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The Natural Step Towards Sustainability

(Un pas en avant vers la durabilité : the Natural Step)


09 / 1997

What if a nation could achieve consensus on the fundamental principles of sustainability as a basis for decision-making by society? What if economists could understand that the economy is a sub-system of nature and that economic values do not represent nor protect the ecosystem?

What if the scientists who reached this consensus actively engaged citizens, corporations and organizations in the implementation of those principles? This improbable scenario has occurred in Sweden and it is called The Natural Step.

Founded by Swedish scientist and oncologist Dr. Karl-Henrik Robèrt, The Natural Step began with the idea that too much effort and scientific debate on the environment was focused on disputes rather than on areas of agreement. Dr. Robèrt developed a consensus paper (after 21 drafts)on four basic system conditions for sustainability.

Natural Step is a systems approach to sustainability which provides a context for clearly understanding issues in an understandable context. Bombarded by the noise of thousands of environmental issues, carbon dioxide, ozone holes, collapse of forest ecosystems, fisheries, poisoning by growing levels of hundreds of thousands of substances, decision makers waste precious time and resources chasing issues and ignoring the root cause. These environmental issues now only add noise and further obscure the signal that sustainability is about ensuring that the load created by population multiplied by consumption does not

exceed the capacity of the Earth to provide life support services. We already know from studies on natural capital flows (see further references to ecological footprints)that humanity consumes 30% more than nature can sustain today, and that this deficit is growing (Wackernagel et al. 1997).

To date the rhetoric surrounding sustainability has added to the noisein obscuring the clear signals it is vital for us to see. The principlesfor sustainability which are promoted by Natural Step are the synthesisof the work of many international scientists and scholars. These principles are simple and clear, they are:

1. Substances from the earth’s crust must not systematically increasen nature. This means that fossil fuels, metals and other minerals must not be extracted at a faster pace than their slow redeposit into the earth’s crust.

2. Substances produced by society must not systematically increase innature. 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.

3. The physical basis for the productivity and diversity of nature mustnot be systematically deteriorated. This means the productive surfaces of nature must not be diminished in quality or quantity and we must not harvest more from nature than can be created.

4. EQUITY: the just and efficient use of energy and resources. This means basic human needs must be met with the most resource efficient methods possible, including equity in resource distribution.

These are the system principles for sustainability. They are founded in the laws of thermodynamics and are the basis for defining sustainability. Once consensus is achieved the task turns towards helping companies and individuals understand and apply the conditions for sustainability into their planning and decision-making processes. For corporations this means recognizing that the principles or system conditions are a reality of physical limits which are inescapable, and that competitiveness and survival depend on using them as guide for long-term investment and strategic planning. Business-driven sustainability is the only means of transforming human society through its own economic practices. This is not a new ideology, but rather the direction towards an un-obscured reality.

With a system perspective, the system dynamic becomes clear. It is like sitting at the kitchen table of a house which is on fire, unaware of the smoke, the heat, and the light but focussed on the soot falling on the floor. When we become aware of the dynamic of the fire, we can develop the appropriate sense of urgency. No one will need to tell us what we must do. When we see the risk clearly, our own creativity and innovation and effort, driven by an appropriate sense of urgency will follow.

The same principle applies to business and civil society. Proponents of The Natural Step promote their approach on the basis of its potential financial rewards. Introductory presentations have titles such as, Investing for Tomorrow’s Market. The message is that the system conditions are the wall of a funnel that every business will come up against and those that see the wall coming and position themselves to be more sustainable, will find themselves in a better strategic position.

To promote sustainability, The Natural Step has established a foundation which

initiates and supports networks of professionals including scientists, business leaders, engineers, artists, architects, agriculturists, teachers, environmental activists, nurses and lawyers. Other activities include a mass mailing of training material to every household in Sweden, annual environmental awards to companies that take bold and visionary decisions and a training program for businesses and local authorities in ecological systems thinking.

The Natural Step has been adopted and applied in 60 municipal authorities and in 70 Swedish and several American corporations. Successful examples include IKEA, which produces a line of furniture containing no metal or non-biodegradable glues and is now educating 25 000 employees world-wide. ICA, a major supermarket chain and user of refrigerators, began a dialogue with Electrolux that resulted in the redesign of coolant technology to eliminate chlorinated compounds.

The Natural Step has also been established in Canada the United States, New Zealand, Australia, the United Kingdom, The Netherlands, Norway and Denmark.


déséquilibre écologique, développement durable, réseau de communication

, Suède



- The Natural Step Canada: The Natural Step Abstracts

-Dr. Karl-Henrik; Robert, Larry Onisto, Centre For Sustainable Studies, Toronto, Canada, Our Ecological Footprint Task Force on Healthy Sustainable

Communities Centre for Human Settlements, University of British Columbia: Dr. William Rees,


Texte original

ONISTO, Larry; Wackernagel, M. ; Larry Onisto et al : Ecological Footprints of Nations: How Much Nature Do They Use? How Much Nature Do They Have? Commissioned by the Earth Council for the Rio+5 Forum. International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives, Toronto, 1997. [gives the ecological footprint of 52 of the worldacute ; s largest countries ; report available through ICLEI], Earth Council Costa Rica; Revisiting Carrying Capacity: Area-Based Indicators of Sustainability by William E. Rees :

Centre for Sustainable Studies - 700 Univ Avenue H18J16 Toronto, Ontario M5G 1X6. CANADA. Tel 001 416 592 8595 fax 7097 - ljo (@)

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