Prime Minister and Environmentalist Gro Harlem Brundtland

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Gro Harlem Brundtland, prominent environmentalist and first woman to be elected Prime Minister of Norway speaks with Bill Moyers about women in politics and the sense of environmental urgency facing policymakers today.


GRO HARLEM BRUNDTLAND: Many people in the richer countries understand that in order to increase even the markets, even gaining more profits, we need not a starving world. That is not a market.

BILL MOYERS: In this half hour a conversation with the Prime Minister of Norway. I’m Bill Moyers.

In 1981 Gro Harlem Brundtland became the first woman to be elected prime minister of Norway. Her political career’s been marked by a zest for social reform and an active role in changing the status of women in Norwegian politics. I caught up with Dr. Brundtland in Oslo where she was a delegate to an international conference on hate. A familiar voice in the international arena, Brundtland was appointed Chair of the World Commission on Environment and Development by the United Nations in 1984. Under her mandate the report Our Common Future was published, a blueprint for an international ethic of environmentally sound development. It quickly became known worldwide as the Brundtland Report. She remains in the vanguard of environmentalism and development. In 1990 she received both the Indira Gandhi prize for Peace, Disarmament, and Development, and the Noel Foundation Award for International Leadership. Since our conversation Gro Harlem Brundtland has been called upon to form a new labor government beginning her third tenure as Norway’s Prime Minister.

Do you see any evidence, any significant evidence that women around the world, particularly in the developing nations are achieving some of the power that you represent here in Norway? It’s just been ten years since you set out to change the masculine culture of Norway, right? You’ve faced a lot of opposition.

GRO HARLEM BRUNDTLAND: Well, it was not easy to be the first female Prime Minister, that’s true, because people have their upbringing, what they take for granted, the culture is theirs. Anything that is new and different always has counter effects in some way.

BILL MOYERS: What were you up against? What kind of attitudes, what kind of response? Were you mocked? Were you ridiculed? Were you ignored?

GRO HARLEM BRUNDTLAND: It was used deliberately for political purposes of opposition parties, because it was easy to stimulate people’s subconscious uncertainty about having something new, about the fact it was a woman, not a man.

BILL MOYERS: But your own personal agenda and the policy of the Labor Party became, to equalize…


BILL MOYERS: …Norwegian society. Every other member of your cabinet became a woman.

GRO HARLEM BRUNDTLAND: Yes, because from a democratic point of view if both sexes are not equally involved in building society, in making impact on society, making political decisions, then you don’t have a democracy.

BILL MOYERS: But could you have done it if your husband had not stayed home?

GRO HARLEM BRUNDTLAND: No. I think my husband made an important contribution by not opposing my becoming Environment Minister at the time, although we have four children. He was helpful in many ways by keeping, sometimes, shorter working hours than he would have done to be able to take care of the family, more than most men of his age were willing to do.

BILL MOYERS: So the change you’re talking about requires attitudinal changes on the part of men, not just relinquishing power, but changing lifestyles.

GRO HARLEM BRUNDTLAND: Yes, but he was tough. He said… and I don’t know how he could be so forward looking, have such foresight… he said, “Yes, I will take over the kind of major role of leading the household and taking care of the children, and so on,” as I had been doing up to that stage. I mean we have both been sharing, but I was the major person up to that moment. And he said, “If I’m taking over that major responsibility I’m doing it my way and not your way.” It was not very many weeks after that I, the first time, had to think, yes, I remember what I promised.

BILL MOYERS: Why, what happened?

GRO HARLEM BRUNDTLAND: I was annoyed in some part of upbringing, the way children were told, you know, and I said…

BILL MOYERS: You didn’t like what he was…

GRO HARLEM BRUNDTLAND: I said, “Look, you shouldn’t do this because of this,” and he said, “Look now I am in the chair. Now I have a kind of right to see how I like to do this.” So, the roles were changed and I had to respect some of the consequences, not being behind him, even so, the chief of the family as I had been.

BILL MOYERS: One of your goals was to change the work week from forty hours to thirty-seven and a half hours and I’m wondering why? Why do two and a half hours make such a difference in the amount of time people work?

GRO HARLEM BRUNDTLAND: It was more a political discussion about the right for women to have shorter work hours in periods where the children are very small and of course to have longer pregnancy leave with a real allowance to make it possible to stay home in the first half…

BILL MOYERS: You got that increased?

