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Getting the big picture

The Natural Step was formulated in Sweden through a process of consultation which involved many people from many places. One town and one man were, however, very influential.

Overtornea is a very small town of about 6000 inhabitants in northern Sweden that was very hard hit by economic recession in the early 1980's. Through general consultation citizens were able to come up with methods which, though aimed at protecting their little patch of earth from the inroads of historical and environmental degradation, served to lead their entire area out of economic ruin. These methods were based upon principles of an economy which would be sustainable into the future rather than constantly consuming its resources and environment. They created 200 new companies in the first six years. They became the living inspiration for the 1992 UN Rio Summit on the environment, and contributed heavily to the decisions made there.

Their efforts inspired a cancer specialist, Dr. Karl-Henrik Robert, who worked out a set of over-arching principles with the collaboration of numerous other scientists and scholars in Scandinavia.

The main premise is that we are facing two processes:

1. The natural world and its systems are being systematically interfered with. Our air, water, soil and biocommunities are being damaged by pollution and misuse so that they are able to provide less and less of our most basic needs. Finite natural resources are being used up at a very rapid rate.

2 Human growth is out of control. The human population is not only growing at a rapidly increasing rate, an increasing percent of that population is involved in the destructive processes mentioned in number 1.

These two processes are likened to a funnel or the walls of a canyon through which humanity is traveling into the future.

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They are at present converging upon one another so that our options for travel into the future become narrower and narrower. There may be controversy about what is causing the narrowing and at what point the canyon walls will come together so that life is no longer tenable on our little planet, but that these walls are closing in and must some day meet if the present trends continue, cannot be denied by anyone who carefully considers the evidence.

We must find a way to meet our physical and creative needs that does not lead to destruction.

It will help to keep in mind Nature's example:

    • All energy ultimately comes from the sun.

    • One creature's waste is another creature's food.

    • Diversity equals resilience.

Four principles will guide us through the narrow gorge ahead and hopefully lead to a widening vista in the future:

1. In a sustainable society, nature is not subject to systematically increasing concentrations of substances extracted from the Earth's crust. Heavy metals and the other minerals we have been mining are, to a great extent, intrinsically toxic and can only be removed at low levels without harmful effects to nature.

2. In a healthy society, nature is not subject to systematically increasing concentrations of substances produced by society. Synthetic substances have been manufactured at a rate faster than they can be broken down to be used safely by Nature. The EPA lists over 70,000 chemicals in common use. Many remain in circulation for decades and their harmful effects continue to surface, cancer being one of many.

3. In a viable society, nature is not subject to systematically increasing degradation by physical means. We are covering our permeable soil with impermeable asphalt and concrete at a phenomenal rate. Our topsoil is going into the seas all over the earth much faster than it can be built up. Our forests are decreasing all over the world. Plant and animal populations are facing extinction because of fragmentation of their environments.

4. In a survivable society, human needs are met universally. Wherever there are great extremes of wealth or poverty, the destruction to the environment is greatest. As long as there are pockets of extreme need, there will be unrest and desperation. No person can be expected to just lie down and die because they were born in the wrong place. Records show that wherever there is a stable economy and social order, the birthrate stabilizes or falls.

These four principles lead to four fundamental practices which should guide all plans and activities of any community or nation that hopes to continue for generations to come:

1. Eliminate the community's contribution to fossil fuel dependence and to wasteful and wanton extraction of metals and minerals from the earth.

2. Eliminate or reduce the community's dependence upon persistent chemicals and unnecessary use of synthetic substances.

3. Curtail the community's physical encroachment upon nature.

4. Eliminate barriers to every individual meeting their basic needs.

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If all four of these points are given even weight, the outcome will be beneficial to the community and to the planet as well. Then we will be able to bequeath to our descendants a world of beauty and abundance.

"The Natural Step for Communities: How Cities and Towns Can Change to Sustainable Practices" by Sarah James and Torbjorn Lahti contains many remarkable examples of dynamic progress being made around the world. Many of the most advanced projects are in Scandinavia where communities and businesses have embraced The Natural Step and the complimentary Eco-Municipality concept. More than 90 cities, towns and counties have adopted these principles to become certified eco-municipalities. In Wisconsin there are close to 30 municipal governments that have adopted these guidelines and are actively working to put them into practice. Ikea and Scandic Hotels are outstanding examples of businesses that have founded their future on sustainability.

Projects include communities who have taken on the job of completely dividing out their recyclables and thereby forced government and industry to accept and use them. Whole city fleets run on rape seed oil and/or bio-methane from municipal sewage treatment plants, which include marshlands for the final processing. Community heating plants using municipal waste to power the furnaces. Green roofs and parking facilities that channel water into full usage without creating pollution or erosion. Etc. etc.

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Sponsored by Sustain Door, of Door County, Wisconsin, USA