The Natural Step

Daniel Aronson (
Fri, 9 Dec 1994 00:34:59 +0001 (EST)

The following is a description of The Natural Step taken from publication
No. 401 of The Swedish Institute, Box 7434, S-103 91 Stockholm, Sweden:

"Dr. Robert's most significant social invention is his method for
achieving consensus on tricky, complicated, often highly scientific matters
in a way that does not reduce agreement to the lowest common denominator
but that actually produces rather radical position statements."
--- Institute for Social Inventions, Britain

[With a reminder to take "radical" without judgement as "getting to the
root," this is an amazing accomplishment that could be the solution to a
great group-action problem in Systems Thinking.]

The Natural Step was founded in 1898. After 21 manuscript
revisions, (cancer researcher)Dr. Robert [accent over the e] achieved
consensus among 50 prominent scientists on an educational package
regarding major environmental issues. A few months later, the package
was turned into an illustrated booklet and audio cassette which as
mailed to all 4.3 million households in Sweden.
A number of major corporations, organizations, and trade unions
provide funding, and the official patron of TNS is Sweden's king, King
Carl XVI Gustaf. The foundation The Natural Step is made up of
independently operating "Networks for the Environment" composed of people
belonging to a specific profession. The foundation is non-profit.
Robert's approach is to start with simple questions that can
guide actions instead of searching for conclusive data on specific
effects, as finally conclusive data never emerges. For example: "instead
of postponing action in the hope of obtaining unequivocal data regarding
'safe' levels [of toxins] (data that never materialize)," Robert asks
questions on which there is widespread agreement; "if a politician asks a
group of researchers whether it is true that the reproductive capacity
of seals is destroyed by PCBs...their replies will probably contain
conflicting messages...But if we start from a more basic level, the
answers will be clearer and will provide better practical guidance:
"Are PCBs naturally occurring substances? No, everyone agrees
they are synthetic.
"Are they chemically stable, or are they quickly broken down into
harmless substances? The answer is that they are very stable; their
molecule was deliberately designed that way.
"Does this mean that PCBs will accumulate in the ecosystem for
as long as human society uses them? Yes, that is correct.
"Is it possible to predict a tolerable level of such stable,
unnatural substances? No, the complexity of their conceivable
interactions with each other and with the functions of the ecosystem is
"But that must mean we cannot continue to use such substances in
our society? Yes, that is true. We have to stop using PCBs if we want
to maintain healthy ecosystems and thus ensure our own well-being and
health....The decision should be to make an immediate decision that will
prevent continued accumulations of pollutants in nature."

The foundations current work is education in companies and
municipalities, showing the connections between each company's decisions
on growth and major environmental issues. It uses a checklist of 4
fundamental ecological principles [definitions are not in the article]:
*Does the action reduce the use of finite mineral resources?
*Does it reduce the use of long-lived synthetic materials or
molecules [ie that become waste and do not degrade]
*Does it preserve or increase natural diversity and the capacity
of ecocycles?
*Does it reduce the consumption of energy and other

Actions are weighed against long- and short-term economic aspects and are
compiled into an action plan with a time axis running for several years.

Effects of the program:
All municipalities in Sweden (286) will have action programs by 1996. The
big furniture retailing chain, IKEA, has initiated large-scale changes
and is training its suppliers. The Swedish convenience-goods trade has
changed greatly, with few chlorine-bleached paper products now and great
environmental awareness in consumers of detergents, packaged and fresh
foods, etc. "The author of [the] article interviewed a number of store
employees who had received [environmental] training and had heard Dr.
Robert's lectures - and listened to an uninterrupted series of
enthusiastic evaluations (even from people who had initially been
skeptical). After completing the program, employees felt they understood
how their daily work was related to the big environmental issues."
[Understanding of individual/whole relationships seems to me to be a
critical issue in systems thinking and another difficult area in which TNS
seems to have succeeded.] The Federation of Swedish Farmers is revising
their methods and the mountain resort industry is changing as well.

Hope this helps those interested.
Daniel Aronson