GRO HARLEM BRUNDTLAND: We increased it from eighteen weeks to twenty-six weeks during the three years we were in government. But of course my party was also the party pushing the eighteen weeks that were already there. So now we feel that we should increase maybe up to nine months or a year in the future.

BILL MOYERS: For paid maternal leave? For women and for husbands too? For fathers too?

GRO HARLEM BRUNDTLAND: For husbands to take part of it. Now they have a right to take part of it, but probably in the future it will be more partly an obligation too, in our system.

BILL MOYERS: I remember when Geraldine Ferraro was nominated as the vice presidential candidate for the Democratic party I talked to my daughter that night who was a late teenager, a college student and she said, “For the first time I think I might be able to make it one day.” The changing of the symbol changed the possibility.

GRO HARLEM BRUNDTLAND: Yes. And I will tell you a story. It’s really a rather charming one. One day, a couple of weeks after we had a change back to a male Prime Minister in Norway last fall, a small girl, the daughter of a reporter in parliament, had been watching TV and hearing them saying this was the Prime Minister. The small child shouted to her mother saying, “Look. You know what they say on TV? That this man is a Prime Minister, but is it possible for a man to be Prime Minister?” It’s kind of proof of what these kinds of things have influenced on people. This child had the opposite wrong feeling that all of us have had been brought up with, that Prime Ministers are men. She now felt that Prime Ministers had to be women.

BILL MOYERS: Change the image and change the possibilities.

GRO HARLEM BRUNDTLAND: Changing of the opportunity.

BILL MOYERS: One British journalist told me in order to succeed in a man’s world a woman had to act like a man. Do you think there’s any truth to that?

GRO HARLEM BRUNDTLAND: I feel that if you, as a woman, do things that men usually do, for instance, say something very strongly, very clearly, then somebody characterizes that as being not…

BILL MOYERS: …not feminine.

GRO HARLEM BRUNDTLAND: …not feminine. And it is a dangerous thing if what you can call the traditional culture, which has been male and male dominated, cannot be gradually changed to become wider and to incorporate the feminine values, the feminine experiences, traditions, intuition, and so on. So, you must let that have place. But there are men, you know, who more recently, orient themselves in this broader way, and so there are men carrying the broader types of sentiments and perspectives that many people couple with a more feminine world.

BILL MOYERS: Yours is one of the earliest names connected with the global environmental movement going back to when you became Environmental Minister in 1974?


BILL MOYERS: Was it a popular portfolio in Norway? Had many people paid attention to environmental affairs?

GRO HARLEM BRUNDTLAND: You know we had, in the sixties, a considerable interest in securing areas for people for leisure and free time, conservation of nature movement, there was a clear willingness to look at some of the values of the non-ruined environment. But the more advanced discussions about basic changes of production and consumption patterns and the way we can, in the future, can use resources and avoid undermining the future, that kind of discussion was really not there before into the seventies.

BILL MOYERS: How much impact did Chernobyl have on Norwegians living here so close to the Soviet Union?

GRO HARLEM BRUNDTLAND: I think it had a direct influence because the Norwegian health authorities and the Norwegian government had to take direct decisions on taking meat off the market, making regulations for years, even making new subsidies to types of feeding reindeer and sheep to reduce more quickly the radiation result. So, of course it became very direct on Norwegians, the Norwegian peasant community and the Norwegian people.

BILL MOYERS: Chernobyl happened while you were working on your commission. Chernobyl happened, the Bhopal leek of gas killed 2,000 people in India, there was the warehouse fire in Switzerland that caused a lot of chemicals and solvents to go into the Rhine River killing millions of fish, there was a bad explosion and fire in Mexico that killed 1,000 people, 60 million human beings including a lot of children died of diseases during that period, during the 900 days you were doing this. Did you get a sense at times that you were in a race with disaster?

GRO HARLEM BRUNDTLAND: Yes I certainly had that feeling and I think all of us had. It gave clear indications that what seemed to be such a major mandate that we had been given, indeed, was not some kind of naive idealistic kind of philosophical effort, but something that was badly needed. And so, they became, all these disasters, just examples of the dimension of the issue itself. Of course it helped also… I mean there are negative events in all of history but, they did have the effect of opening new eyes, creating new debates, making public opinion much more aware, and making it possible to dialogue. For instance, the whole nuclear discussion became strongly influenced by, of course, by the Chernobyl accident.

