July 12, 1994
In my last column, I described how Dr. Karl-Henrik Robert, one of Sweden’s leading cancer researchers, launched a creative national consensus-building process. The goal: to shift the national debate over the environment from “the character of monkey chatter amidst the withering leaves of a dying tree–the leaves representing specific, isolated problems” to a systemic approach to the underlying problems, in the belief that “if we heal the trunk and the branches, the benefits for the leaves will follow naturally.”
The journal “In Context” described the goal a bit more bluntly: “to muffle the quibbling over exactly how bad our environmental problems are and focus attention instead on what can be done immediately to turn things around.”
The national consensus that Robert found after circulating some 21drafts to scientists, business leaders, environmentalists, and government is the is the foundation for The Natural Step, a systematic effort to shift from a linear to a cyclical economy. The Natural Step describes the linear economy of our industrial age as “evolution in reverse,” processing resources into accumulating “visible and molecular rubbish,” in contrast to the cyclical processes of biological systems.
The Natural Step has earned the endorsement of Sweden’s king and many corporate leaders, and its materials have been distributed to every household in Sweden. “Today,” notes Robert Eronn, writing the in Swedish Institute’s “Current,” “the main focus of the organization’s work is on education in companies and municipalities, using a checklist based on four fundamental ecological principles:
Does the action
– reduce the use of finite mineral resources?
– reduce the use of long-lived synthetic products or molecules?
– preserve or increase natural diversity and the capacity of ecocycles?
– reduce the consumption of energy and other resources?
One focus of attention is local government. Seventeen local governments have declared themselves “eco-municipalities.” They are among dozens of local governments creating goals for environmental improvement and building voluntary agreement with residents, retailers and manufacturers to help meet those goals. For example, to reduce load on municipal water treatment systems, residents are educated to shop for cleaning products that generate less toxic and nutrient load, while retailers encourage their suppliers to come up with cleaner products. This chain of influence complements environmental education of the business community, which in turn complements traditional environmental regulations–and the results may be an example of a whole greater than the sum of its parts.
“In the Swedish convenience goods trade,” according to Eronn, “environmental isues have begun to assume a role that few people could have imagined only four or five years ago.” Chlorine-bleached paper products are largely gone from shelves, a trend moving much more slowly in North America.
The Federation of Swedish Farmers has taken on the mission of “moving toward the world’s cleanest agriculture,” aiming at a significant reduction in use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. In addition to developing a consensus document specific to agriculture, the Federation is providing support to farmers choosing their production from chemical based to organic agriculture.
The IKEA furniture retail chain is conducting life cycle analyses of the environmental impact of all products it sells, according to Eronn, and suppliers are changing manufacturing processes and materials “to meet ecocyclical requirements.” In addition, the company’s entire workforce, as well as its suppliers, are getting basic environmental training, so that employees can understand these changes and explain them to customers.
Even the mountain resort industry has responded to The Natural Step, applying its systematic approach to environmental challenges through a systematic evaluation of the entire industry. Eronn reports that “everything from restaurant operations to snow scooters and machines used to prepare ski runs will come under scrutiny,” as the industry tries to recreate itself in harmony with these new environmental standards.
It’s hard to know whether The Natural Step’s consensus-based approach can work in a less homogeneous society–or in a much larger country than Sweden. But it certainly seems worth a try. Replication efforts have begun in Switzerland, Norway, the Netherlands and Poland, and Dr. Robert will be meeting with business, community and government leaders in the US this fall. It will be interesting to see how that complex society reacts to the disarming simplicity of The Natural Step.
Of course, common sense is alive even in the US; we don’t need signs in every store, office or home saying “Don’t spit on the floor.” As Dr. Robert puts it, “One day we won’t need any more signs saying ‘Don’t put substances in the lake which can’t be processed.’ It will be so natural.”