A Brief Overview of the Natural Step

Natural Step is a learning, motivating and strategic planning tool applicable to organisations of all types and sizes which re-orients the organisation toward a truly sustainable future.

(This information is extracted from materials of the Natural Step Institute, particularly: A Compass for Sustainable Development; Karl-Henrik Robert, Herman Daly, Paul Hawken, and John Holmberg, 10/10/95.)


Natural Step started in 1988 in Sweden by Karl-Henrik Robert, the underlying principles and ideas come from the consensus of around 100 scientists, developed in 21 iterations (drafts).

It has been implemented with excellent results by a wide range of organisations (in Sweden) such as:

The Natural Step principles simplify, without reducing to triviality, the fundamental underpinnings for sustainable life on the earth.

As a precondition of our lives, humanity can not tolerate the continual degradation of the environment. (We cannot for instance be sustained by an environment with ever lower pH values, ever increasing concentrations of heavy metals in the soils, CO2 or CFC in the atmosphere, ever decreasing areas of productive agricultural land, ever decreasing conditions for marine production, etc. We may argue about what levels we can survive within, but no- one argues that we can survive with continuous loss or degradation in living systems.)

Natural Step is based on agreement about basic science:

The cyclic principle follows from these. This means that waste must not systematically accumulate in nature, and that reconstitution of material quality must be at least as large as its dissipation. Consequently matter must be produced in cycles, i.e. the societal metabolism must be integrated into the cycles of nature. This avoids a systematic shift in environmental parameters and enables the continuing diversity of nature and human activity.

From the cyclic principle four System Conditions for the maintenance of quality in the whole system can be deduced. It is necessary to seek to satisfy these four principles for sustainability simultaneously:

System Conditions

System Condition 1. Substances from earth's crust must not systematically increase in nature.

(This means : In the sustainable society, fossil fuels, metals and other minerals must not be extracted at a faster rate than their slow redeposit and reintegration into the earth's crust. Reason: Due to the principle of matter conservation and the second law of thermodynamics, the concentration of substances in the ecosphere will increase and eventually reach limits- often unknown- beyond which irreversible changes occur. In practical terms this means in today's situation: radically decreased mining and use of fossil fuels)

Q: Does your organisation, municipality or country systematically decrease its economical dependence on underground metals, fuels and other minerals?

System Condition 2. Substances produced by society must not systematically increase in nature.

(This means: In the sustainable society, substances must not be produced at a faster pace than they an be broken down and be integrated into the cycles of nature or be deposited into the earth's crust. Reason: The concentration of substances in the ecosphere will increase and eventually reach limits - often unknown - beyond which irreversible changes occur. In practical terms, in today's situation: Decreased production of natural substances that are accumulating systematically, and a phase out of persistent unnatural substances.)

Q: Does your organisation, municipality or country systematically decrease its economical dependence on persistent unnatural substances?

System Condition 3. The physical basis (air, soil, water, sunlight, organisms) for productivity (growth and reproduction) and diversity (biodiversity) of nature must not be systematically deteriorated.

(This means: In a sustainable society we cannot harvest or manipulate the ecosystem in such a way that productive capacity and diversity systematically deteriorate. Reason: Our health and prosperity depend on the capacity of nature to re-concentrate and restructure waste into resources. In practical terms in today's situation: Sweeping changes in our use of productive land in, for instance, agriculture, forestry, fishing and planning of societies.)

Q: Does your organisation, municipality or country systematically decrease its economical dependence on activities which encroach on the productive parts of nature, e.g. long road transports or other deleterious exploitation of green surfaces, over-fishing, etc. ?

System Condition 4. Fair and efficient use of resources with respect to meeting human needs.

(Reason: Humanity must prosper with a resource metabolism meeting system conditions 1- 3. This condition is necessary in order to get social stability and cooperation for making changes in due time. In practical terms in today's situation: Increased technical and organisational efficiency throughout the whole world, including a more resource-efficient lifestyle particularly in the wealthy sectors of society. Furthermore, it implies improved means of dealing with population growth.)

Q: Does your organisation, municipality or country systematically decrease its economical dependence on using an unnecessary large amount of resources in relation to added human value?


The four system conditions provide a descriptive framework for a sustainable society. Participants on all levels - households, corporations, local authorities, nations - can systematically direct their activities to fit into this frame by requiring all secondary goals to function as natural steps in the process of achieving these four conditions of sustainability.

In a program for development, small measures can be perceived and understood within a larger goal. In this way sustainability (the four system conditions) as well as sustainable development (the program) become working definitions which can be conceptually and physically applied on all levels of a system.

Together with a strategic program, the four system conditions provide a concrete model - a compass - pointing the direction for sustainable development.

To get into sustainable direction: (Compass of sustainability)

Program Plan:

Need to do it over time, Plan the strategy of change, set targets and timetable.

Identify the foreseeable obstacles; recognise; address them; work on them over time, and push the obstacles closer to the goals.

Good Examples

Scientific Consensus in USA

In February 1997 a number of key USA scientists were convened by the US Natural Step to discuss the Natural Step program and arrived at a consensus statement:

"We believe that without solutions to the problems addressed by the Natural Step both human civilisation and biological diversity are seriously threatened. The development of appropriate solutions to these problems requires the support and contributions of the global community of scientists and engineers.

We further believe that the application of The Natural Step's four system conditions is a valid approach for addressing these problems, and is especially useful for organising information regarding sustainability. To be effective, the conditions must also be augmented by the evaluation of the environmental impacts of specific substances and practices.

We urge The Natural Step to continue to engage scientists and engineers fully in the application, testing and improvement of the System Conditions and all other aspects of its program".

Participants in the Scientific Consensus Conference (and signatories to the above) were:

How to contact the Natural Step.


Karl-Henrik Robert, Natural Step Foundation Amiralitetshuset, Skeppsholmen, S-11149 Stockholm, Sweden e-mail: Per-Olof Granstedt , Manager TNS International or Petra Dahlberg, Manager TNS International


NS Environmental Institute Australia Koonwarra PO Koonwarra, Vic 3954 056 640100, 056 640102 fax e-mail: Natural Step Institute Australia

United States :

Laraine Lomax, Coordinator, Natural Step US, 3rd Floor, School of Public Affairs, University of Maryland, College Park, MD 20742, USA. Tel: (301) 405 4765; Fax: (301) 314 9346

Paul Hawken, Natural Step, 17 Monsignor O'Brian Highway, PO Box 410-350, Cambridge, MA 02141, USA.

New Zealand:

Sarah Meads, 57 Durham St. Brooklyn, Wellington, NZ. Tel: +(64 4) 384 4425, Fax: +(64 4) 384 4496

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Updated: June 4,