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Taking the Natural Step
Every journey into the future begins by taking the next step forward. Humanity appears to be taking those next steps without any idea of the destination, and if government and industry have a long-range plan, they most often have tied it to pure economic considerations, the bottom line, without regard for long-term social or environmental concerns. Most individuals live more day to day or paycheque to paycheque than with the thoughts of future generations or their own future. What if, however, scientists could come to a consensus on a list of fundamental principles of sustainability? And if such a list of principles were to be developed, what if government, industry, citizens and non-governmental organizations cooperated in bringing society in accord with those principles? Many would say that such an idea is, at best, social/science fiction. But in Sweden, fiction has become reality, and a movement known as The Natural Step has taken root and is now spreading worldwide.
The Natural Step is the culmination of work by Dr Karl-Henrik Robčrt, one of Sweden's leading cancer researchers and former head of the nation's top cancer institute. In the late 1980s, Dr Robčrt became disheartened by the quality and focus of the environmental debate: "We are running around looking for knowledge, but we are drowning in information. This is the problem." He recalls, "Couldn't we agree upon something, and see how much we could start doing on that basis. That is when I became a slave to what became The Natural Step."
"Up to now," he noted, "much of the debate over the environment has had the character of monkey chatter amidst the withering leaves [representing specific, isolated problems] of a dying tree.... In the midst of all this chatter, very few of us have been paying attention to the environment's trunk and branches....We must learn to deal with environmental problems at the systemic level; if we heal the trunk and the branches, the benefits for the leaves will follow naturally."
Robèrt then drafted a set of consensus principles that could provide a basis for effective action. He circulated the draft to leading scientists, ("f there is anything that unites professors, it's that they can't help finding errors in what others have done," commented Robčrt) asking them to identify what was wrong or missing from the argument. He then revised and recirculated the list, never defending a point of view, but rather asking, listening and continually revising. After repeating the review process 21 times, Robèrt had the basic fundamental concepts.
"The living cell is our common link to each other and to the rest of nature. Plant cells are also the engines of production in the biosphere and the foundation of our economic activities. The cell is only concerned with the conditions necessary for sustaining and propagating life. It also reminds us that we are inescapably a part of nature. There is much less difference between the cell of a human and that of a plant than is commonly understood.... It is very clear that, from a biological standpoint, we are not the masters of nature, nor even its caretakers. We are part of nature.
"Material value is produced by concentrating and structuring matter into useful forms. Yet due to the law of nature that everything disperses (the second law of thermodynamics); all productive activities will always cause greater dispersal and disruption elsewhere. Plant cells are the engine for creating value in the biosphere since only they can oppose the tide of constant decay by using energy from the sun. The other law of nature, nothing disappears (the law of conservation of matter), shows how every atom has only two choices: it either becomes new resources or accumulating junk.
"Over the past three and a half billion years living cells have processed matter in natural cycles, transforming the original toxic stew into a clean, diverse biosphere. For roughly the past hundred years, humans have been disrupting the cyclical processes of nature at an accelerating pace. All human societies are, in varying degrees, now processing natural resources in a linear direction. Our resources are being rapidly transformed into useless garbage, some of which is obvious to the naked eye, but most of which escapes awareness. The smaller portion can be seen in garbage dumps and other visible waste. By far the larger portion can be thought of as molecular garbage — consisting of the vast quantities of tiny particles that are daily spewed out into the earth's air, water and soil.... This is evolution in reverse. Adapting our societies to cyclical processes is a non-negotiable requirement if we want to keep our health and prosperity.
"The ultimate consequences of all this are impossible to foretell. The complexity of ecosystems is so great that we do not know the tolerance levels for any of the thousands of kinds of molecular garbage; it is even more difficult to anticipate how they will interact with each other. In addition, it often takes a long time for the consequences to appear: The effects of today's pollution will not become evident until tomorrow.... We have lost control, and are moving backwards in evolution.
