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#676 - Monsanto and The Natural Step Revisited, 10-Nov-1999

[This week, for the first time, we are printing a "letter to the
editor." It comes from Paul Hawken, who introduced The Natural
Step [TNS] to the U.S. TNS is a set of fundamental principles for
sustainability developed by Swedish scientists. (See REHW #667,
#668.) During part of Mr. Hawken's tenure with The Natural Step,
Kate Fish, who is both an environmentalist and an employee of
Monsanto (the St. Louis, Mo., chemical and biotech giant), served
as a member of the board of directors of TNS. This fact, plus
press reports saying that Monsanto was embracing "sustainability"
and was aligning itself with The Natural Step, left the
impression in many people's minds, including mine, that Mr.
Hawken believed Monsanto had undergone a praiseworthy
transformation. This impression was not correct, as this letter
makes clear. --Peter Montague]

by Paul Hawken*

I am writing to you concerning your recent statements in Rachel's
#667. I refer to the paragraph below:

"The Four System Conditions of The Natural Step [TNS] 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."

I have not praised Monsanto as visionary, and Monsanto has never
had a close affinity with TNS. I hope I can improve understanding
by providing more information about the Natural Step and its
one-time relationship with Monsanto some years ago.

One of the difficult points to get across to people about TNS is
that it is not a certifying NGO [non-governmental organization].
It does not pronounce someone green, sustainable, or not green.
The Natural Step, as you point out, is a set of principles
designed to create both a framework, also known as a shared
mental model, of sustainability from a resource flow point of
view which is based on thermodynamics. A kind of baseline, if you
will, of sustainability. The second is to teach companies,
municipalities, and other institutions to use a method called
backcasting in order to realign their present day practices with
an eventual outcome of sustainability. When that realignment is
present, then the theory is that every step they take, albeit
sometimes small, is one step towards sustainability. Thus the
name, 'the natural step.' If a company says it uses TNS, then the
function of an easily understood mental model of sustainability
is that everyone can see for themselves if what they are saying
is true or not. To our knowledge, no company who does not
undertake to apply the principles has called itself or associated
itself with the name The Natural Step. If anything, the opposite
has happened as in the case of IKEA. I agree with you that if a
company so did, it could pose a problem and cause damage to TNS.

The next point is that TNS does not market or sell. It does not
try to reform companies. They have to do that themselves. Nor
does TNS make recommendations or suggest what measures a company
should undertake. TNS educates. Companies have to change
themselves. And it does not judge companies. Why? Because if we
judge the worst companies to be unworthy, then we are cutting off
our nose. Ideally, the worst offenders would become educated and
change. In practice, however, it is the opposite. Almost always,
the better companies, the ones with an intelligent and receptive
management, are the ones who come forward and use TNS principles
to change their business practices. In the case of Monsanto, we
had one of the "worst" companies come to TNS at a time when they
had a brand new CEO, Bob Shapiro, and TNS was new in the U.S.
Although there was skepticism at that time, the fact remains that
many people in the environmental movement were hopeful that when
Bob became chairman and CEO, Monsanto, after ninety years of
wreaking havoc, would see the light and begin to change. Many
environmentalists went to St. Louis or offsite locations at their
invitation to give seminars and lectures on many aspects of
sustainability. They include Dana Meadows, Bill McKibben, Amory
Lovins, Bill McDonough, John Elkington, and David Korten.

I had the dubious honor, however, of trying to teach two TNS
workshops that were held at Monsanto. In one, I was joined by Don
Aitken, senior scientist at Union of Concerned Scientists, and
the other by Susan Burns of Natural Strategies. They were a
disaster. Their [Monsanto's] head scientists didn't even accept
the second law of thermodynamics. They ridiculed the slides used
showing System Condition #2 concerning levels of human caused
toxicity in the environment. They actually defended the level of
artificial substances in mother's milk. They absolutely rebelled
at System Condition #4 calling it socialism at best, communism
possibly. They were totally offended by TNS. It was tense,
uncomfortable, confrontational, and deeply disappointing.
Monsanto never even came close to associating itself with TNS. As
far as I know they have never even referred to it in any
literature. How did we feel? Badly.

As to my praising them as a visionary company, that would come as
a shock to them. Please ask Bob Shapiro. I have told him, when
asked, that Monsanto has no leadership, that it is incompetent,
corrupt, and that it had completely prostituted the word
sustainability. Several years ago I told them that if they tried
to force GMOs [genetically modified organisms] into the
marketplace, they would experience the most intense and powerful
resistance they have ever seen in their history.

