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

#668 - The Meaning of Sustainability--Part 2, 15-Sep-1999


After writing about The Natural Step (TNS) last week, I received
E-mail from Sarah van Gelder, the executive editor of YES! A
MAGAZINE OF POSITIVE FUTURES. YES! is an important magazine, and
one of my personal favorites.[1] (To subscribe, phone toll free:
800-937-4451; $24/year and definitely worth it.) Ms. van Gelder
pointed me toward an interview with Dr. Karl-Henrik Robert -- the
Swedish scientist who initiated The Natural Step -- which YES!
had published in 1998.[2] She also told me that my reporting last
week about Paul Hawken was badly out of date. (See REHW #667.)
Hawken, who introduced The Natural Step to the U.S., has
completely changed his view of Monsanto. Let's look at that

Hawken is an articulate, successful businessman who worries about
the future of the planet and of business. After he began to
introduce the Natural Step to the U.S., Hawken was being courted
by Monsanto's top management and for a brief interlude he had
nice things to say about them. Unfortunately, as Hawken explained
in a published interview just a few weeks ago, Monsanto never
took sustainability seriously.[3] After Monsanto invited Hawken
to St. Louis, "Although I refused initially, I accepted
reluctantly for a simple reason: if Monsanto could change, then
any company could," he said.

However, he said, "I don't know of any new [Monsanto] products
that came about because of any environmental commitment, and the
old underlying divisional culture of ramming products into the
marketplace without consulting a broader stakeholder community
about effects, values, science, and other potential concerns --with the
arrogance that entails -- remains intact. What exists
now is a company without any clear leadership, with divisional
heads consistently putting their foot in their mouth, and a
product line that is truly unnerving.

"I continue to follow their devolution," Hawken says, "especially
in Europe where they have become the most reviled American
corporation. No small achievement."

"... It is hard to say, looking back, what their interest in
sustainability was. They... have largely dropped their
sustainable development division and any pretense that
sustainable is a word or concept that informs their activity,"
Hawken says.

Earlier in the interview Hawken had commented, "When you get an
organization like Monsanto completely prostituting the concept of
sustainability, that understandably raises the level of cynicism
as other corporations announce that they are moving in that
direction." So Hawken realizes the damage that Monsanto inflicted
on the very idea of sustainability when they pretended to be
interested in The Natural Step. It is good to finally hear Paul
Hawken speaking plainly about Monsanto because The Natural Step
is an important movement, full of hope, optimism, and real
promise. A disingenuous embrace by Monsanto would have been the
kiss of death.

The YES! interview with TNS founder Karl-Henrik Robert offers
some unique insights into Robert's thinking. For example he
perceives that humans have reversed evolution:

"Most people are not aware that it took living cells about 3.5
billion years to transform the virgin soup of the atmosphere --which
was a toxic, chaotic mixture of sulfurous compounds,
methane, carbon dioxide, and other substances -- into the
conditions that could support complex life.

"In just the last DECADES humans have reversed this trend. First
we found concentrated energy like fossil fuels and nuclear power.
As a result, we can create such a high throughput of resources
that natural processes no longer have the time to process the
waste and build new resources.

"Dispersed junk is increasing in the system as we lose soils,
forests, and species. So we have reversed evolution. The Earth is
running back towards the chaotic state it came from at a
tremendous speed."

Robert describes our situation as moving into a funnel, with the
walls of the funnel closing in on us dangerously. "I think most
people in business understand that we are running into a funnel
of declining resources globally. We will soon be 10 billion
people on Earth -- at the same time, as we are running out of
forests, crop land, and fisheries. We need more and more resource
input for the same crop or timber yield. At the same time
pollution is increasing systematically and we have induced
climate change. All that together creates a resource funnel."

To avoid hitting the walls of the funnel, businesses need to turn
away from activities that violate the four "system conditions"
which are essential for life, essential for the common good, and
which form the basis of The Natural Step.

The four system conditions necessary for life are:

#1: Substances mined from the Earth must not systematically
increase in air, water, soil, or living things; this means that
sustainable businesses need to decrease their dependence upon
heavy metals and fossil fuels, substituting renewable sources of
materials and energy.

#2: Substances produced by society must not be allowed to
systematically increase in air, water, soil, or living things.
This means that sustainable businesses need to avoid using
persistent unnatural compounds such as brominated fire
retardants, chlorinated plastics and solvents, and persistent

#3: The physical basis of productivity and the diversity of
nature must not be systematically diminished. This means we must
live off the interest of what nature provides and we must not use
up nature's capital. This means sustainable businesses must not
derive wood or food from ecologically maltreated land, and must
not use materials that require long-distance transportation.
(Think of what this means for the "global free market" religion
that has enraptured Wall Street and Capitol Hill in recent

#4: We must be fair and efficient in meeting basic human needs.
This means we must stop wasting resources.