"The only processes that we can rely on indefinitely are cyclical; all linear processes must eventually come to an end.... We have lost control, and are moving backwards in evolution. The extinction of species, deforestation, the greenhouse effect, acid rain, and all the other assaults on nature are but different aspects of the same mistake — increased reliance on linear processes. To argue about the cost of that restoration borders on the absurd. The question is not how much it will cost, but rather how much it will cost to hide in ignorance and wait for the problem to become even bigger. It may have been possible to postpone payment for a few decades, but now the bills are starting to pile up.
"Most public environmental debate is preoccupied with such relatively minor details. This happens whenever we fail to proceed from a basic frame of reference, or overview, which makes it possible to focus on the fundamental issues without getting lost in a confusion of isolated details.... In all areas of activity we need positive models showing practical steps toward a cyclic sustainable society. To provide an attractive role model these good examples should be economically and ecologically sound, and capable of being further developed.... Positive examples are an extremely powerful force for change, and it takes only a small proportion of a population — perhaps as little as 15% — to stimulate dramatic improvements. With the right leadership, Berlin Walls can fall, and bleached paper products can be replaced by less harmful alternatives.
These basic concepts Robèrt boiled down into a single principle:
There must be as much reconstruction of material as there is consumption. Excess waste must not accumulate in nature.
From this principle, Robèrt derived a set of four basic system conditions upon which true sustainability can be built:
1. Substances from the earth's crust must not systematically increase in nature.
Fossil fuels, metals and other minerals must not be extracted from the earth at a pace faster than their redeposition into the earth's crust. Otherwise, quality will be lost due to the inevitable spread of wastes and their accumulation toward often unknown limits beyond which irreversible changes occur. Even if we recycle almost all of a substance, 95% for example, some (5%) escapes into nature in every cycle. Thus, some of the substance remains dispersed in the environment and its concentration continues to build.
2. Substances produced by society must not systematically increase in nature.
Human-manufactured substances must not be produced at a faster pace than they can be broken down in nature or deposited into the earth's crust. Otherwise, quality will be lost due to the inevitable spread of substances and their accumulation toward often unknown limits beyond which irreversible changes occur.
3. Nature cannot withstand a systematic deterioration of its productivity and diversity.
The renewal capacity of nature must not be diminished in quality or quantity, and we must not harvest from nature at a rate greater than natural production. Our health and prosperity depend on the capacity of nature to reconcentrate and restructure wastes into resources. For example, we cannot take more fish from the sea than are reborn. We cannot turn tracts of forest into desert in a systematic linear exploitation because it negatively effects the health and productive capacity of the whole ecosystem.
4. If life as we know it is to continue, humanity must commit to a just and efficient use of energy and resources.
Basic human needs must be met with the most efficient use of energy and environmental resources possible. This includes the just distribution of resources among all nations and peoples. This is necessary to achieve social stability and cooperation so that we may attain long-term survival for humanity.
Robèrt believes that these four conditions are not negotiable. If the above conditions are met, nature will eventually heal the damage we have inflicted on it. And then, humanity may rejoin the global cycles of renewal. Robèrt feels that we must look at the problems as a tree trunk, its branches and leaves. The trunk is the basic principle that we must not consume more than is reconstituted. The four branches are the four system conditions that we can compare our actions against. And the leaves are the thousands of stories of what happens when we exceed the thresholds in nature.
While Robèrt is not the first to attempt to derive a set of basic ecological principles by which human society must abide, his work struck a responsive chord in his native Sweden. Perhaps, it was as much his approach as the resulting four principles. "Our method," says Robèrt, " is that first we educate business leaders, politicians, scientists in the four system conditions, and then we ask them for advice. Instead of telling them what to do, we say, "How could this be applied in your business or in your world?" That allows them to put the leaves on the tree themselves, to put the details onto this basic structure which is non-negotiable. This sparks creativity, and recruits enthusiasm into the process instead of defense mechanisms."
Robèrt feels, "Any expert in his field of expertise is much more clever than you are. If you give him the overall principles, therefore, and then ask him for advice instead of telling him what to do, he finds much smarter solutions than Greenpeace or I or anybody can do. And we are very much in need of practical, creative solutions.
