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The Natural Step program

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Dr Karl-Henrik Robert, one of Sweden's leading oncologists, developed the 'Natural Step' program as a method of reaching consensus about sustainable futures. The theory has given its name to a global network which describes itself as 'an international organization that uses a science-based, systems framework to help organizations and communities understand and move towards sustainability'.

Jonathon Porritt, the former director of Friends of the Earth in the UK, explains the role of the 'Natural Step' program as follows:

'Sustainable development is one of those ideas that everybody supports, but no-one really knows what it means in practice. The Natural Step process slices through that confusion, providing companies with a scientifically rigorous set of rules, using training and development techniques specifically fashioned for the business environment.'

The Natural Step model is a simple, scientifically based approach to sustainable development that encourages environmental systems thinking within corporations, governments and academic institutions. It is founded on two principles, namely:

1. Basic science principles:

  • Matter and energy cannot be created or destroyed;
  • Matter and energy tend to disperse;
  • A net increase in material quality on Earth can be produced only by sun-driven processes;
  • We never consume energy or matter - only its exergy, purity and structure.

2. The precondition of our lives:

  • Humanity cannot tolerate continual degradation of the environment.

These two preconditions lead to the cyclic (systems) principle, which states that: 'Reconstitution of material quality must be at least as large as its dissipation.'

A shift from linear to cyclic processes is at thh heart of the Natural Step theory. This is done by applying four 'system conditions for sustainability' developed by Dr Robert and his colleagues:

1. Substances from the Earth's crust must not systematically increase in nature.

This means that fossil fuels, metals, and other minerals must not be extracted at a faster pace than their slow redeposit in the Earth's crust. In practical terms, this means radically reducing mining and the consumption of fossil fuels.

2. Substances produced by society must not systematically increase in nature.

This means that substances must not be produced at a faster pace than they can be broken down in nature or deposited into the Earth's crust. Otherwise quality will be lost due to the inevitable spread of substances and their accumulation toward often unknown limits beyond which irreversible changes occur. In practical terms, this means reduced production of natural substances that are accumulating, and a phasing out of all persistent and unnatural substances.

3. The physical basis for the productivity and diversity of nature must not be systematically deteriorated.

This means that the productive surfaces of nature must not be diminished in quality or quantity, and that we must not harvest more from nature than can be recreated. Our health and prosperity depend on the capacity of nature to reconcentrate and restructure wastes into resources. In practical terms this means sweeping changes in our use of land and water, particularly in agriculture, forestry, fishing, and urban planning.

4. Just and efficient use of energy and other resources.

This means that basic human needs must be met with the most resource-efficient methods possible, including a just resource distribution. In practical terms, this means an increased technical and organizational efficiency in the whole world, including a more resource-economical lifestyle in the wealthy countries.

The Natural Step program has already demonstrated its applicability. It has been implemented in a variety of sectors worldwide, from agriculture and water systems management to finance and tourism.

More than 100 companies and organizations have applied the Natural Step framework to their business, including IKEA, Interface, Nike, Starbucks, Home Depot, the US Marine Corps, and the municipality of Whistler in British Columbia.

For example IKEA, the Swedish furniture manufacturer, has developed a product line that complies with the Natural Step conditions. It is made without metal parts or persistent glues, and it is built using wood from sustainable forests.

Dr Robert succeeded in persuading the king of Sweden, schools, and industrial sponsors to back his ideas. As a result of his efforts, an educational package was sent to every household in Sweden outlining the steps needed to make human society sustainable.

Business leaders have supported Dr Robert's ideas, and the idea has spread rapidly beyond Sweden, throughout Europe and North America.

The Natural Step Foundation has grown into a network of people and independent professional groups, funded by industry and other sources. Organizations like the Swedish Federation for the Preservation of Nature and the Worldwide Fund for Nature have aligned themselves with it.

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