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RACHEL'S ENVIRONMENT & HEALTH NEWS #667
---September 9, 1999---
THE MEANING OF SUSTAINABILITY -- Part 1
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THE NATURAL STEP
The Natural Step (TNS) is a Swedish invention, a set of simple guidelines for judging whether human activities are "sustainable" or not. These simple guidelines have been adopted by several national governments (Sweden, Poland, Hungary, perhaps others), and a world-wide movement has sprung up promoting the four main principles of The Natural Step.
Until recently, it has not been easy to learn about The Natural Step (TNS) because many of the organizations and individuals who promote it survive by conducting fee-based workshops in which they reveal the details of TNS. Therefore, The Natural Step has sometimes felt almost like a cult -- to really learn what's going on, you must lay down your money and become an insider by attending a workshop.
However there is a small natural step web site (www.naturalstep.org) which includes a bibliography, and New Society Publishers recently issued a book called The Natural Step for Business; Wealth, Ecology and the Evolutionary Corporation. By reading the book and the material on the web site and following some of the links (and reading items from the bibliography), you can get a good idea about TNS, its promise, and its present limitations.
The Natural Step was invented by a pediatric oncologist, Karl-Henrik Robert, with assistance from a physicist, John Holmberg. Robert, a respected Swedish cancer researcher, realized in the mid-1980s that humans are destroying the natural environment and lack fundamental principles for deciding what kinds of changes are needed. He said then,
"Up to now, much of the debate over the environment has had the character of monkey chatter amongst the withering leaves of a dying tree.
"We are confronted with a series of seemingly unrelated questions: Is the greenhouse effect really a threat, or will it actually prevent another ice age? Is economic growth harmful, or does it provide resources for healing the environment? Will the costs of phasing out non-renewable energy sources outweigh the benefits? Can communities, regions, or countries accomplish anything useful on their own, or must they wait for international agreements?
"In the midst of all this chatter about the 'leaves' very few of us have been paying attention to the environment's trunk and branches. They are deteriorating as a result of processes about which there is little or no controversy; and the thousands of individual problems that are the subject of so much debate are, in fact, manifestations of systemic errors that are undermining the foundations of human society."
The Natural Step was designed to guide people -- particularly business people -- who want to reverse these "systemic errors."
In 1989, Robert and Holmberg began searching for fundamental guidelines to define "sustainability," based on first principles of science. They put their ideas on paper and circulated them among the Swedish scientific community. After dozens of drafts, broad agreement was reached on four principles, which now lie at the heart of The Natural Step. Advocates of The Natural Step refer to these as "The Four System Conditions."
System Condition #1: In order for a society to be sustainable, nature's functions and diversity will not be systematically subject to increasing concentrations of substances extracted from the Earth's crust.
Discussion from the TNS web site: In a sustainable society, human activities such as the burning of fossil fuels, and the mining of metals and minerals must not occur at a rate that causes them to systematically increase in the ecosphere. There are thresholds beyond which living organisms and ecosystems are adversely affected by increases in substances from the Earth's crust. Problems may include an increase in greenhouse gases leading to global warming, contamination of surface and ground water, and metal toxicity which can cause functional disturbances in animals.
In practical terms, the first condition requires society to implement comprehensive metal and mineral recycling programs, and to decrease economic dependence on fossil fuels.
The fundamental scientific principles underlying this first "system condition" are the first and second laws of thermodynamics: matter is neither created nor destroyed, so nothing ever disappears; and, the disorder (entropy) in a system spontaneously increases, so everything tends to disperse.[1,pg.32] Because physical materials never disappear and always tend to disperse, we must be reluctant to extract materials from the deep Earth. Instead, we must receycle what we've already got.
[Physical materials must be recycled about as efficiently as we presently recycle gold. There are no large buildups of waste gold anywhere in the biosphere because we recycle gold efficiently, and that should become our model for recycling. The mining of new materials from the Earth's crust must essentially cease, or must diminish so drastically that mining is hardly noticeable as a human activity any longer. --P.M.]
System Condition #2: In order for a society to be sustainable, nature's functions and diversity will not be systematically subject to increasing concentrations of substances produced by society.
Discussion from the TNS web site: In a sustainable society, humans will avoid generating systematic increases in persistent substances such as DDT, PCBs, and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), such as Freon. Synthetic organic compounds such as DDT and PCBs can remain in the environment for many years, accumulating in the tissues of plants and animals, causing profound deleterious effects on creatures in the upper levels of the food chain. Freon, and other ozone depleting compounds, may increase the danger of cancer due to added ultraviolet radiation in the troposphere. Society needs to find ways to reduce economic dependence on persistent human-made substances.
