The Natural Step Story—Seeding A Quiet Revolution

By Karl-Henrik Robèrt
Copyright 2002
New Society Publishers
$29.95, 288 pages

Reviewed by Richard Walthers


This outstanding story is a first person account of how cancer scientist Karl-Henrik Robèrt founded The Natural Step. In it he describes the influences behind his ideas, and the evolution of his thinking. Although it does detail the system conditions of The Natural Step and how it was adopted by IKEA, McDonald’s and Interface, the real interest lies in the story itself. It’s not so much the system that is enlightening as it is the incredible leg work, the perseverance, and timely good fortune that went into its creation.

Written in a very humble but enthusiastic voice, this is a compelling story of how the author manages to work through doubts, lack of resources and opposition in his quest to devise a scientifically based system that could transform modern society to sustainability. He accomplished the amazing task of getting scientists to agree on what the four basic mechanisms by which our society damages nature. The four system conditions that are required for true sustainability are the understanding that nature’s resources are finite, that nature cannot continue to absorb all the synthetic substances produced by man, that nature cannot tolerate man-made physical degradation, and finally that human needs have to be met worldwide.

It is these ideas and his process to get everyone to agree as to how we should live with nature, conduct our business and govern ourselves that holds such great promise for the future. All during his implementation process he attempts to diffuse disagreement and contentiousness and focus on common ground to get generally adversarial opponents to agree and move forward with positive results. The author suggests that he is not a politician, but perhaps he is one of the greatest due to his consensus building skills.

The appendices of this book are extremely useful because they detail the philosophy, goals, objectives, core values and process of The Natural Step. One of the appendices is an example of two Swedish agriculture organizations using it to gain a collective long-range perspective. This is important reading for anyone remotely interested in the environment or for anyone who likes a good story about the inner workings of how great things are accomplished through the efforts of one man.