New Bottom Line Volume 3.12 – The Natural Step (1): From Linear to Cyclical Economy

June 28, 1994

In a marvel of both process and content, a Swedish physician may have changed the course of the environmental debate.

“Imagine the following,” Robert Gilman writes in the quarterly journal In Context. “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 rmearkable 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 Robert.” (Row-BEAR)

Dr. Robert, one of Sweden’s leading cancer researchers, despaired of the quality and level of focus of the environmental debate. “Up to now,” he notes, “much of the debate over the environment has had the character of monkey chatter amidst the withering leaves of a dying tree–the leaves representing specific, isolated problems….In the midst of all this chatter, very few of us have been paying attention to the environment’s trunk and branches….We must learn to deal with environmental problems at the systemic level; if we heal the trunk and the branches, the benefits for the leaves will follow naturally.”

Five years ago, Robert attempted to draft the consensus about the “trnk of the tree” that could provide the basis for effective, nationwide action. He circulated the draft to leading scientists, asking them to identify what was wrong, what was missing. He revised it, circulated it again, and in all repeated this cycle 21 times–never defending a point of view, but rather asking, listening and revising. The result: not only a national consensus that has won the support of both business leaders and environmentalists, but also a uniquely clear exposition of the biological science that underlies our environmental problems. It’s worth reproducing here:

“Presentations of the consensus knowledge can start with the living cell, which is our common link to each other and to the rest of nature. Plant cells are also the engines of production in the biosphere and the foundation of our economic activities.

“Material value is produced by concentrating and structuring matter into useful forms. Yet due to the law of nature that “everything disperses” (the 2nd law of thermodynamics) all productive activities will always cause greater dispersal and disruption elsewhere. Plant cells are the engine for creating value in the biosphere since only they can oppose the tide of constant decay by using energy from the sun. The other law of nature, “nothing disappears” (the law of conservation of matter) shows how every atom has only two choices: it either becomes new resources or accumulating junk.

“Over the past three and a half billion years living cells have processed matter in natural cycles, transforming the original toxic stew into a clean, diverse biosphere. However for the last hundred or so years human societies have been processing resources in a linear direction, into visible and molecular rubbish which is accumulating. This is evolution in reverse. Adapting our societies to cyclical processes is a non-negotiable requirement if we want to keep our health and prosperity.

“In all areas of activity we need positive models showing practical steps toward a cyclic sustainable society. To provide and attractive role model these good examples should be economically and ecologically sound, and capable of being further developed.

“There are four ecological system conditions for a good example:

  1. Stored deposits: less use of underground mineral deposits.
  2. Alien compounds: less use of persistent artificial substances.
  3. Eco-systems: greater diversity and capacity.
  4. Metabolism: reduced need for energy and materials.”

This framework provides a clear, practical approach that can cut through the Gordian knot of technical and political debate. “Instead of postponing action” Dr. Robert observes, “in the hope of obtaining unequivocal data regarding ‘safe’ levels [of synthetic, bio-accumulative substances]–data that never materialize–the conclusion should be to make an immediate decision that will prevent continued accumulations of pollutants in nature.”

In my next column: how The Natural Step from a linear to a cyclical economy is being put into action in Sweden, at national and local levels, by business, government and citizens.

(c) 1994 Gil Friend. All rights reserved.

New Bottom Line is published periodically by Natural Logic, offering decision support software and strategic consulting that help companies and communities prosper by embedding the laws of nature at the heart of enterprise.

Gil Friend, systems ecologist and business strategist, is President and CEO of Natural Logic, Inc.

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