BILL MOYERS: The word out of the Soviet Union is that Gorbachev himself was profoundly influenced by what happened at Chernobyl.

GRO HARLEM BRUNDTLAND: I’m sure he was. He told me… when we talked in December of ‘86, was the first time, I could sense that he man had a personal obligation to what he was dealing with and later on, and at this stage the Chernobyl had already happened, and we were discussing that issue.

BILL MOYERS: What’d he say?

GRO HARLEM BRUNDTLAND: Well, he was describing… he knew I was a medical doctor, he was describing the disaster of people being hit and hurt by the consequences and the kinds of dilemmas that industrial societies are facing. He had a personal knowledge and involvement in this that I felt very deeply.

BILL MOYERS: So that accounts for something in the sense of urgency in this? I reread it again this morning. It’s like a knock on the door, or it’s like a horn in the night, it’s like a wind that won’t stop. You’re not just talking about just the seventh generation now from there. You’re talking about immediate…

GRO HARLEM BRUNDTLAND: I’m talking about the coming ten years where we need to keep the momentum of people becoming much more aware of politicians feeling the reality, not only of public pressures, but the reality of what scientists are confirming with regard to the alarming trends we are talking of and to have some basic and very important decisions made in the 1990s.

BILL MOYERS: But you see this is the problem for the laymen. One set of scientists say the climate, the earth is getting warmer and another set of scientists say not necessarily, maybe not at all. What does the layman do? What does the politician do in the face of conflicting scientific evidence?

GRO HARLEM BRUNDTLAND: You sometimes have to take a stand on what among the voices, what is the strength of the message, what is the seriousness, or what has been told to you. You cannot just say I’m not a scientist so I can’t make my evaluation because then you are not a political leader. We are making decisions all the time, either changing patterns of production and consumption or we are not making them. If we are not making them we are also taking the responsibility of the result.

BILL MOYERS: But most politicians live so immediately in the present, satisfying constituents whose interests are in gratification now, that it becomes very difficult for politicians to make the long term choices that require delayed gratification in order to act on…

GRO HARLEM BRUNDTLAND: I’m sorry to say you are right. I mean, this is part of the dilemma of democracy too. You are describing a situation that faces every politician all over the world. He needs to, or she needs to have a popular base, needs to be able to convince his constituency about what he’s doing and that he’s doing the right thing. Now, if you have very short terms, if you don’t have something that binds politicians together, not only being individuals that can base themselves only on what they are able to convey or create as support in their own constituency, then obviously all these separate voices of different types of thinking can never make a policy. And that means that many politicians have, in some way, to make some common evaluations of important issues in order to have a party platform. People, much more than today, have to know that democracy is dependent upon responsible human beings, individuals. They cannot leave only to the politicians to take care of the responsibility for the future because they need the backing of people who are concerned even for the next generation. So again, democracy works both ways. People are, in the end, are responsible for what politicians they choose and for what society they make, and for the future.

BILL MOYERS: It’s been three years since you finished Our Common Future and you did create a lot of dialogue. Have you been able to get across a working definition of sustainable development? I mean, that idea runs throughout the report, but it hasn’t yet in my country, caught on in a popular way. What do you mean by it?

GRO HARLEM BRUNDTLAND: We have defined it as a type of development which meets the needs of the present generations without compromising or undermining the rights of future generations to meet their needs, not to lose their ability to make their choices and to live on and to use the natural resources which are there on this globe without we having destroyed them because we misuse them.

BILL MOYERS: So the future generations can also have a quality of life that is not miserable.

GRO HARLEM BRUNDTLAND: Yes. It is not acceptable that we take out resources and use water and air as waste baskets in such a way that our grandchildren cannot live on this earth. Then, how do you do it?

BILL MOYERS: And what are the changes?

GRO HARLEM BRUNDTLAND: And what kinds of changes, and how can you talk to people who are used to investing and to think of profits and to make industries who are used to a global economy where you can look for the cheapest raw material, the cheapest way to produce, and the best markets? Now, that’s the general market economy of today’s world. Now, what do you do then? The market in every country is controlled. It has some frameworks and countries differ. But all countries have made laws and rules of the game to protect people. You have traffic rules. You are not allowed to put all the pollution directly into the air, nearly in any country. And all of this has to be agreed globally so the total sum of destruction does not surpass the globe’s ability to cope. Now the world has turned to a stage where these national barriers are not enough within which each countries’ people decides for their themselves whether they are going to mess up the atmosphere because that atmosphere is spreading all over the other countries. If the rest of the world does what the industrialized nations have done for decades, increasing our economy and our living standards in economic terms by using the air as a free good then everyone else is going to do the same and we are going to suffocate, so what do we do?