Going back to TNS, GMOs do not fall in the cracks of the system
conditions. Randomly firing alien genes into germ plasm is just
as much a violation of System Condition #3 as dropping alien
organisms from a plane over an ecosystem. And much more could be
said about potential allergenicity, new proteins and viruses,
antibiotic markers, and the manipulative distortion of genetic
flow with respect to transgenics; all of these violate System
Conditions #3 and #4. None honor the diversity of living systems
that are required for the evolution of life, none honor the
people on earth. On the other side, the application of herbicides
required in Roundup Ready Soy and Corn is a violation of all four
System Conditions: it requires fossil fuels in application and
manufacture; it releases human made compounds into the biosphere;
and constant applications of herbicides decarbonize the soil,
reducing fertility and diversity, adding to our woes with respect
to greenhouse gases and climate change. Finally, in the debate
over genetically modified food, we should also bear in mind that
even if GMOs were benign and safe, which I do not believe, whose
idea was it to have three companies, Monsanto, DuPont, and
Novartis, whose origins go back to cancer-causing saccharine,
gunpowder, and toxic aniline dyes respectively, strive to control
90 percent of the germ plasm that provides the world with 90
percent of its caloric intake? I don't remember anyone proposing
such a stupefying idea. There was no commission, referendum, or
plebiscite. It is the very opposite of biological redundancy that
is at the heart of ecosystem resilience and sustainability, and
it counters the principles of fairness, equity, and justice which
are at the heart of System Condition #4.

What is hurting TNS is not the rumors about it and Monsanto,
which cannot hurt it because they are not true. What is hurting
all of us is that sustainability is still a fratricidal movement
that turns on itself at the drop of a hat because we are frustrated
with the constant erosion of our living systems and the continued
and overwhelming corruption of our governing institutions by
corporate oligarchies. In this we sometimes manifest behavior no
different from the violence you see in deracinated areas of the
world where people turn on each other because they feel
powerless. If the sustainability movement is to succeed, which I
think it will, it needs to model, as Gandhi said, what it wants
the world to become. At the very heart of sustainability is
respect, the unconditional respect for other human beings even if
we do not agree with them. I should probably say especially if we
don't agree with them. That respect must be at the very heart and
foundation of sustainability or we will simply end up as another
marginal movement that thinks it is right. We are beset already
with those movements all around the world in their myriad forms.
The promise of sustainability is not just with respect to
changing our practices in regards to the earth, but also changing
our practices with respect to each other. Having said that, in
all and every way, we must speak truth to power and resist the
tyranny of destruction, but we need to do it mindfully. I have
said repeatedly and will say it again, in 99% of the cases, the
only reason companies, even the so-called 'better' ones, turn
towards the ideas of sustainability is because of activism,
boycotts, protests, litigation, and legislation. Without those
constant pressures, there would be no corporate movement towards
sustainability, as small and nascent as it is.

I have always felt that true intelligence is generous. If The
Natural Step made a mistake in associating itself with Monsanto,
you should know that it will knowingly do that again with another
company that wants to understand what sustainability is. Brian
Natrass, Mary Altomare, and George Basile of The Natural Step
recently did a presentation to the top management of Home Depot.
A few weeks later, Home Depot announced that they would no longer
sell tropical timber or products made from them. Was TNS the
cause of this action? I don't think so. We should thank Randy
Hayes and the Rainforest Action Network and other organizations
for their years of work and activism on this issue. Did TNS play
a role? We don't know, but we hope so.

Corporations like Monsanto are similar in some respects to
children-at-risk in that they need to be attended to and
directed. These institutions are "corporations-at-risk" and as
David Korten so brilliantly points out, they are different from
people. But like people, they keep getting into trouble, they
commit crimes, they are recidivist, they knock the world up,
don't take responsibility for their offspring, and show little
respect for civic society. If we demonize people who try to
change them from the inside, what does that say about us, our
movement, or our future? The fact is, and this is the most
difficult thing to understand for many in the environmental
movement, the people inside those companies are us, just like the
kids on the street in gangs are us. When we realize there is no
they there, we may be able to better understand how our
collective intentions are destroying our collective future. We
must resist, but we must also seek to understand.

Undoubtedly, one of the ways that misunderstanding about TNS was
created was because Kate Fish was on the board of TNS. Kate was a
friend of TNS when she headed up an environmental NGO called
Earthworks in St. Louis. She was asked to be on the board of TNS
because of her environmental background, and was hired by
Monsanto for the same reason. She chose to go inside and try to
change the company from there. She was ignored for many years
until recently. It is my understanding that people are finally
listening to her because she warned them constantly of the
dangers of their arrogance, intentions, and products. Although
she is not on the TNS board today, activists saw her as a
Monsanto 'employee' on the board. We didn't. We saw her as Kate
Fish the environmentalist, just as we see Peter Senge, who is
also on the TNS board, as a brilliant systems thinker, not as an
employee of MIT. People are asked to be on the TNS board SANS
their institutional affiliation. Nevertheless, we recognize how
problematic this was for both the organization and people judging
TNS.

=====

* Paul Hawken, Natural Capital Institute, Sausolito, California;
Fax: (415) 332-7933; E-mail: info@naturalcapital.org.

Descriptor terms: sustainability; paul hawken; tns; the natural
step; monsanto; kate fish;