The twenty-second version became Robèrt's final report. Now, Dr Robèrt had a document which satisfied his goal of distilling the environmental problem into basic principles. But that was just the end of stage one. Now he had to find a way to spread the message. Seeing the process as a networking of people rather than the building of a new organization, Robèrt built networks wherever he could. He phoned one of Sweden's best loved artists Lillian Fosch and told her: "I and all these scientists were going to educate the whole country, would she please help us celebrate it on TV if we succeeded?" And she replied: "Of course! And who else would you like?"
Robèrt phoned other people up and said that he and Lillian Fosch would like them to take part, and they responded: "Certainly, if you have already succeeded at doing all that, I will take part!" He went to the Swedish national education department and told them that he and all these artists and scientists from the Swedish universities would like to put on this educational campaign. Would they like to have it distributed free to the schools and take part when it hit the whole nation? And they said, "Well, that's very exciting! Certainly we would like to take part in it."
Next Robèrt went to Swedish TV and informed them that he and all the artists and scientists and a big governmental office wanted to educate the whole Swedish people, and they would like to have a party on TV celebrating it. And Swedish TV said, "Certainly. How could we refuse if you succeed with all these other things? What would be the best date?"
From there he went to the King of Sweden, and asked him if he would like to endorse the project. King Gustaf agreed.
"You can understand that I slept worse and worse the longer I did this, because I was building a tremendous program without any money at all," Robèrt remembers. "I was really nervous by the time I approached the sponsors. But on the other hand, by the time they saw it, it was like a parcel with a ribbon on it. It was so concrete, with dates and everything, that they understood that if they didn't buy this now, this crazy chap would take it to someone else!"
So that citizens and students could learn the concepts of sustainability as developed in the report, Robèrt and his team prepared an educational packet consisting of a booklet and audiotape and distributed 4.3 million packets — one to every household and school in the country — with financing (costing some 40 million Kroner) by a central group of ten large Swedish corporations. They then developed a board game to further teach the concepts. By the autumn of 1996, 40,000 orders had been placed for the game.
When Sweden's most famous artists and celebrities went on television to promote and celebrate the launch of this remarkable national project, much of Sweden's business community quickly joined the movement.
The ultimate purpose of Robèrt's work is to find common ground where all sorts of people can meet. Therefore to further spread the message, in 1989, he established The Natural Step Foundation.
The Foundation quickly built networks of professionals including scientists, business leaders, engineers, artists, architects, agriculturalists, teachers, environmental activists, nurses and lawyers. It produced a training program for businesses and local government authorities in ecological systems thinking and established annual environmental awards to companies that take bold and visionary actions.
The Foundation enlists, it does not judge. The beauty of The Natural Step is that it does not assign blame, it simply explains that there are fundamental realities to living within the Earth's biosphere. When those realities are violated, there will be consequences. The more severe the violation of these laws, the more profound the environmental impact. When lessons are not learned, they become more painful. And pain always gets our attention.
Dr. Robèrt takes a non-judgmental, non-blaming, personally empowering approach to the companies, governments and schools that he works with. "As soon as we see an enemy, we ask him for advice. We say, "Would you please help us to sort out this problem?" When you get the answer, very rarely is it a threat to what you want to do. ...Very rarely does he want to stop you from bringing about good powers to fight for the future." Robèrt observes: "But by asking him for advice instead, you learn that he was not a threat at all! And by following his advice, two things happen: first, he has part of the responsibility for it now, because it's his advice you are following; and secondly, the project generally improves — because most people have rather good ideas!"
Robèrt's approach diffuses the confrontational atmosphere that so often characterizes environmental debates. Instead, he asks a series of questions. Does the action:
In other words, " Does the action being considered violate any of The Natural Step's four system principles?" If the action does violate any one of the principles, a problem is clearly identified, and solutions or alternative actions can then be sought. Since many environmentally-sound technologies are already available, the pace of transition to cyclical processes is limited only by our spirit of sacrifice and our will to act. The longer we delay, the more painful the sacrifices we will have to make. Solution then becomes purely a matter of will.
