Mrs Brundtland has featured pretty large in my life.

I first met her (at some kind of a conference) in 1988, just one year after the publication of Our Common Future – more familiarly known as the Brundtland Report. I don’t think any other single report has had such a profound and prolonged impact on the world of sustainability since then.

She was in London at the time to promote Our Common Future. I can’t remember if she met Mrs Thatcher on that occasion, but she had spent two whole days with her two years previously, in 1986, when Mrs Thatcher was visiting Prime Minister Brundtland in Norway.

I was Director of Friends of the Earth in the UK at that time, and we were pursuing full-on our acid rain campaign – seeking to put an end to the pollution caused by emissions of NOx and SOx from our coal-fired power stations. And it has to be said that Mrs Thatcher had been totally dismissive of our concerns before her visit to Norway – which was of course one of the countries most seriously affected by that chronic pollution. All I can tell you is that there was a marked change of heart after her two days with Mrs Brundtland!

I’ve written a lot over the years about the Brundtland Report. About the reluctance on the part of the big conservation / environment NGOs to give equal weight to social justice issues – and reluctance on the part of the big aid and development NGOs even to start addressing environmental issues (at that time) as critical to their agenda. About the single most important conclusion of the Brundtland Report: that these are two sides of the same coin. And about its extraordinary impact on geopolitical issues since then – starting with the creation of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the Earth Summit in 1992 (a formal recommendation of the Brundtland Report), the Kyoto Protocol, the establishment of the Commission on Sustainable Development in New York, and so on, via all sorts of convoluted twists and turns, to the adoption of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals in September last year. You can track that 28-year story, step by step, all the way back to the 1987 Brundtland Report.

It’s always been a matter of some astonishment to me that so few environmentalists really embrace the idea of sustainable development. If they think about economic models at all, they sort-of reckon that we can tweak our current version of capitalism to make it a bit less damaging in terms of the natural world, and a bit more inclusive in terms of poverty and social injustice. The Brundtland Report didn’t get it all right (it too was firmly located in the conventional economic growth paradigm), but it provided so compelling an overview that no environmental organisation should ever again have thought about its mission and objectives in the same way. No such luck!

Mrs Brundtland’s own career epitomises the more integrated approach that sustainable development demands. Health (working as a GP before going into politics, and then doing five years as Director-General of the World Health Organization after she quit politics), economic development and human rights have all been as important to her throughout her life as the environment per se. I saw that for myself back in 1994, when she fell out big time with Benazir Bhutto (then Prime Minister of Pakistan) at the Global Population Summit in Cairo. Brundtland had trenchantly criticised all those who refused to support the right of women to manage their own fertility – including the right to choose an abortion if they felt that was the right thing for them.

“Morality becomes hypocrisy if it means mothers suffering or dying in connection with unwanted pregnancies and illegal abortions of unwanted children.”

And she’s still as outspoken – and almost as active – as she was back then. She’s currently a UN Special Envoy on Climate Change, a Board Member of the United Nations Foundation, and a Director of the Council of Women World Leaders.

In other words, even if she has always supported commercial whaling(!), she’s pretty bloody amazing. So it was a real treat to end up having dinner with her after the Awards Ceremony, and re-visiting some of those early struggles in the 1980s and 90s.