A "sustainable" activity is one that you believe you can
continue indefinitely into the future. Or at least for seven
generations (roughly 200 years).
As we saw last week, leading scientific societies say that the
future promises irreversible environmental degradation and
continued poverty for much of the world unless we control human
population and change patterns of human activity. "The future of
our planet is in the balance," said a 1992 statement issued
jointly by the Royal Society of London and the U.S. National
Academy of Sciences. (See REHW #669.) "The next 30 years may be
crucial," these scientific societies said 7 years ago.
It is particularly important that the so-called "developed"
countries change their ways. As the 1992 joint statement said,
"Developed countries, with 85 percent of the world's gross
national product and 23 percent of its population, account for
the majority of mineral and fossil-fuel consumption. One issue
alone, the increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide, has the
potential for altering global climate with significant
consequences for all countries. The prosperity and technology of
the developed countries, however, give them the greater
possibilities and the greater responsibility for addressing
What kinds of changes are needed? A group of Swedish scientists
has described 4 conditions that are essential for sustainable
use of the Earth. A worldwide movement, called The Natural Step,
is promoting these four conditions, especially among business
organizations. The four "system conditions" necessary for
sustainability are stated succinctly, so it is worth repeating
them, then adding some flesh to the bare bones:
(1) Substances mined from the Earth's crust must not
systematically increase in air, water, soil, or living things.
This means that fossil fuels and metals must not be produced at
a faster pace than their slow redeposit and reintegration into
the Earth's crust;
(2) Substances created by humans must not systematically
increase in air, water, soil, or living things. This means that
substances must not be produced at a faster pace than they can
be broken down and integrated back into the cycles of nature;
(3) The physical basis for productivity and diversity of nature
must not be systematically diminished. This means that we cannot
harvest or manipulate ecosystems in such a way that their
productivity and diversity are systematically diminished.
(4) There must be a fair and efficient use of resources in
meeting human needs. This means that basic human needs must be
met efficiently, effectively, and fairly; it also means that the
satisfaction of basic human needs must take precedence over the
provision of luxuries.
As we said in REHW #668, we consider condition #4 the most
important for two reasons: (1) unfair distribution of resources
is morally wrong; and (2) if we can't achieve a fair distribution
of resources, we will remain mired in conflict, unable to
organize ourselves effectively to achieve the first 3 system
conditions. All will be lost. More on condition #4 at a later
The first two Natural Step "system conditions" are not difficult
to understand. They require humans (1) to refrain from pulling
materials like oil and metals out of the Earth faster then
natural processes can re-incorporate such materials into the
deep earth; and (2) to refrain from creating materials that
nature cannot break down and recycle into their natural
However, to make these two system conditions workable, we need
guidelines. Fortunately, useful guidelines have been developed
by the Swedish government and others.
A General Duty to Investigate and to Warn
In 1985 the Swedish government passed a law called the Act on
Chemical Products. Article 5 of the Act says,
"Anyone handling or importing products hazardous to man or the
environment shall take such steps and otherwise observe such
precautions as are needed to prevent or minimize damage to man
or the environment. Particularly anyone manufacturing or
importing such a product must carefully investigate the
composition of the product and its properties from the
perspective of health and environmental protection. The products
shall be clearly labeled with data of importance from the point
of view of protecting health and the environment."
Thus we can see that the old excuse, used so often by American
industry -- "Gosh, we just didn't know" -- is now a crime in
Sweden. In Sweden, anyone using hazardous materials has a duty
to investigate and to warn.
Principle of Precautionary Action
Of course Sweden is not alone in adopting the precautionary
principle, which says, "When an activity raises threats of harm
to human health or the environment, precautionary measures
should be taken even if some cause-and-effect relationships are
not fully established scientifically." In other words, if you
have reason to believe something bad might be about to happen,
you have a duty to take action to prevent it from happening.
This simple idea is forming the basis of a new approach to
hazardous technologies world-wide. Eventually even U.S.
corporations will be affected.
The Substitution Principle
In 1990 the Act on Chemical Products was amended to include the
Substitution Principle, which reads:
"Anyone handling or importing a chemical product must take such
steps and otherwise observe such precautions as are needed to
prevent or minimize harm to man or the environment. This
includes avoiding chemical products for which less hazardous
substitutes are available." Thus anyone using hazardous
materials has an obligation to search for -- or produce -- less
harmful alternatives and to adopt those alternatives. Failure to
apply the substitution principle is a violation of law in
Sweden. In some instances, the substitution principle is
automatic. For example, under Swedish law, if a new pesticide is
registered that is safer than an older one, the older one
automatically loses its registration.