According to Robèrt: "To greater or lesser degrees, all countries have introduced the same kinds of systemic errors into their societies, and population growth means that more and more people are expanding on the same mistakes. Natural resources are wasted in linear processes, and molecular garbage is exported across international boundaries. However, there is not much point in waiting for international agreements to restore cyclical processes. The first steps must be taken by dedicated individuals, businesses, and governments who are ready and willing to take the initiative.
Business commonly perceives environmentally sound processes and products as having a high unit costs. Many in the business sector use this as an argument for doing nothing. Therefore, businesses must see that it is good business to take the long-term view, that environmental consequences are an important aspect of a total business decision. What are the business costs to a company that destroys a community due to toxic run off? Is the improper processing of waste materials a good business decision just because it "makes money" in the short term?
In an attempt to break down that mode of thinking and corporate foot-dragging, The Natural Step movement started a national scheme called The Challenge. Initially, The Challenge
The Challenge charged these companies to coordinate their work towards an ecologically sustainable society. Because of their size, the ten largest Challenge
There have already been several outstanding examples under The Challenge of successful cooperation. In one example, Gripen, the conglomerate that owns Kähr's floor products, struck a deal with Scandic Hotels, one of Europe's largest hotel groups, to discontinue all plastic materials in floorings. Eventually wooden floors will be laid down in Scandic hotels across Europe. This will bring down the price of Gripen's wooden floors and make them affordable to others. Because all things have repercussions, this market pressure will force the plastics industry to finally realize that it must stop using non-biodegradable compounds in its flooring products.
Cooperating corporations eventually pressure those who stand outside the circle to join them or fail. IKEA and Swedish Rail struck an innovative deal which drastically cuts down on movement of materials and products by road. In response, one of Europe's largest trucking companies, Bilspedition, rather than acting in anger, assumed the role of a logistics expert in the shipping scheme. The cooperative goal will carry long-distance freight by train and make only the shorter journeys between rail line and destination by truck. Taking the concept one step further, Bilspedition plans to rely increasingly on biofuels in its trucks. This will ally them with OK Petroleum who have decided to make an investment in biofuel technology and are actively lobbying the Swedish government to raise taxes on non-renewable fossil fuels.
OK Petroleum is well placed to take a lead in the biofuel market, and it wants the government to recognize that the change-over from fossil fuels is irrevocable. It is not a question of if but when the changes are made. The Swedish forestry and agriculture industries will be vital components for biofuel production; therefore, the Federation of Swedish Farmers working within the network of Natural Step scientists has produced a consensus document on land-use in the sustainable society. As part of this drive, the Federation has started a campaign to make Swedish agriculture the cleanest in the world. For example, the use of pesticides will be cut by 75% by 1999. The organization is pressuring the government to clean up its sewage-treatment plants to make the slurry, which currently contain high levels of heavy metals, available for agricultural use.
More than 25 of the largest Swedish corporations have already changed their operations and production processes in keeping with The Natural Step principles. IKEA, now produces a line of furniture containing no metal or non-biodegradable glues and provides its entire workforce, as well as its suppliers, with basic environmental training. ICA, a major supermarket chain and user of commercial refrigerators, began a dialogue with Electrolux that resulted in the elimination of chlorinated compounds from their coolants. With the creation of an environmentally sound alternative, Electrolux became the world leader in the production of environmentally safe refrigeration technology. Now, instead of competing with all the other refrigeration companies to sell harmful technology, Electrolux has become the world's leader in sales of a clean technology, an outcome good for business and good for the environment.
Karl-Henrik Robčrt has often stressed that we have to help our politicians. For all their protestations to the contrary, there are many times when they simply do not know what to do. Dr Robčrt suggests that it is probably futile to expect central government to initiate effective environmental reform. Therefore, the Foundation has channeled much of its effort into programs with local governments, which tend to be less hampered by partisan political bickering. An initial network of 17 municipal eco-councils has expanded to 40. Over two million Swedes, a quarter of the total population, now live in municipalities committed to sustainable development. Pressurized by this growing culture of sustainability, the national government ordered each of the country's 286 municipalities to draw up sustainable action plans.
