The Natural Step in Portland

Finding information that is relevant can be a tough exercise and many times and waste of time. However, Google Alerts provide a way to do that in a easy way. One alert that I have is with the key words “Sweden Sustainability”. Sweden has been on the forefront of sustainability implementation and examples from Sweden would be a good learning exercise. And that is how I found Eli Zigas and his tour to understand sustainability and community issues around the US. In Portland, he is discussing “The Natural Step”.

If Portland, OR steps to different beat, Sweden steps to a different drum. For example, McDonald’s in Sweden serves organic milk and beef, recycles 97 percent of all restaurant waste, and powers over half of its 160 stores, as well as the national headquarters, with renewable energy. This puts the largest burger giant’s green wrecking ball squarely through the window of most American burger chains, even Portland, Oregon’s local environmental burger chain, Burgerville.

Given the fertile grounds for environmental change, it’s no wonder that Sweden gave rise to what I see as the latest and greatest environmental advancement: recognizing that the environment does not exist in a void (“oh yes, there are societies and economies!”) and using that knowledge to create metrics regarding true sustainability. Not sustainability as you find it described in a car commercial; rather, sustainability you can capture, put in a vial, and show to your freshman science class.

Developed in 1989 by Swedish oncologist Karl-Henrik Robert, the Natural Step is a framework that can help guide our actions. Robert, through a peer-reviewed process, determined four guiding principles, officially known as “system conditions,” that define sustainability in scientific terms:

In a sustainable global society, the ecosphere is not subject to systematically increasing…

1. Concentrations of substances extracted from the earth’s crust
Examples: Fossil fuels, metals, and minerals
2. Concentrations of substances produced by society (synthetics)
Examples: Persistent substances (DDT, PCB’s…), plastics, Freon
3. Degradation by physical means
Examples: Over-harvesting (forests, oceans…), eliminating biodiversity
and in that society,
4. People are not subject to conditions that systematically undermine their capacity to meet their basic needs
Examples: Overpopulation, unlivable wages, environmental and social inequity

We can define a system as sustainable if it does not violate any of the above conditions. Notice that the Natural Step defines sustainability in a negative way – by only describing what should not be done, rather than prescribing a specific solution, the Natural Step allows for innovative solutions. Innovative solutions for, let’s say, pressing environmental and Native American issues (Udall? Anyone?). As long as you do not violate the system conditions, anything is fair game. The Natural Step helps do for sustainability what the green movement has not: create a standard definition for environmental, social, and economic responsibility.


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