Answering The King’s Challenge

News from Sweden's Natural Step

One of the articles in Designing A Sustainable Future (IC#35)
Originally published in Spring 1993 on page 6
Copyright (c)1993, 1996 by Context Institute

Perhaps the most important tool of change is the belief that we can make things better in our own lifetimes. To judge from our mail, Sweden’s "The Natural Step" is among the most inspiring examples of that belief (see "Educating A Nation: The Natural Step" IC #28, pp. 10-15).

The project, conceived and implemented by leading cancer researcher Karl-Henrik Robèrt, has a straightforward goal: to muffle the quibbling over exactly how bad our environmental problems are and focus attention instead on what can be done immediately to turn things around.

The results of this common-sense approach have been astounding. From King Carl XVI Gustaf down to grade-schoolers, practically every Swede knows that 1) life can continue only if natural processes are allowed to recycle waste into new resources; 2) current industrial society is producing too much non-recyclable waste too fast.

Now not just environmentalists, but politicians and businesspeople have adopted "cyclic thinking."

How did this happen? By getting at what Karl-Henrik calls the trunk and roots of the problem, not waiting to examine each leaf.

Karl-Henrik compiled a consensus report on the essence of environmental issues from scientists of many disciplines and ideologies. The report was condensed into an educational packet.

After winning the endorsement of the King, 4.3 million copies of the educational packet were produced, one for every household and school in Sweden. Karl-Henrik rounded up a cast of artists and celebrities to promote the nationwide project on television, and before long everyone was talking about sustainability.

The Netherlands has now taken up The Natural Step as well.

Searching for more good examples, last year King Gustaf, in consultation with The Natural Step, called his first annual "Environment Competition" among Sweden’s communities. Here is Karl-Henrik’s report on the results:


Forty-nine local governments took part in the competition. The jury was constituted of different professionals within The Natural Step network – scientists, ecologists, and environmental advisers to local governments.

We were all astonished by the quality of the work done by the participants. It soon became obvious to all of us how much more easily bad news travels around in the media than good news. Some of the local governments had made quite remarkable progress!

The winner, Borlänge kommun, is a city of about 47,000 people, with some heavy industries including pulp and steel mills.

Ninety percent of the homes in this community are heated with renewable energy resources. This high proportion is achieved through a central heating system that gets its energy from a mixture of biogas from sorted garbage, incineration of garbage with low heavy metal content, and warm water released by the industries.

In a few years, all the city’s garbage will be sorted, not only from households but also from industry.

The schools teach sustainability, and all politicians in the local government get training in sustainability and cyclic thinking.

A whole new section of the city is planned, designed completely in accordance with cyclic thinking.

Many local governments have reached the same status as Borlänge, and they gave that city a tough match. However, considering Borlänge’s difficult starting point a few years ago, because of the city’s industrialization, the degree of change settled the judgment.

The prize was a crystal sculpture with the King’s monogram and The Natural Step’s logo. The King presented the prize in the big "Globe" of Borlänge in front of 5,000 proud citizens. All children were free from school for the occasion. The prize is now kept in the city’s museum.

The King traveled to Borlänge by train, studying cyclic thinking on the way with myself and other scientists from the Natural Step.

In the competition, Kungsörs kommun and Örebro kommun placed second and third respectively. Those communities also got crystal sculptures from the King.

Borlänge and Örebro have now entered the eco-community movement of The Natural Step. This taught the jury that you do not have to be a member of The Natural Step movement to be progressive for sustainability – the work that placed these cities at the top in Sweden had taken place outside The Natural Step movement.

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