Dozens of local governments have already created goals for environmental improvement and built voluntary agreements with residents, retailers and manufacturers to help meet those goals. For example, in order to reduce the strain on municipal water treatment systems, municipalities are educating residents to shop for cleaning products that release less toxic and lower nutrient loads into the waters. At the same time, local retailers are encouraging their suppliers to come up with cleaner products. This stream of public influence complements environmental education in the business community, which in turn complements traditional environmental regulations. The synergy of government, industry and the public has shown that action by the whole is greater than action by any of its parts alone. One result of this synergy is the virtual elimination of chlorine-bleached paper products from store shelves in an impressive four years.
Borlänge kommun, a Swedish city of 47,000 received the top prize in the first annual national Environmental Competition endorsed by King Gustaf. Forty-nine communities took part in the competition. Borlänge has embarked on a city-wide program of heating with renewable energy resources. In a few years all garbage, including industrial, will be sorted. The schools teach sustainability and all local government politicians get training in sustainability and cyclic thinking. Although many other Swedish cities devised a similar program as Borlänge, the degree of change required because of the city's heavy industry base won the competition.
A vital component in the philosophy of The Natural Step is that effective solutions will not come from government; solutions can only come from people who are applying all their skills to foster solutions. The best way to spread the movement, according to Robèrt, is by seeing good examples functioning brilliantly all around us and by education. Thus, many The Natural Step initiatives in Sweden are aimed at schools and youth. The Youth Parliament for the Environment is an educational program that has been running in Sweden since 1989. In 1995, for the first time, the project went international. Pupils from Finland, Denmark, England, Ireland, Holland and Switzerland took part in the two-day event. In all, there were 150,000 participants from schools in seven countries, communicating by fax, phones and email.
The movement is spreading, The Natural Step won the Institute for Social Inventions main award for 1991. The Council for Posterity has begun to encourage a similar movement in the UK. The Netherlands, New Zealand, Australia, Norway and Denmark have established The Natural Step movement. In the United States, economists like Paul Hawken, Herman Daly and Peter Senge are enthusiastic about the potential of The Natural Step method in training an ecologically conscious generation of business leaders. Peter Senge, author of The Fifth Discipline has described The Natural Step as one of the best learning organizations in the world.
In March, 1995, CEOs from the ten core Challenge companies met the Swedish Prime Minister to tell him that the goal of continual economic growth was an illusion and that now was the time to focus on the development of sustainable business.
Robèrt believes that the solutions in society will come from islands within organizations, islands of people with integrity who want to do something. They will expand and they will become more and more powerful. " It's like the Trojan Horse. In a big oil company, for example, I know that there are people with integrity who think about the future, who want to protect kids, who would like to do something. We can use their skills to do something within the company. We educate them when we find them."
Robèrt continues: "There appears to be a growing core of thoughtful decision-makers who understand that the time to act is now. Whether we want to help others or ourselves, to conduct our affairs ethically or compete in tomorrow's markets, the possibility of success rides on the shoulders of well-informed business and political leaders who are supported in their efforts to base the foundations of society on natural laws. A strategy for achieving that goal can be derived from a multi-disciplinary scientific consensus. Above all, it is necessary to cure our addiction to the false, short-sighted economies of linear processes, and to restore the health of nature and society by investing every available resource in cyclical processes.
"The ultimate purpose is to find the common ground where all sorts of people — right- and left-wingers, employers and employees, atheists and believers, etc. — can meet. When they can all agree on a set of scientific facts, and on the logical implications of those facts, the way is cleared for concrete action.
"This is what a network should do — identify the people who would like to do something good. And they are everywhere. This is how the change will appear — you won't notice the difference. It won't be anyone winning over anyone. It will just spread. One day you don't need any more signs saying "Don't spit on the floor," or "Don't put substances in the lake which can't be processed." It will be so natural. It will be something that the intelligent people do, and nobody will say that it was due to The Natural Step. It will just appear.
Taking the Natural Step by Keith C. Heidorn, PhD . ©1997, All Rights Reserved.