Businesses that comply with the four system conditions will
successfully flow through the hole in the funnel and thrive.
Their ignorant competitors will run into the walls of the funnel
where they will incur increased costs for resources, waste
management, insurance, loans, international business agreements,
taxes, and public fear. Competitors who direct their investments
away from the walls of the funnel will be rewarded by their
customers and will do well. Those who benefit in the short term
by violating the system conditions, the essential requirements of
life, are firms that have no future, Robert says.

The fourth system condition is as fundamental as the first 3, and
flows directly from them, Robert says. He explains it this way:

"Fairness is an efficiency parameter if we look at the whole
global civilization. It is not an efficient way of meeting human
needs if one billion people starve while another billion have
excess. It would be more efficient to distribute resources so
that at least vital needs were met everywhere. Otherwise, for
example, if kids are starving somewhere, dad goes out to slash
and burn the rain forest to feed them -- and so would I if my
kids were dying. And this kind of destruction is everyone's
problem, because we live in the same ecosphere."

Will businesses voluntarily make the transition to
sustainability? Robert does not think so. "My belief is that free
will of individuals and firms will not be sufficient to make
sustainable practices widespread -- legislation is a crucial part
of the walls of the funnel, particularly if we want to make the
transition in time."

Despite the need for legislation, businesses acting voluntarily
have a tremendously important role to play. "The more examples we
get of businesses entering the transition out of free will, the
easier it will be for proactive politicians. In a democracy there
must be a 'market' for proactive decisions in politics, and that
market can be created by proactive businesses in dialogue with
proactive customers. For example, in Sweden, some of these
proactive business leaders are lobbying for green taxes. In that
triangle of dialogue: business-market-politicians, a new culture
may evolve, with an endorsement of the values we share but have
forgotten how to pay attention to," says Robert.

How will the transition to sustainable behavior evolve? "A
deepening intellectual understanding is a good starting point for
change of values." And, he says, "The Natural Step introduces a
shared mental model that is intellectually strict, but still
simple to understand. These are the rules of sustainability; you
can plug them into decision-making about any product."

"The first thing that happens is that this stimulates creativity,
because people enter a much smarter dialogue if they have a
shared framework for their goals...."

"A strict shared mental model can really get people working
together," Robert says.

What does the future hold? Will we successfully make the
transition to sustainable practices? Robert is not sure. He says
the world is probably in for very difficult times in the years
ahead, perhaps even collapse. He says,

"What worries me the most is the systematic social battering of
people all around the world, leading to more and more desperate
people who don't feel any partnership with society because of
alienation, poverty, dissolving cultural structures, more and
more 'molecular' violence (unorganized and self-destructive
violence that pops up everywhere without any meaning at all).

"The response of the establishment is too superficial, with more
and more imprisonment and money spent on defense against those
feared, leading to a vicious cycle.

"If this goes on long enough, a constructive and new sustainable
paradigm in the heads of governments and business leaders will
not necessarily help us in time. We will have more and more
people who are so hungry to meet their vital human needs that it
will be hard to reach them," Robert says.

Thus -- though Robert does not say so -- we can see that the
fourth system condition is ultimately the most important because
if the "fairness" condition is not met, then society will not be
able to organize itself to comply with the first three system
conditions and sustainability will not be achievable. The world's
slide into chaos, which has become increasingly evident in the
past 25 years, will accelerate.

Thus environmental groups and government agencies (including the
President's Council on Sustainable Development) who refuse to
address the essential issues of economic opportunity and economic
fairness are whistling in the wind, wasting our time, and
misleading their supporters. For the most part, the U.S.
environmental movement isn't working toward sustainability
because it has never developed a complete view of what
sustainability entails: sustainability requires more than
salvaging ecosystems. It requires major efforts to assure
economic fairness (in many countries, especially the U.S., this
means confronting racism head-on) and to assure the survival of
cultural diversity. Anything less is merely environmental

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


Bainbridge Island, Washington 98110; telephone (206) 842-0216;
fax: (206) 842-5208; E-mail: yes@futurenet.org; web: http://-
www.futurenet.org Subscriptions are $24/yr for 4 issues; to
subscribe, phone toll-free: 800-937-4451. ISSN 1089-6651.

[2] Sarah van Gelder and Karl-Henrik Robert, "The Natural
Step; The Science of Sustainability," YES! (Fall 1998), pgs.
50-54. To learn more about The Natural Step, phone (415)
474-2849, or check www.naturalstep.org. And see REHW #667.

[3] Sarah van Gelder, David Korten and Paul Hawken, "Corporate
Futures," YES! (Summer 1999), pgs. 40-45.

Descriptor terms: sustainability; natural step; the natural step;
karl-henrik robert; sweden; paul hawken; monsanto;

Error. Page cannot be displayed. Please contact your service provider for more details. (26)