Citizen Action Monitor

The Natural Step Canada: An alternative approach to building sustainable communities

No 91 Posted by fw, November 23, 2010

While I was poking around BurlingtonGreen’s calendar of events today, this entry immediately caught my attention:

Sustainability for Leaders, Level 1

The Natural Step Canada invites you to register for our upcoming Sustainability for Leaders Course (Level 1): A Transformative Approach to Sustainability Thinking, Strategy, and Results. This is a 2-day intensive and interactive course for current and emerging sustainability practitioners. Participants will gain the knowledge, tools, and skills to strategically communicate, plan, and implement sustainability initiatives in their organization.


Interesting. My previous posts on building sustainable communities have focused exclusively on the Transition Movement. Although The Natural Step pre-dates Transition, this is the first time I have heard of it. Why? How does it compare with Transition?  Questions for future posts. But one thing I did notice — The Natural Step’s fee for a 2-day workshop is $850 per person.

What is The Natural Step?

Karl-Henrik Robèrt

Curiosity piqued, Wikipedia provided essential information about The Natural Step’s conceptual framework and planning process. The Natural Step is a non-profit organization founded in Sweden in 1989 by scientist Karl-Henrik Robèrt. Following publication of the 1987 Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, Robèrt developed The Natural Step Framework, a systematic principle-based definition of sustainability setting out the system conditions for the sustainability of Earth. His four system conditions derive from the laws of thermodynamics. As for a planning process, The Natural Step pioneered a “Backcasting from Principles” approach to effectively advance society towards sustainability. This approach begins with future success in mind and looks back from the future perspective to guide present-day decisions.

The Four Principles of Sustainability

To become sustainable members of a community must:

  1. Eliminate their contribution to the progressive buildup of substances extracted from the Earth’s crust (for example, heavy metals and fossil fuels);
  2. Eliminate their contribution to the progressive buildup of chemicals and compounds produced by society (for example, dioxins, PCBs and DDT);
  3. Eliminate their contribution to the progressive physical degradation and destruction of nature and natural processes (for example, over-harvesting forests and paving over critical wildlife habitat); and
  4. Eliminate their contribution to conditions that undermine people’s capacity to meet their basic human needs (for example, unsafe working conditions and not enough pay to live on)

The First and Second Laws of Thermodynamics set limiting conditions for life on earth

The First Law says that energy is conserved; nothing disappears, its form simply changes. Another way of stating this is: “Energy cannot be created, or destroyed, only modified in form.” The implications of the Second Law are that matter and energy tend to disperse over time. This is referred to as “entropy.” Putting the two laws together and applying them to our planetary system, the following facts become apparent:

  1. All the matter that will ever exist on earth is here now (First Law).
  2. Disorder increases in all closed systems and the Earth is a closed system with respect to matter (Second Law). However, it is an open system with respect to energy since it receives energy from the sun.
  3. Sunlight is responsible for almost all increases in net material quality on the planet through photosynthesis and solar heating effects. Chloroplasts in plant cells take energy from sunlight for plant growth. Plants, in turn, provide energy for other forms of life, such as animals. Evaporation of water from the oceans by solar heating produces most of the Earth’s fresh water. This flow of energy from the sun creates structure and order from the disorder.

In 1989, Robèrt wrote a paper describing the system conditions for sustainability, given the laws of thermodynamics. He sent it to 50 scientists, asking that they tell him what was wrong with his paper. On version 22, Robèrt had consensus on what was to become The Natural Step.

System conditions of sustainability

The Natural Step Framework’s definition of sustainability includes four system conditions (scientific principles) that lead to a sustainable society. These conditions, that must be met in order to have a sustainable society, are as follows:

In a sustainable society, nature is not subject to systematically increasing:

  1. concentrations of substances extracted from the Earth’s crust;
  2. concentrations of substances produced by society;
  3. degradation by physical means and, in that society,
  4. people are not subject to conditions that systematically undermine their capacity to meet their needs.

Making change happen

In a 1991 article in In Context, Educating a Nation: The Natural Step, Robèrt described how The Natural Step Framework would create change:

“I don’t believe that the solutions in society will come from the left or the right or the north or the south. They will come from islands within those organizations; islands of people with integrity who want to do something…”

“This is what a network should do — identify the people who would like to do something good. And they are everywhere. This is how the change will appear — you won’t notice the difference. It won’t be anyone winning over anyone. It will just spread. One day you don’t need any more signs saying “Don’t spit on the floor,” or “Don’t put substances in the lake which can’t be processed.” It will be so natural. It will be something that the intelligent people do, and nobody will say that it was due to The Natural Step or your magazine. It will just appear.”

The influence of The Natural Step program

According to the article cited above in Wikipedia:

Eco-municipalities, based on the Natural Step’s system conditions, originated in Sweden. Over 70 cities and towns (25 percent of all municipalities) have adopted sustainability principles based on the system conditions. There are now 12 eco-municipalities in the United States and the American Planning Association has adopted sustainability objectives based on the same principles. Communities such as Whistler and Dawson Creek, in BC have adopted the Natural Step and become more sustainable as a result. The Natural Step’s framework for sustainability provides principles that are grounded in science, and thus measurable.



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This entry was posted on November 23, 2010 by in sustainability and tagged , .
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