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The Slippery Task of Defining Sustainability

Part One of Seven

By Jack Rosebro

One metaphor for an unsustainable world: the funnel, as used by The Natural Step. Click to enlarge.

The concept of sustainable development has moved to the forefront of many of today’s environmental movements. Sustainability means, in its simplest form, nothing more complex than “able to continue.” In its increasingly wide application, however, it risks becoming an ill-defined—albeit convenient—phrase injected into a speech, a slogan, or a mission statement.

Many automakers, having produced the by-now requisite annual environmental reports for some time, have also started to publish “sustainability reports”, which can be anything from stand-alone publications directly addressing the search for a sustainable world, to standard environmental reports which have simply been renamed.

In a seven-part weekly series, Green Car Congress will examine the content of the sustainability reports released by some of the largest automakers—and therefore some of the largest indirect producers of greenhouse gases—in the world.

But before we delve into the reports themselves, we need to look at just what sustainability has come to mean in 2006.

The Roots of Sustainability

In 1954, the American scientist Harrison Brown defined sustainability as

a process or condition that can be maintained indefinitely without depleting the energy or material resources on which it depends.

Brown’s view, as well as his anti-nuclear stance, found little support in postwar America. Half a century later, you can go to Google, the ubiquitous search engine that has, for better or worse, become the wired world’s de facto arbiter of meaning, and type in “sustainability” and “definition”; you’ll likely find that one of the most commonly cited renderings is

development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

That formulation is known as the Brundtland Commission’s definition of sustainable development, and is the definition of sustainability which is most commonly used today by both the United Nations and the European Union. It is part of a 1987 report entitled Our Common Future, published by the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED). The report came to be known as the Brundtland Report in reference to the Commission’s chairwoman, Gro Harlem Brundtland, who was the prime minister of Norway at that time.

The Brundtland Report stated, in part, that critical global environmental problems had been triggered by enormous poverty in the southern hemisphere of our planet combined with the non-sustainable patterns of consumption and production in the northern hemisphere. It called for a strategy that united development and environmental stewardship.

The report was a good start, and it’s a definition that even today gives many people a warm and fuzzy feeling—but almost twenty years later, many students of sustainable development have come to view the Brundtland Commission’s concept of sustainability as, well, unsustainable. What, really, are our true needs? And what will be the needs of future generations? How many of them will there be, and when?

And there’s the rub. Sustainability can easily become a subjective ideal—a slippery concept that translates with difficulty to the real world. It is often described as a three-legged stool that must be supported by economic, ecological, and social issues, but the three-legged stool of sustainability represents an ideal rather than a framework.

One approach to providing a framework defining quantifiable and thus measurable steps for working towards sustainability is The Natural Step, founded in Sweden in 1989. The Natural Step Framework establishes a science- and systems-based approach to organizational planning for sustainability.

The Natural Step

The story of how The Natural Step came to be has an almost fairy-tale quality to it. Karl-Henrik Robért, a doctor of oncology in that country, worked with an endless stream of parents bringing their children to his clinic to be treated for cancer. These men and women would seemingly do anything to help their offspring, yet Robért found many of them indifferent to environmental concerns, even though the cancer’s origin—a single cell entering a malignant transformation—might well have been caused by man-made toxins.

Robért wondered if a simple framework could be constructed which any individual, business, or corporation could use to mark and measure how close they came to an ideal of sustainability. He wrote a manifesto of sorts, and sent it out to fifty scientists, who promptly tore it apart.

He incorporated their suggestions and sent it back out—twenty-one times—until none of them found fault with his framework. With the support of Sweden’s King Gustav, a copy of that framework, which by then had been named The Natural Step, or TNS, was mailed to every Swedish citizen. More than 70 Swedish municipalities have since adopted the framework, and 60 corporations, including Ikea, Electrolux, Sweden’s McDonalds, Scandic Hotels, and Nike have incorporated The Natural Step frameworks into their way of doing business.

The Framework

Proponents of TNS use the metaphor of a funnel to describe our increasingly unsustainable world. As we move farther into the funnel, we are more and more constrained by its narrowing walls: one symbolizing our expanding appetite for natural resources, and the other representing the decline of such resources.

According to the framework of The Natural Step, the origins of all environmental problems can be described in four ways, which are referred to as system conditions. The first three system conditions are rooted in science, while the fourth system condition addresses social inequity.

The Four System Conditions of The Natural Step

In a sustainable society:

  1. Nature is not subject to concentrations of naturally toxic materials extracted from the earth’s crust (such as lead, mercury, or cadmium);

  2. Nature is not subject to concentrations of persistent materials which are foreign to nature;

  3. Nature is not subject to a destruction of resources in a way that reduces or eliminates their capacity for self-renewal;

  4. The needs of humanity are met worldwide (An alternate wording is providing for the needs of all before the luxuries of a few).

The Natural Step is one of the easiest things to get people to buy into, even though they may not be able to remember what the Four System Conditions are. Once they’ve been exposed to them, they have an instinctive understanding of what is being talked about. It’s easier to get people to relate to this, as opposed to other management concepts that are designed to motivate people. This is one that you can internalize quickly.

