Natural Step: the Science of Sustainability (Yes Magazine)

Dr. Karl-Henrik Robert had an epiphany about the conditions required to sustain life – this epiphany catalyzed a consensus among Sweden’s top sceintists about the scientific foundations for sustainablity

by Dr. Karl-Henrik Robert

posted Aug 30, 1998

What do cells need to sustain life? How can human systems of production be a sustainable part of consensus among Sweden’s top scientists about the scientific foundations for sustainability

Dr. Karl-Henrik Robèrt, a Swedish cancer doctor and medical researcher, founded The Natural Step to inject some science into the environmental debate – and provide a solid foundation for action. He spoke to YES! executive editor Sarah van Gelder during his recent trip to the US.

SARAHHow did you go from being a doctor to taking on this large question of sustainability? 

KARL: My career centered on my work as a medical doctor heading a cancer ward in a university hospital, the largest one outside of Stockholm. I was concerned with the environment as a private human being, but I didn’t know what I could do except to pay my dues to Greenpeace and other NGOs.

My epiphany came one day when I was studying cells from cancer patients. It hit me that cells are the unifying unit of all living things. The difference between our cells and the cells of plants are so minor that it’s almost embarrassing; the makeup is almost identical all the way down to the molecular level.

You can’t argue with them or negotiate with them. You can’t ask them to do anything they can’t do. And their complexity is just mind blowing!

Since politicians and business people also are constituted of cells, I had a feeling that a broad understanding of these cells might help us reach a consensus on the basic requirements for the continuation of life.

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.

On an intuitive level, everyone knows that the natural environment is also the habitat for our economy, and if it goes down the drain, so does the economy.

Despite that, the green movement attacks business, and business reacts defensively. So much of the debate focuses on the details – so much is like monkeys chattering among the leaves of the tree while the trunk and roots die.

I thought we could go beyond that stalemate if we could begin to build a consensus based on much more solid, comprehensive thinking.

SARAHWhat did you do with this insight? What was your plan for getting beyond the stalemate in the environmental debate? 

KARL: I had a daydream that I could write a consensus statement with other scientists about the conditions that are essential to life. Instead of asking them what environmental issues they disagreed on, I could ask them where there was agreement and use that as a basis for a consensus that would serve as a platform for sounder decision-making in society.

In August 1988, when I wrote the first effort to frame a consensus, I believed that my colleagues would agree wholeheartedly with what I had written, it was so well thought through. Actually, it took 21 iterations to reach a consensus among this group of 50 ecologists, chemists, physicists, and medical doctors.

I was able to raise funds to mail this consensus statement as a booklet with an audio cassette to all 4.3 million households in Sweden. This statement describes how badly we are performing with respect to the natural systems around us and how dangerous the situation is. It makes the point that debating about policy is not bad in itself – but it is bad when the debate is based on misunderstandings and poor knowledge. It doesn’t matter if you are on the left or the right – the consensus platform takes us beyond arguments about what is and is not true. That was the start of The Natural Step.

SARAHKarl, could you explain briefly the Natural Step system conditions? 

KARL: The four system conditions describe the principles that make a society sustainable. The first two system conditions have to do with avoiding concentrations of pollutants from synthetic substances and from substances mined or pumped from the Earth’s crust to ensure that they aren’t systematically increasing in nature.

The third condition says we must avoid overharvesting and displacing natural systems.

Finally, system condition number four says we must be efficient when it comes to satisfying human needs by maximizing the benefit from the resources used.

Today, society is well outside the framework set by these conditions, and as a result, we are running towards increasing economic problems as we run out of fresh and non-polluted resources.

SARAHSo if we follow these conditions we can avoid the reverse evolution you mentioned earlier – we can quit dispersing persistent substances into the biosphere and make it possible for nature to continue to provide us with the basic resources we need to live – soil, air, a stable climate, water, and so on. In other words, these conditions will help us judge whether our actions are sustainable. Is this an approach that businesses and government officials find compelling?

KARL: 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.

By decreasing your dependence on activities that violate the system conditions, you move towards the opening of the resource funnel. You can do this through step by step reducing your dependence on:

• heavy metals and fossil fuels that dissipate into the environment (condition #1)

• persistent unnatural compounds like bromine-organic antiflammables or persistent pesticides (condition #2)

• wood and food from ecologically maltreated land and materials that require long-distance transportation (condition #3)

• wasting resources (system #4).

Any organization that directs its investments towards the opening of the funnel through complying with these system conditions will do better in business than their ignorant competitors. This is due to inevitable changes at the wall of the funnel in the form of increased costs for resources, waste management, insurance, loans, international business agreements, taxes, and public fear. In addition, there is the question of competition from those who direct their investments more skillfully towards the opening of the funnel – thus avoiding those costs – and sooner or later getting rewarded by their customers.

Once we have understood the funnel, the rest is a matter of timing. And time is now running out. Many corporations have already run into the wall of the funnel as a result of violating the system conditions. And today many companies are getting relatively stronger in comparison with others as a result of previous investments in line with the system conditions. Of course there are a large number of companies who still benefit in the short term from violating the principles of the common good, but in the long run, they have no future.