BILL MOYERS: Your report points out if the developing countries reach the energy usage of the present industrialized countries it will require an increase of the output of a factor of five and that the ecology cannot sustain that.


BILL MOYERS: But you say, you hit the moral issue right there. The people in the developing country say, “But you’re asking us…


BILL MOYERS: …not to use our forests in the same way that you’ve already used yours. You, in America, have already cut down your forest in order to achieve a high standard of living and now you’re telling us not to cut down our forest, not to use our resources?”

GRO HARLEM BRUNDTLAND: And they will not listen. I can tell you they will not listen with that message alone. Obviously if we are not now willing to pay part of the bill for all the free use of nature that all our countries have based our economic growth on, then we will not have technology and finances to bridge the gap to those developing countries which have that choice today.

BILL MOYERS: What do you mean by that?

GRO HARLEM BRUNDTLAND: They will ask us…if we don’t get a climate fund or some kind of financial mechanism that pays part of the bill when we ask the Chinese not to make refrigerators because they are then going to ruin the ozone layer with their one billion people, they will say to us, ‘If we are going to do that we want your technology for free, or we want you to pay part of what we have to pay more because you are asking us not to do what you did yourself.” We have all gone through the stage of polluting the air by using that old technology and the Chinese can say, “We are going to the same until we are rich enough to pay your cleaner technology.” If we need the Chinese not to do that for our own sake we have to pay part of the bill, not their bill, but our bill which we didn’t pay in the decades behind us because we didn’t know the danger of what we were doing. I think you can have economic growth with a sustainable development pattern if we make cleaner technologies, if we change the production systems, if we make the political decisions to move industry to find better solutions, they will be able to if they are put under political pressure to do so. For instance, we need agreements on making the tax system help us to avoid undermining the future, help us…

BILL MOYERS: How’s that? How?

GRO HARLEM BRUNDTLAND: …to avoid pollution, help us to…

BILL MOYERS: Put a tax on pollution?

GRO HARLEM BRUNDTLAND:…avoid using too much energy. Yes. If we don’t move in the direction of changing the tax system so that it influences our own consumption and production pattern, then regulation will be much more difficult.

BILL MOYERS: In the United States though, individual freedom is interpreted as freedom from restraint. While I agree with what you’re saying I see a very serious political, as well as philosophical problem, in my country and some of the West where economic freedom is tantamount to individual freedom.

GRO HARLEM BRUNDTLAND: I think you’re right. It is really a problem, but I know that American parents don’t want drunken drivers. They would, probably in a majority, stand up, if that was made a real issue, and say, “We want rules and we want people to be taken if they have alcohol in their blood and if you can see that many children are killed on the road.” That’s the kind of freedom to be feeling reasonably safe for your child which is part of freedom as well. And this is the case; the freedom to breathe clean air is a right of the individual and how do you get clean air if you define the right to pollute as equal as the right to breathe clean air. We have to make choice.

BILL MOYERS: You’re talking about a new ethic. That’s what the report called it.

GRO HARLEM BRUNDTLAND: It’s a new ethic, yes.

BILL MOYERS: What’s the first step toward it?

GRO HARLEM BRUNDTLAND: You know it’s not in the interest even among the richest American that his grandchild, or his child even, will not be able to get away from the cancer or the destruction of breathing dirty air. He cannot get any place on this globe where there’s a sanctuary where only he and the rich people can breathe clean air. So, we are in it together and we have to find those solutions.

BILL MOYERS: Does one have to come from a small prosperous, homogenous, safe nation today to be an optimist?

GRO HARLEM BRUNDTLAND: No, I don’t think so. It’s probably also something you are born with or brought up to be. But it’s probably easier maybe to try to work along the lines of building more of an international community if you ask members of a small nation, see and feel the necessity as strongly as you do when you don’t have the power or the strength of a major nation to build on, but have to build on the sum of many people’s common efforts in order to see a solution.

BILL MOYERS: From Oslo, this has been a conversation with Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland. I’m Bill Moyers.

This transcript was entered on April 3, 2015.

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