Environmental Health News

What's Working

  • Garden Mosaics projects promote science education while connecting young and old people as they work together in local gardens.
  • Hope Meadows is a planned inter-generational community containing foster and adoptive parents, children, and senior citizens
  • In August 2002, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Board voted to ban soft drinks from all of the district’s schools

#667 - The Meaning of Sustainability--Part 1, 08-Sep-1999


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
CORPORATION.[1] 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

"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

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

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

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

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

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.

--Peter Montague(National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981/AFL-CIO)


[1] Brian Natrass and Mary Altomare, THE NATURAL STEP FOR
(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;