—Jim Quinn, CEO, Collins Pine Company

Cover of the Whistler 2020 report.

The Natural Step has grown beyond the borders of Sweden. One of the more visible examples of how TNS can be applied to community planning is the resort community of Whistler, British Columbia, the future site of Alpine and Nordic events during the upcoming 2010 Winter Olympics.

Whistler adopted the TNS framework in 2002, and recently updated their strategy towards sustainability, which is described in a document entitled Whistler 2020—Moving Toward a Sustainable Future. Other communities have used Whistler as a template for their own environmental management programs.

Despite its successes elsewhere, TNS has had a hard time getting a foothold in the US beyond some notable early successes in the corporate sector, and The Natural Step US is reportedly being reorganized.

Steady-State Economics

One of the most persistent roadblocks to the search for a sustainable world may be the framework of our economic system itself. The late Dr. M. King Hubbert, a geophysicist best known for his remarkably accurate 1956 prediction that US oil production would peak around 1970 (a prediction now known as Hubbert’s Peak), was also an early advocate for what is now called steady-state economics.

Hubbert felt that we had two choices: try to pursue a steady, sustainable state of economics at a relatively comfortable standard of living, or be forced later to pursue it at a miserable level.

His view was later echoed by economist Manfred Max-Neef, who wrote in 1995 that

...for every society there seems to be a period in which economic growth—conventionally understood and measured—brings about an improvement in the quality of life, but only up to a point—the threshold point—beyond which, if there is more economic growth, quality of life may begin to deteriorate.

Perhaps the best-known advocate of steady-state economics is Herman Daly, a former senior economist at the World Bank and currently a professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy, who used the term steady-state economics as early as 1973, and outlined his concepts in the 1996 book Beyond Growth, among others.

Ecological Footprints

Asia-Pacific regional increase in use of biocapacity in relation to population, as charted by the Global Footprint Network

In 1994, William Rees and Mathis Wackernagel wrote a dissertation that sought to quantify the amount of land and water area a human population requires to produce the resources it consumes and to absorb its wastes under prevailing technology. The amount of human population that a given land and/or matter mass can support is called its biocapacity.

The work of Rees and Wackernagel has grown into the Global Footprint Network, and their hope is “to make the Ecological Footprint as prominent a metric as the Gross Domestic Product (GDP).” Other non-governmental organizations (NGOs) around the globe have initiated similar initiatives, such as the Australia Institute’s Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI).

Getting Down on the GNP

The economic footprint of the world’s economic systems, however, is currently measured as gross national product (GNP), the most commonly accepted indicator of an economy’s relative robustness. But as Robert F. Kennedy noted almost forty years ago, in a speech familiar to many students of sustainability,

Our gross national product—if we should judge America by that—counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for those who break them. It counts the destruction of our redwoods and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and the cost of a nuclear warhead, and armored cars for police who fight riots in our streets...It measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it tells us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.

The reworking of the world’s transportation and energy sectors to reduce the burden they place on our planet is a daunting task, but that task pales in comparison to the prospect of rewiring the entire economic system. By any measure—by any solution—we have a long way to go before the ideal of sustainability can be seen on the horizon.

Assessing the Automakers

The automakers’ sustainability reports differ so much from one another that it would be difficult to employ a single method of evaluation. Therefore, as we move through the next six pieces in this series, we will not impose any one framework on all. Rather, it is the methodologies of the reports themselves that will be part of the focus.

Next week: reading between the lines of BMW’s 2005 Sustainability Report




If the monetary system(s) of the planet ceased to have ANY significant externalities then the rest of the system would adapt to reality

It is not necessary for the numbers used to be precisely exactly correct, ONLY that they have the correct order of magnitude relationship(s) to each other

Make this change & the desired state(s) of the planetary systems will follow over time

Think it through !

Thanks for doing this blog; a breath of much needed fresh air

"We are accustomed to the new land yet attached to the old country" - anon


daCascadian, There exists an economic system that proposes to factor the externalities into the cost of goods and services, amongst many other adjustments to enable sustainable steady-state living without resorting to centrally planned authoritarian type of control:

Participatory Economy


If you had to pay the real cost of everything you got you wouldnt get anything.

An Engineer

Soon to come: "Take a good look at America around you now, because when we emerge from the winter of 2006-7,..." or would it be 2007-8, or 2010-11..?

Earth calling Kunstler: Ready to admit you got it WRONG? Again?

David Cook Chief Executive The Natural Step International

Good to see the reverence to TNS here. The System Conditions you quote are somewhat out of date. For up to date dta please contact us. Lots of good activities are going on in the US with TNS.


Dear david
Please let us know the up to date ersion of the System conditions

Jack Rosebro

Hello Puni,

Below is the most recent version that I've seen of the Natural Step Framework's four system conditions:

In a sustainable society, nature is not subject to systematically

I concentrations of substances extracted from the Earth's crust,
II concentrations of substances produced by society
II degradation by physical means

and, in that society...

IV people are not subject to conditions that systematically undermine
their capacity to meet their needs.

Thanks, Jack

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