Gro Harlem Brundtland speaks at Boe Forum
Augustana University in Sioux Falls, S.D., welcomes eminent Norwegian dignitary
The former prime minister of Norway, Gro Harlem Brundtland, emphasized the importance of environmentalism and humanitarianism at Augustana University’s annual Boe Forum in Sioux Falls, S.D., on March 14.
Brundtland served three terms as Norway’s first woman prime minister from 1981 until 1996. She also served as director general for the World Health Organization from 1998 until 2003 and is a deputy chair of The Elders, an international organization of public figures and activists brought together by Nelson Mandela in 2007.
Brundtland addressed issues of climate change, the Ukraine war, the COVID-19 pandemic, feminism, and sociological trends to an audience of more than 2,000 students, academics, and community members. The event was hosted by the Center for Western Studies, a museum, gallery, and archive at Augustana University.
“What was compelling about [Brundtland] was the fact that here is someone who, for many years, has been drawing attention to the importance of something that only more recently the world has come to understand. Now every day we can see what climate change is doing,” said Harry Thompson, executive director of the Center for Western Studies.
Brundtland’s speech centered on a push for greater sustainability throughout the international community. She advocated for greater development and implementation of electric vehicles, a move away from reliance on fossil fuels and more taxes on carbon emissions. Brundtland also said developed nations must uplift the developing world to truly make an environmental impact.
“Sustainable energy enables people to move from poverty to prosperity while protecting our air, our water, and our land,” Brundtland said. “It also, in many cases, is essential to improve maternal health, expand business opportunities, and to promote education.”
While Brundtland commended the United States for improving its environmental policy since the election of President Joe Biden, she advocated for greater taxes on carbon dioxide emissions in the country, citing the “polluter pays principle,” the idea that carbon dioxide producers should cover the costs of managing their own pollution.
She said environmentalism must also collaborate with industries and development to solve poverty, one of the root issues of pollution.
“You cannot deal with the whole issue of the trends affecting humanity and the planet if you don’t have a holistic world view,” Brundtland said.
She cited the war in Ukraine as another issue facing sustainability. The war has exacerbated reliance on fossil fuels, particularly coal mines; however, Brundtland said she believed this increased reliance will result in a positive shift toward more reliable renewable energy sources.
“Last year, painstakingly, we learned a lesson about being too dependent on fossil fuels and on dependence on peaceful collaboration with a large neighboring country,” Brundtland said. “But the situation has increased the pace of change toward a greener renewable economy. Renewable energy is gaining ground globally.”
Global interdependence was a central theme in Brundtland’s discussion of the COVID-19 pandemic as well. She criticized international governments’ responses to the pandemic, saying she believed they acted too slowly and neglected world health.
“The spread of a new coronavirus changed our world, and humanity was not well prepared, although these risks had been made very clear,” Brundtland said.
Among other factors, the pandemic worsened the trend of decreasing public trust in governments, science, and in humanity, Brundtland said.
“The pandemic, economic uncertainty, political polarization, racial discrimination, climate change, wars, and inequities have accelerated a generalized erosion of trust in government institutions, as well as in science,” she said. “This is creating both anxiety and stress, and at the core of many social problems is a profound lack of trust and belonging.”
Trust has been a central element of Brundtland’s career as a world leader. She said that gathering a diverse group of individuals with variety in both their areas of expertise and their cultural backgrounds was an important factor in creating various coalitions throughout her life.
“We need experts who have deep knowledge in a narrow field. And we need experts in many narrow views, but more than anything, we need those who are able to sync across sectors,” Brundtland said.
For Augustana University students, interconnectedness, human trust, and interdisciplinary collaboration were some of the most impactful parts of Brundtland’s speech.
Sophomore Sammie Kross, a senior environmental studies major, and junior Janae Becher, a biochemistry and German major and the president of Augie Green, Augustana’s environmental club, were both elected to host a Q&A with Brundtland at the end of her speech. Both said Brundtland’s words on collaboration affected them most.
“I think my biggest takeaway is just being willing to step out of my comfort zone,” Kross said. “Not in just the realm of sustainability and environmentalism but in the ideas of asking to collaborate with people you don’t normally work with.”
Becher said she felt Brundtland’s advice will help her as she pursues a career in the environmental sciences.
“To be a successful leader, you need to be able to recognize that you need people from all of those different disciplines and that you need to utilize them,” Becher said.
Senior Kaja Kleppe Salemonsen, a Spanish and government major, said she was most moved by Brundtland’s words on the erosion of public trust.
“The things she mentioned about trusting other people was really eye opening,” Salemonsen said. “It kind of shocked me, just how the trust in the society has decreased so much since she started her political career and how it probably is still. That is something I’m really going to take with me.”
Despite dire environmental and humanitarian circumstances around the world, Brundtland’s speech remained optimistic. She continuously emphasized the need for a holistic approach to environmentalism to secure the Earth for the good of humanity.
“The reality is that the world we share, the world we all influence, is a common responsibility,” Brundtland said.