So if you ask business people, “Do you think that this could possibly influence tomorrow’s market?” they get embarrassed, because they all understand it will. The issue is to foresee the nature of that influence, because if you do, you will prosper from it

SARAHI want to ask you about the fourth condition because it seems as though that’s the one that has been most controversial. Perhaps that is because it is based on human systems more than natural systems.

KARL: The fourth principle is about the internal resource flows in a society, but it is still a logical first-order principle that follows as a conclusion from the first three. The reason people regard the fourth principle as a separate value is the word “fairness,” which is part of the fourth principle.

Most people understand that the first three principles set a frame for societal behavior. If matter from the Earth’s crust is no longer going to systematically increase in concentration, nor man-made compounds, and if we are going to live from the interest of what nature gives us – not use up nature’s capital – the first-order conclusion is that we must be much more efficient about how we meet our needs.

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

SARAHI realize you reached consensus among the scientists and the foundations for sustainability, but has your approach been controversial in the larger society?

KARL: No. The business community found it refreshing to be involved in a dialogue that did not involve someone pointing fingers at them and telling them what they should do.

This dialogue was the opposite of that; it involved a group of scientists describing the situation with regards to the environment and then asking for advice about how to remove the obstacles to sustainability. The business community, municipalities, and farmers actually enjoyed being part of it.

SARAHWhy do companies choose to adopt The Natural Step? Is it that they understand the science and want to contribute to a more sustainable world? Or do they see TNS primarily as a winning business strategy? 

KARL: It is a mixture of both, and it is hard to evaluate which is most important. My feeling is that top people in business have a tough image that they display in board rooms. Privately, after the board meeting, they would much rather do well by doing good, than doing well by contributing to the destruction of our habitat. Because of the rational economic and strategic thinking of the system conditions, they can endorse TNS principles without losing face in front of their tough peers. But as time goes on, the “soft” values become more and more important.

SARAHIn the research I’ve done on Green Plans in the Netherlands, I found that Dutch businesses were concerned that they would be less competitive if they were holding to higher environmental standards than businesses from other countries. How have you dealt with the issue of competitiveness in The Natural Step?

KARL: If you look at the countries where business is very successful, it is not the countries where the standards are low – it is the countries where they have set high goals for what they want to achieve. In the long run, you get competitiveness from increasing standards.

SARAHCan you give me some examples of some things in Sweden that have been done differently out of this understanding?

KARL: 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. We have written books of case studies about how people together found smart and flexible solutions to problems that seemed impossible to solve, including new products, logistics, suppliers, energy sources, and fuels.

A strict shared mental model can really get people working together.

SARAHYou mentioned that this approach requires thinking beyond the short term, and yet especially in the United States, so many CEOs are rewarded based on this quarter’s profits, not on how well they are positioning the company for the next five or ten years. How can companies in that kind of an environment take on this kind of a challenge? 

KARL: If you are audited at quarterly intervals and you can be sued for failing to earn the last buck possible, it is more difficult. But you can still develop a future scenario for your company in which it meets principles that make it ecologically, socially, and economically sustainable – because it is not economically sustainable to rely on behaviors that have no future.

Once you’ve developed that scenario, you look back from this imagined future and ask yourself how those sustainability principles might have been met and what you might do today to get there.

The strategy for business is to select as the first steps toward sustainability those that fulfill two criteria: they must be flexible to build on in the future, and they must provide a return on investments relatively soon; like, for instance, an attractive car that can run on renewable energy as well as gasoline.

SARAHWhat do you see as the trends for the coming years, in terms of a switch to more sustainable practices? 

KARL: A deepening intellectual understanding is a good starting point for change of values. Today, it is considered “rational” to think about economic growth only, whereas a focus on the true underlying reason for people living together in societies is considered non-rational. The TNS approach demonstrates that their present paradigm is, in fact, irrational and that we need new economic tools.

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.

But this is a dynamic process. 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.

So, the flow goes: intellectual understanding, some practice and experience, deeper understanding with some change in attitude, preparedness for even more radical change, some more experience, even deeper understanding, and, eventually, an endorsement of the value systems that are inherent in the human constitution.

SARAHWhat worries you the most about the future? You mentioned when you were in Seattle that you anticipate some very difficult times for the world in the years ahead – perhaps even a collapse. Could you
explain what you meant and what you think might cause such a collapse? 

KARL: 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.

SARAHWhat keeps you energized in the face of these enormous challenges? What are your sources of hope? 

KARL: My vision is that we develop a mainstream understanding that nobody wins from destroying our habitat, and that people will see that you do better in business if you work as though society will become sustainable and as though different cultures will survive, because cultural diversity is also essential.

To maintain hope, we cannot only focus on the dark things that are going on. Once in a while if you get a “bird’s eye” perspective, you see all sorts of good examples, and they comfort you. You see more and more people who understand and who are making concrete contributions to the transition to this new understanding.