Taking The Natural Step

The Natural Step program, which built a consensus on the scientific foundation for sustainability in Sweden, is now beginning in the US

One of the articles in Business On A Small Planet (IC#41)
Originally published in Summer 1995 on page 36
Copyright (c)1995, 1997 by Context Institute

The Natural Step is an affiliate of the Swedish organization of the same name (Det Naturaliga Steget) founded by research oncologist Dr. Karl-Henrik Robèrt in 1989 (see IN CONTEXT #28). Its purpose is to teach and support environmental systems thinking in corporations, cities, government, unions, and academic institutions through an easily understood dialogue process rooted in fundamental science.

The Natural Step teachings are a series of sequenced scientific principles that provide a remarkable and comprehensive basis for understanding the requisites for life on Earth and, in particular, how individuals, organizations, and companies can act so that those requisites are maintained and enhanced.

The purpose is to create real understanding of ecological connections without reducing the whole to a collection of details, disagreements, and counter arguments.

Although few doubt that the environment has become a major source of concern and focus for government and business, there is as yet no consensus on the nature, seriousness, or timing of the threats posed. In fact, most educated people believe, or assume, that the major environmental threats faced by humankind can be fixed with relatively specific adjustments in technology and manufacturing practices.

Moreover, there is as yet no common language or dialoguing process within which people of differing educational, political, and religious backgrounds can collaboratively define and thereby solve problems. Almost all of the movements addressing environment degradation address downstream effects. This has resulted in thousands of regulations, a countering conservative opposition to such strictures, an environmental movement that can raise money most effectively when things go wrong, and a populace that has or soon will become so numb to the complexity of environmental problems that they will become insensitive and deny them.

Dr. Robèrt’s key observation, which led him to found The Natural Step in Sweden, was that protecting the environment is being held back by arguments within the scientific community about peripheral details. The simple analogy is that scientists are like monkeys arguing about withering leaves in a dying tree, instead of paying attention to facts they can agree on, i.e. that the tree is dying.

The "pedagogy" of The Natural Step in Sweden was attained by engaging a wide spectrum of scientists of varying scientific disciplines to work together to create a description of the living systems that drive our economy and culture. After 21 drafts, Dr. Robèrt was able to get 50 prominent scientists to agree on a consensus document on the principles.

When you read The Natural Step documents or attend its seminars, it becomes evident that what we can all agree on is far more radical than that which we disagree on. We do not have to get into intricate levels of complexity or resolve scientific contradictions to understand how the whole system works, and therefore, what forces work against it.

The core teachings of The Natural Step, because they are scientifically incontrovertible and consensually derived, offer a common ground where people of all walks of life, of disparate beliefs and value systems, can discuss environmental problems without drowning in details or disputes. These create the milieu for the learner to have their own aha experience, that point where one gets it. As we know, once you get it, it is hard to unget. You see the world in an entirely different way, such that events or actions that may have seemed economically marginal become both understandable and economic.

One of the underlying guiding principles of The Natural Step is that each person is a genius in their business or their field of expertise. The Natural Step does not try to become the "expert" but instead trusts that people know how to solve environmental problems as soon as they can understand and define them for themselves.


The Four SystemConditions

1. Nature cannot withstand a systematic buildup of dispersed matter mined from the Earth’s crust (e.g., minerals, oil, etc.).

2. Nature cannot withstand a systematic buildup of persistent compounds made by humans (e.g., PCBs).

3. Nature cannot take a systematic deterioration of its capacity for renewal (e.g., harvesting fish faster than they can replenish, converting fertile land to desert).

4. Therefore, if we want life to continue, we must (a) be efficient in our use of resources and (b) promote justice – because ignoring poverty will lead the poor, for short-term survival, to destroy resources that we all need for long-term survival (e.g., the rainforests).


Taking The Natural Step to the US

In the past year or so, a number of people in the US have heard about the success of The Natural Step in Sweden. The result has been a growing demand for training in The Natural Step teachings.

In 1994, a group of environmental systems thinkers met with Dr. Robèrt and others from Sweden to discuss the possibility of bringing The Natural Step to the US. A steering committee was formed, which is creating a non-profit organization to be located in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

At the outset, the Steering Committee had to decide between two alternatives. The first was to translate and distribute the teachings, papers, and methodologies of the Swedish parent as soon as possible.

The second choice was to engage in the same general process, with some exceptions, that created The Natural Step movement in the Sweden. So, rather than having materials prefaced with the statement that it contained principles that all Swedish scientists agreed upon, it was decided to retrace the steps and create a scientific advisory council to work together to create a US version. This will "naturalize" The Natural Step, while exposing hundreds of people to its core principles. The process will start with scientists, but will soon engage business people, representatives from citizens’ groups, NGOs, and professional organizations in the creation of The Natural Step in the US.

Further, the Steering Committee believes that there are important breakthroughs in methods of teaching and learning that are presently being promulgated in the US. The Natural Step will work with this "learning community" to develop the most effective training tools possible for the dissemination of the teachings.

