Caring for a small planet: lessons from pastoralists for Stockholm+50

This week, our exhibition Seeing Pastoralism is being shown at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, part of the events around the Stockholm+50 conference.

Fifty years ago, Barbara Ward and René Dubos published Only One Earth: The Care and Maintenance of a Small Planet. It emerged from consultations from across the world and became the unofficial report for the 1972 United Nations Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment. The 26 principles agreed by the conference highlighted the interdependence of environmental care and development, together with the importance of peace.

These principles are as relevant today as they were then. The Stockholm+50 conference on 2-3 June re-emphasises the urgency of addressing the intersecting crises of climate change, biodiversity loss and environmental pollution.

Seeing pastoralism

Pastoralism – extensive, often mobile livestock production in rangelands – offers vital lessons for sustainability and development. Too often dismissed as destructive, backward and need of ‘modernisation’, pastoralists can show the way in the global challenge of caring for a small planet.

The Seeing Pastoralism exhibition emerges from the work of the PASTRES research programme, and includes photographs and stories from six countries across three continents. The images highlight how pastoralists navigate the uncertainties of highly variable environments, assuring sustainability through a range of caring practices.

Responding to uncertainty

Eight themes were identified from the photographs taken by both pastoralists and researchers as part of a participatory approach exploring questions of uncertainty and sustainability.

When confronted with shocks and stresses – whether of environmental or economic conditions – pastoralists show diversification in their livelihoods, drawing on social relations and networks to create moral economies of care. Such responses often require mobility, connecting resources and people over time and space. In order to adapt to changing environments, a range of technologies are assembled, different formal and informal markets are used and negotiating authority is continuous. Such practices shape identities and allow livelihoods to persist in the face of uncertainty.   

Lessons from pastoralists

Together these themes represent the key ingredients for generating sustainability under conditions of uncertainty. Lessons from pastoralists from around the world offer insights into how we can all care for our small planet.

  • Pastoralists are experts at negotiating uncertainties, whether from climate shocks or from changes in resources or markets.
  • Pastoralists are accomplished guardians of the environment, enhancing biodiversity and improving rangelands through flexible, mobile management of livestock.
  • Pastoralists offer a low-carbon, low-impact alternative to intensive, industrial production systems, providing high quality protein and other nutrients from extensive rangelands.  

Fifty years after the original Stockholm conference, the twin challenges of environment and development remain, but learning lessons from the margins – including from pastoralists – must be central to developing strategies for the future.

Selected images from the exhibition Seeing Pastoralism will be exhibited at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, starting on 30 May 2022, as part of the Stockholm+50 affiliated programme. You can view the exhibition live in the lobby of the Stockholm Resilience Centre at Kräftriket 2B, Stockholm. To see the full exhibition online, visit

Featured image: herders in southern Tunisia / Linda Pappagallo

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