the environmental world order. The meeting led directly to the creation of the United Nations Environment Programme, UNEP, with Mr. Strong as its first executive director.

Two decades later, it was followed by the Rio Earth Summit – also led by Mr. Strong – which, in turn, launched both the Convention on Biological Diversity and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

But it was the 1972 meeting that effectively changed the world by acknowledging that the planet needed saving from humanity’s relentless success at exploiting it. For policy makers, it was a radically different way of thinking, but one that Mr. Strong deemed essential for the international community to take on board.

“I think we’ve forgotten how stunning an idea it was,” said Elena Bennett, a professor at McGill University and Canada Research Chair in sustainability science. “Before that, there really wasn’t a sense of a global discussion around environmental priorities and how nations could work together to address the critical issues.”

But getting the discussion started was no small feat, said Ms. Strong.

“It was a conference where the Third World didn’t want to go because they thought they were going to be restricted from developing,” she said. “The First World didn’t want to go because they were afraid that they were going to be limited in their development.”

To bolster support, Mr. Strong travelled to India where he met with prime minister Indira Gandhi in an effort to persuade her to attend.

“She sat there quietly, not responding at all, for 10 minutes,” said Ms. Strong, who was also present. “And then she said, ‘I will come.’”

It proved a crucial turning point. While few world leaders chose to attend the Stockholm conference, the meeting gained momentum and gravitas from Ms. Gandhi and others who did. The Soviet bloc withdrew before the conference began, but it was to be the first major UN meeting attended by China.

While several countries including Britain, the United States, Germany and France worked quietly behind the scenes to thwart the conference, as government documents later revealed, Mr. Strong persevered. Like them, he realized that a key dynamic at the meeting would be the dichotomy between wealthy countries, who were reaping the rewards of environmental degradation, and poorer ones, who were paying the price.

Twenty years later, at the Rio Summit, he also worked to bring business leaders on board. Having started his career in the oil and gas industry, Mr. Strong moved easily between diplomatic and corporate circles and sometimes drew criticism because of the apparent contradictions.

“He was visionary, energetic and highly effective, which makes him a model in my view,” said Mark Jaccard, director of the School of Resource and Environmental Management at Simon Fraser University. “It is unfortunate that not more of our corporate leaders have his kind of vision.”

Mr. Strong attributed his perspective to his early life. A product of the depression in rural Manitoba, he was 12 when U.S. president Franklin Roosevelt and British prime minister Winston Churchill met during the Atlantic conference and laid the groundwork for the future United Nations amid the carnage of the Second World War.

In a 2014 interview with The Globe and Mail, Mr. Strong said that when he heard about the meeting, he realized “that’s what I want to do.”

He would first make his fortune in business and end up as president of Montreal-based Power Corporation at the age of 35. In 1968, he led the founding of the Canadian International Development Agency, under prime minister Lester Pearson. One year later, Sweden asked Mr. Strong to run the conference that was to become his legacy.

In his opening statement to delegates, Mr. Strong said “we must not allow the frustrations or our past failures to prevent us from finding a new basis for international co-operation.”

Mr. Strong rides a bicycle through the streets of Stockholm on June 9, 1972, during the first United Nations conference on the environment.SCANPIX SWEDEN/AFP via Getty Images

Fifty years later, Ms. Strong said the conference was a milestone, but in the end “Maurice didn’t get what he wanted … to have the world come together on every level.”

That the world has a long way to go toward making that a reality is something few would argue. But after this week’s Stockholm 50+ conference to commemorate the anniversary, UNEP’s chief scientist, Andrea Hinwood, said there was still value in dialogue.

“The benefit of these meetings is in having a range of stakeholders that are much more engaged,” she said. “If you’ve got different partners across society, you’ve actually got more hope to solve the problem.”

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