There are other ways in which The Natural Step in America will focus its energies somewhat differently:

  • It will not become a large organization, but will focus on creating a defined training that can be licensed to other organizations. After recreating the teachings and training methods, its main purpose will be to maintain high standards of quality control so that the core knowledge is kept intact, untainted by politics or belief systems.
  • Unlike Sweden, the US has literally thousands of environmental organizations that are already working on the key issues and applying systems principles even though they do not necessarily describe them the same way. The US Natural Step will offer all its participants a database that cross-indexes the resources available from these organizations, institutions, and businesses.
  • Reflecting the pluralistic and heterogeneous nature of American society, The Natural Step will strive for profoundly diverse gender and racial participation from the outset on its council, committees, staff, and among its training personnel.

A Citizen’s Advisory Council, Scientific Advisory Council, Learning and Education Council, and Business Advisory Council will be formed under the auspices of a large Board of Trustees. The purpose here is not to create the traditional endorsements implied by names on a letterhead, but to have literally hundreds of people representing institutions across the land who legitimately know that they have helped create The Natural Step.

The Natural Step will not compete with or supplant any existing environmental organization or institution. It will not become political. It will not give advice. And it will not criticize. It will only praise. It will seek advice from everyone including any and all critics. It will be a learning organization.

Paul Hawken is chairman of The Natural Step; see The Next Reformation in this issue for an interview with him.

For information on The Natural Step, contact: The Natural Step, Thoreau Center, PO Box 29372, San Francisco, CA 94129-0372. tel. 415/561-3344, fax: 415/561-3345, e-mail: tns@naturalstep.org.


A Natural Step for Business

by Walter Hays

When meeting with business leaders in Sweden, Dr. Karl-Henrick Robèrt talks about "investing for the future," rather than saving the environment. This approach is yielding impressive returns in the present.

  • The country’s paper companies, finding unexpected customer acceptance, have switched almost entirely to papers free of chlorine bleach.
  • The Swedish McDonald’s is monitoring its compliance with the conditions of sustainability, and advertising its progress on its biodegradable tray covers.
  • The Swedish oil company is lobbying in favor of increased gas taxes to finance research into alcohol fuels.

Translated into practical terms, a company subscribing to the Swedish Natural Step’s conditions (see preceding article) has to phase out its use of petroleum products and unrecycled minerals; cease using nonbiodegradable compounds; monitor its processes to ensure no net degradation of renewable capacity; make resource conservation and waste minimization a major priority; and be willing to pass on lessons learned to developing countries, free if necessary.

Although these conditions appear radical at first glance, Dr. Robèrt has found ways of presenting them to companies in their own language:

In his explanation of the four system conditions, he notes that they are nonnegotiable – we cannot avoid compliance in the long run. Accordingly, the conditions constitute a "funnel" of hard reality, in the sense that companies that do not comply with them will eventually "hit the wall" and go bankrupt. Conversely, companies that see the wall coming and invest to avoid it will prosper.

Dr. Robèrt does not try to prescribe the changes companies must make; instead, he describes the system conditions as a "compass" and affirms that company leaders know best how to apply them to their businesses.

Foot in the Door

When approaching a non-involved corporation, Dr. Robèrt and his colleagues first find an employee who is willing to ask company executives to come to a two-hour presentation on a topic such as "Investing for Tomorrow’s Market." So far, every company that has hosted such a presentation has signed up to participate.

ICA, a major supermarket chain, was among the first. ICA’s leaders believed that they were heading toward the wall of the funnel because they were being asked more and more frequently whether their refrigerators and freezers emitted CFCs that harm the ozone layer. (Dr. Robèrt uses the term "hard freons.") The company opened a dialogue with Electrolux, ICA’s principal supplier of such products.

The ICA executives asked their Electrolux counterparts how much it would cost to eliminate hard freons from existing inventory, and the reply was that it would cost 1 billion Swedish crowns to convert them to "soft" freons. Being familiar with the four system conditions, the president of ICA asked whether soft freons were "persistent" (i.e., non-biodegradable), and after some technological hedging, the answer was "yes." The president of ICA then responded that soft freons violate system condition number two and therefore have no future. The dialogue ended with ICA demanding that Electrolux come up with a plan to eliminate freons entirely.

At that point Electrolux, which had not previously heard of The Natural Step, called and asked Dr. Robèrt to come and talk about "your damned system conditions."

Despite their frustration, the Electrolux team announced a short time later that they had found an interim compound that was still persistent but did not harm the ozone layer, and they are already well on their way to producing a compound that is biologically harmless. They also joined The Natural Step and undertook to train all of their employees in its conditions.


Walt Hays is a mediator and attorney in Palo Alto, California. This article was adapted from the original article which first appeared in Timeline, a publication of the Foundation for Global Community, 222 High St., Palo Alto, CA 94301.

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