[This will require us to develop materials that nature can recycle. Most of the common materials that were available to our grandparents met this requirement: for example, wood, leather, glass, cotton, silk, and iron. Disposal of these materials can occur without poisoning the biosphere or its inhabitants because nature degrades them and turns them back into raw materials. Starting in the 1920s, but really gearing up after World War II, humans created enormous quantities of materials that nature has little or no capacity to degrade and recycle. Nylon, DDT, and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) are typical examples. We will have to stop using such materials, and they will have to be replaced by materials that nature can readily degrade.--P.M.]
System Condition #3: In order for a society to be sustainable, nature's functions and diversity must not be systematically impoverished by physical displacement, over-harvesting, or other forms of ecosystem manipulation.
Discussion from the TNS web site: In a sustainable society, humans will avoid taking more from the biosphere than can be replenished by natural systems. In addition, people will avoid systematically encroaching upon nature by destroying the habitat of other species. Biodiversity, which includes the great variety of animals and plants found in nature, provides the foundation for ecosystem services which are necessary to sustain life on this planet. Society's health and prosperity depends on the enduring capacity of nature to renew itself and rebuild waste into resources.
System Condition #4: In a sustainable society, resources are used fairly and efficiently in order to meet basic human needs globally.
Discussion from the TNS web site: Meeting the fourth system condition is a way to avoid violating the first three system conditions for sustainability. Considering the human enterprise as a whole, we need to be efficient with regard to resource use and waste generation in order to be sustainable. If one billion people lack adequate nutrition while another billion have more than they need, there is a lack of fairness with regard to meeting basic human needs. Achieving greater fairness is essential for social stability and the cooperation needed for making large-scale changes within the framework laid out by the first three conditions.
To achieve this fourth condition, humanity must strive to improve technical and organizational efficiency around the world, and to live using fewer resources, especially in affluent areas. System condition #4 implies an improved means of addressing human population growth. If the total resource throughput of the global human population continues to increase, it will be increasingly difficult to meet basic human needs as human-driven processes intended to fulfill human needs and wants are systematically degrading the collective capacity of the Earth's ecosystems to meet these demands. [End of discussion of system conditions.]
The Natural Step is a business-oriented approach to sustainability. Karl-Henrik Robert says, "Business is the economic engine of our Western culture, and if it could be transformed to truly serve nature as well as ourselves, it could become essential to our rescue." The new book, The Natural Step For Business, offers four lengthy case studies of business firms that have adopted The Natural Step as the framework for changing their relationship to the natural environment. The four firms are, IKEA, the world's largest retailer of home furnishings, with headquarters in Sweden; Scandic Hotels, headquartered in Sweden but operating 120 hotels throughout northern Europe; Interface, Inc., a Fortune 1000 carpet manufacturer with headquarters in Atlanta; and the Collins Pine Company, which owns 300,000 acres of forests in Washington state, Oregon, California, and Pennsylvania. The firm prides itself on its sustainable forestry practices.
The case studies give considerable detail about how these firms became aware of their unsustainable behavior, and how they integrated The Natural Step into their business practices. It is indeed an instructive and valuable little book that offers hope for any company that intends to survive very far into the 21st century.
The Four System Conditions of The Natural Step do not answer all questions about sustainability. For example, degradation of the natural environment through the use of genetic engineering has, so far, "fallen through the cracks" of TNS thinking. This oversight has allowed Monsanto Corporation to engage in a preposterous greenwash by claiming that it has a close affinity to The Natural Step. Worse, Paul Hawken, who brought The Natural Step to the U.S., has publicly praised Monsanto for its visionary approach to business. All of this has tarnished the image of the Natural Step among U.S. environmentalists and made the whole effort suspect. This is unfortunate because TNS has real promise.
As Karl-Henrik Robert has said, "We are racing toward world-wide poverty in a monstrous, poisonous garbage dump. The only thing that can save us from the consequences is the restoration of cyclical processes in which wastes become new resources for society or nature." This simple prescription and the four system conditions go a long way toward defining sustainability. However, there are a few additional concepts that could be added. More next week.
(National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981/AFL-CIO)
Brian Natrass and Mary Altomare, The Natural Step for Business; Wealth, Ecology and the Evolutionary Corporation (Gabriola Island, British Columbia, Canada: New Society Publishers, 1999. ISBN 0-86571-384-7. See www.newsociety.com.
Descriptor terms: the natural step; natural step; karl-henrik robert; sweden; sustainability;
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