Principle of Reverse Onus
What if there is doubt about the hazardous nature of a material?
In situations where there are scientifically-based suspicions of
harm about a chemical or product, the Principle of Reverse Onus
(or Reverse Burden of Proof) holds: the burden is on the user or
producer of a hazardous chemical or product to convince
government authorities, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the
product does not deserve to be restricted and that it is the
least-damaging alternative available. The burden is not on the
public (or the government) to prove harm -- at least not in
The Polluter Pays Principle
This simple, clear idea places the financial burden for
pollution squarely on those who pollute. (So far as I know,
Sweden has not formally adopted this principle.) To avoid the
situation, common in the U.S., in which the polluter declares
bankruptcy (though, often, continues to do business, thus
effectively evading liability), a "flexible assurance bond"
could be required before a new technology or product is
The flexible assurance bond originated with Robert Costanza at
University of Maryland. The idea is similar to performance bonds
that are common today in the construction industry. (See REHW
Under the flexible assurance bond plan, anyone introducing a new
product or technology would have to do a "worst case analysis"
to estimate the possible consequences, then post a bond to cover
the costs of the worst case. As time passes, if the worst case
seems less and less likely, part of the bond will be returned
(with interest). This creates an incentive to monitor outcomes
carefully. And it properly places the burden of proof on the
proponents of new technology, not on the public.
Additional practical measures have been defined by the Swedish
government. In a 1997 report (in English) titled TOWARDS A
SUSTAINABLE CHEMICALS POLICY, the Chemicals Policy Committee of
the Swedish Ministry of the Environment outlined specific goals,
Ban Chemicals that Persist or Bioaccumulate
The Chemicals Policy Committee argues that substances that are
persistent and liable to bioaccumulate should be banned, even if
they are not now known to have toxic effects. (The Committee
provides quantitative definitions of persistence and
bioaccumulation.) "Experience tells us that new unexpected forms
of toxicity may be uncovered in the future," the Committee
says. "For substances that are persistent and liable to
bioaccumulate that knowledge will come too late. To act only
when the knowledge [of a hazard] becomes available is not
prevention. We therefore conclude that known or suspected
toxicity is not a necessary criterion for measures against
organic man-made substances that are persistent and liable to
bioaccumulate. Such substances should in the future not be used
The Committee recommends other specific guidelines to Swedish
** By the year 2007, all products on the market are to be free
1. Substances that are persistent and liable to bioaccumulate;
2. Lead, mercury and cadmium;
3. Substances that give rise to serious or irreversible effects
on health or the environment.
** By the year 2012 production processes should have developed
to the extent that
1. They are free from the deliberate use of persistent and
bioaccumulating substances, or lead, cadmium, or mercury;
2. Releases from production processes should be free from
substances that cause serious or chronic health effects.
** By the year 2012 metals other than lead, cadmium and mercury
are to be used only in applications where
1. The metals are mainly kept intact during use;
2. They are collected after use for reuse, recycling, or
** Do not use chemicals that are carcinogenic, mutagenic or
toxic to reproductive or endocrine systems.
** By the year 2000, every company should have a written plan,
to be updated annually, for meeting these goals.
What we have here is a group of principles and proposals that go
a long way toward defining sustainable use of materials that
are, or may be, hazardous. Any level of government could adopt
these principles, from municipal to national. Individual
businesses could adopt them as well. More next week.
--Peter Montague(National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981/AFL-CIO)
 John Cairns, Jr., "Defining Goals and Conditions for a
Sustainable World," ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH PERSPECTIVES Vol. 105,
No. 11 (November 1997), pgs. 1164-1170.
 Bo Wahlstrom, "The Precautionary Approach to Chemicals
Management: A Swedish Perspective," in Carolyn Raffensperger and
Joel A. Tickner, editors, PROTECTING PUBLIC HEALTH AND THE
ENVIRONMENT; IMPLEMENTING THE PRECAUTIONARY PRINCIPLE
(Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1999), pgs. 51-69. ISBN
 Chemical Policies Committee, TOWARDS A SUSTAINABLE CHEMICALS
POLICY (Stockholm, Sweden: Government Official Reports 1997:84,
Ministry of the Environment, 1997).
Descriptor terms: sustainability; sustainable materials policies;
sweden; precautionary principle; substitution principle; polluter
pays principle; flexible assurance bonds; robert costanza; natural
step' the natural step; tns; principle of reverse onus; reverse