Dr. Karl-Henrik Robert has pioneered a new way for governments and industry to look at their environmental responsibiliites as well as the bottom line. His program, The Natural Step, calls institutions to see their role in an ecosystem that has finite resources.

By William Allen
Of the Post-Dispatch

Aug. 1, 1999

Edited by Virginia Baldwin Gilbert

Dr. Karl-Henrik Robert is a cancer specialist and a lifelong nature lover. He also is a parent.

He has seen the love behind parents caring for their cancer-stricken children, yet he is perplexed by those same parents' lack of concern about the environmental damage that may destroy their children's world.

"On the one hand we destroy the habitat of our children, and on the other we are very wonderful when we need to protect them," Robert said in a recent interview.

This paradox has plagued him.

In the 1980s he was determined to find a way around the constant squabbling between pro-business and pro-environment factions.

The result was a science-based environmental movement known as The Natural Step, a program to sustain both profit and the natural world.

He won over kings, corporate titans and ordinary workers, giving them a way to apply their parental instincts toward caring for their children's future world.

And that is why the planners for a meeting of 5,000 of the world's top plant scientists chose a cancer physician to open the 16th International Botanical Congress on Sunday at America's Center.

He is, in the words of Peter Raven, director of the Missouri Botanical Garden, "one of the world's leading environmentalists."

Robert will describe the meaning of sustainability and the responsibility of scientists to move the concept into the public arena.

Robert, 51, of Stockholm, has been dubbed the Rachel Carson of Sweden, a reference to the late American scientist-author whose book, "Silent Spring," launched a wave of modern American environmentalism. He's also been called a prophet of the green business movement.

In 1989, Robert engineered a consensus among leading Swedish scientists about a set of principles aimed at helping businesses reduce their negative impact on the environment while remaining profitable.

Robert's group, the Natural Step, took the dry-sounding concept of "sustainability" and helped people see how they could take action to accomplish it.

Put simply, the guidelines encourage businesses and government to find ways to reduce waste and human impact on the natural systems that make life on Earth possible. (See a list of the guidelines on this page.)

The guidelines are based on sobering scientific observations: Our planet's life-support systems -- including forests, fisheries, croplands, the ozone layer and groundwater -- are declining.

Said Robert: "As we busy ourselves with tearing down more than we rebuild, we are racing toward worldwide poverty in a monstrous, poisonous garbage dump. The only thing that can save us from the consequences is the restoration of cyclical processes, where wastes become new resources for society or nature."

The Natural Step's guidelines and call to action were backed by King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden, several corporations, the Swedish Church and the Swedish Cancer Union. The guidelines were distributed in a booklet and audiotape to every home and school in the nation.

Leading supermarket chains, insurance companies, banks, other businesses and municipalities incorporated The Natural Step principles into their practices.

The idea spread beyond Sweden.

Today, The Natural Step is a worldwide, nonprofit environmental organization with offices in the United States, the United Kingdom, Japan and several other countries.

Nike, Mitsubishi Electric America and other corporations have adopted the principles into strategic business decisions and daily operations.

Many claim the program cuts waste and improves profits. For example:

* The Swedish hotel chain Scandic had been losing $5 million a year when it implemented the program. Among other moves, Scandic hotels switched from bar soap to soap dispensers, saving several tons of soap and packaging. Customers supported a decision to stop laundering room linens daily. Morale improved among employees, the chain's image changed, and occupancy rates rose. The chain regained profitability.

* Interface, a U.S. flooring company with plants in more than two dozen countries, used the program to cut $38 million from its annual $70 million waste stream -- the waste it produced as part of its manufacturing processes.

Among all the environmentalists in the world, how did Robert and the Natural Step get the attention of kings and titans?

He kept the focus on the big picture -- how can we care for the Earth, our home and our children's home. His message does not accuse nor confront.

"First, it's essential that a consensus process focus, at least to begin with, on overall principles rather than details," Robert said. "The basic principles and large perspectives are much easier to reach consensus about than about details . . . If you go for details right away, the discussion ends up in confusion and bickering about details that might not even be important to reach consensus about."

Next, he said, leaders must continuously ask for advice from others in the discussion.

What differentiates Robert's philosophy from that of traditional environmental groups is its methods. Rather than forming regulatory agencies to identify and punish offenders, adherents of the Natural Step might lobby CEOs of chemical companies and government officials to try to meet the general principles.

The goal is to effect broader change throughout an industry and the international community, even if incrementally. Natural Step supporters try to achieve this by meeting with government and industry leaders and offering ways to adopt the policies of sustainability while keeping an eye on the bottom line.

"One of the key elements behind the success of The Natural Step is not to be prescriptive," he said.

Once people understand the Natural Step principles, Robert said, they're asked what they could do right where they are, with what they have.

Said Robert: "People who are challenged by this are partners in the growing network. We don't 'go after' the others."

What is Natural Step?

The Natural Step movement is based on four "System Conditions" that could be considered a list of commandments for a cleaner world.

1. "Substances from the Earth's crust must not systematically increase in nature."

A sustainable society will not burn such fossil fuels as gas and mine metals at a rate that causes their increase on land and in the atmosphere and water. A rise in such substances harms living things and their ecosystems, including contaminating animals and ground water.

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

A sustainable society will avoid generating increases of such "persistent substances" as DDT, PCBs and freon. They can harm living things and deplete the ozone layer.

3. "The physical basis for the productivity and diversity of nature must not systematically be diminished."

A sustainable society will avoid taking more from the biosphere than can be replenished by nature. Also, people will avoid encroaching on nature by destroying the habitat of other species.

4. "We must be fair and efficient in meeting basic human needs."

A sustainable society will improve technical and organizational efficiency and live using fewer resources and producing less waste, especially in affluent areas.

Source: The Natural Step