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The Natural Step


Imagine the following:

The scientists of an entire nation come to consensus on the roots of our environmental problems and the most critical avenues for action. The nation's head of state then gives his endorsement to their consensus report. An educational packet based on that report is prepared and sent to every household and school, so that citizens and students can learn the basics of sustainability. Then a roster of famous artists and celebrities goes on television to promote and celebrate the birth of this remarkable national project a project that, in the long run, promises to completely reorganize the nation's way of life to bring it into alignment with the laws of nature.

​While this scenario may read like a fairy tale, it is already an historical fact. The name of this project is The Natural Step, the country is Sweden and the catalyst behind this remarkable effort is Karl-Henrik Robèrt.

Karl-Henrik Robèrt, M.D., Ph.D., is one of Sweden's leading cancer researchers (as well as a former national karate champion). It was his desire to get beneath the details of the debate on the state of the environment and to take action based on agreed-upon facts that started a snowball that has grown to such impressively hopeful proportions.

This article is adapted from a piece he wrote to help get The Natural Step started in The Netherlands. It is followed by excerpts from a lengthy interview with Karl-Henrik conducted jointly by IC founding editor Robert Gilman and Nikolaus Wyss, a Swiss journalist. This story is one of the most inspiring we've ever heard, and it raises the question: How long before every nation on Earth takes The Natural Step?

The Four System Conditions

Left to its own devices, the earth is a sustainable system. As we continue to learn, however, the accumulated impacts of human activity over the past two centuries are now threatening our continued well-being.

An international network of scientists have unanimously and publicly concluded that human society is damaging nature and altering life-supporting natural structures and functions in three fundamental ways. Consequently, they were able to define three basic conditions that must be met if we want to maintain the essential natural

resources, structures and functions that sustain human society. Further, acknowledging that human action is the primary cause of the rapid change we see in nature today, they included a fourth system condition that focuses on the social and economic considerations that drive those actions and the capacity of human beings to meet their basic needs.

While written to be clear scientifically, the specific wording of the four system conditions can be confusing to non-scientists who try to put them to work. Fortunately, the system conditions can be reworded as basic sustainability principles that provide explicit guidance for any individual or any organization interested in moving towards sustainability. The table below contains the four system conditions on the left and the reworded the basic sustainability principles on the right.

In most instances, we refer to the basic sustainability principles (see above).

At first reading, the system conditions and basic principles might seem to imply that we must rid society of all materials extracted from the earth and all substances produced by society and that, further, we must never disturb a natural landscape. But that’s not what they mean. The problem is not that we mine and use heavy metals, or use chemicals and compounds produced by society, or disrupt natural processes, or even temporarily interfere with people’s capacity to meet their basic needs. It is, rather, that our industrial system has developed so that substances extracted from the earth and produced by society will continue to build up indefinitely in natural systems. That means a progressive buildup of pollutants and substances that not only harm us directly but damage natural processes that have taken billions of years to develop.

With respect to the fourth sustainability principle, The Natural Step’s understanding of human needs is based on the work of the Chilean economist Manfred Max-Neef. Max-Neef identifies nine fundamental human needs that are consistent across time and cultures: subsistence, protection, affection, understanding, participation, leisure, creation, identity and freedom.

Max-Neef points out that these fundamental human needs cannot be substituted one for another and that a lack of any of them represents a poverty of some kind.

Politics and The Natural Step

If a politician were to ask a random selection of scientists whether or not the reproductive organs of seals are destroyed by the chemical PCB, it is very unlikely that he would get the kinds of answers that would be helpful in arriving at a decision. He might hear, for instance: 'That has not been definitively established yet'. 'Yes, that has now been clearly established.' 'Our laboratory has identified a toxin that plays a far more destructive role,' and so on.

That's the sort of thing that happens with questions about the leaves of the environmental tree. But, if one begins with the trunk or branches, the answers become clearer and more consistent. For example:

Is PCB a naturally occurring substance?

No, it is artificially manufactured by man. All scientists agree on that.

Is it chemically stable, or does it quickly degrade into harmless substances?

It is stable and persistent. On that they all agree, as well.

Does it accumulate in organisms?

Yes it does.

Is it possible to predict the tolerance limits of such a stable, unnatural substance?

No, since the complexity of ecosystems is essentially limitless. Nevertheless, it is known that all such substances have limits, often very low, which cannot be exceeded.

Can we continue to introduce such substances into the ecosystem?

Not if we want to survive.

The final answer is what the politician actually wanted to know from the beginning, since he is probably not particularly interested in the reproductive organs of seals. Yet, most public environmental debate is preoccupied with such relatively minor details. This happens whenever we fail to proceed from a basic frame of reference, or overview, which makes it possible to focus on the fundamental issues without getting lost in a confusion of isolated details.


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