SCHUMACHER LECTURE 1995
CYCLE OF NATURE
Resurgence Magazine on-line
If we think systematically, we will stop asking, ‘How much is nature worth?’
We will know that we are a piece of nature ourselves.
Great stream, stream through our world for the trees own your power
for the grass exudes your balm
Great stream, stream through our birth for in birth is your flowing
for celebration channels your flood.
THE SONG WE HAVE just heard from Olivia Boot is about the great stream of life, which concerns us all, since we live from a continuous conversion of matter – or resources — into waste. We could perceive the whole system of life and industry and everything that moves as fragile propellers taking power from a continuous stream of decay. This stream is essential to life, but how much do we know about it?
This is a way of talking about ‘systems thinking’.
A system, as everyone knows, is constructed according to a set of overall principles. For example, in football there are eleven players in each team. In this game-system, there is one ball, two goals and a bunch of other rules. We don’t approach the referee before the match: ‘Please could we have fourteen players in our team today . . .?’ The players all understand the overall principles of football, and these rules are non-negotiable at least for the duration of the match. There are also people with different skills in the team: a goalkeeper, strikers, and so forth. They work together as an intelligent team because they share the same mental model.
All this is simple to explain to you because, in individuals, the brain excels at systems thinking. We don’t have to learn to do it. We are born and programmed that way. A little child, for instance, does not even have a language to think with, but is presented with a continuous flow of words and sounds, with no intervals between the words. Yet even without the benefit of a language to think with, the child identifies the overall principle of those sounds. The overall meaning and principles of the language are decodified by a mind that doesn’t even have a language to think with. In terms of computer science, this is a truly amazing feat. The most advanced super-computer is a ridiculous toy in comparison with the human brain!
Yet, in spite of possessing individual genius for systems thinking, we are generally inept when we try to do so in groups. Whenever people try to specialize within an organization, so that one person takes care of purchasing and another is responsible for marketing, there is a tendency to get sloppy about the overall principles of what they are trying to achieve. In other words, what is second nature to the individual brain almost never takes place in an organization. On the other hand, a group of people is so much more knowledgeable than a single individual; hence, if they actually sit down and study the overall principles, a team can of course become much smarter than the individual.
An example of this is when the Americans brought together astronomers, computer specialists, physiologists etc. who studied and talked and trained until everybody had exactly the same perception of the overall principles of the project at hand. After a while they were able to put an electric car on the moon. The project could never have been completed by one brain. It would have taken too much time to learn every element. Our problem is that we can’t run electric cars on Earth, where we live and where the socio-economic benefits would be so much greater than running them on the moon!
WE COULD IMAGINE some consultants coming in from outer space to try to help Earth’s inhabitants in something they worry about. The inhabitants are worried about the prospect of destroying their own habitat. What could the consultants say to help them? To begin with, they could explain that Earth’s system is closed with regard to matter, because of gravity. Matter can be neither produced nor disposed of. But the system is open to energy. The sun shines on it, and heat exits continuously. Life appears within a continuous stream of decay which is reorganized back into new resources. This can also be viewed with the second law of thermodynamics, which means that everything has a tendency to decay and disperse. We already experience this, as we struggle to protect our possessions. But no matter how much we polish our cars they will eventually disperse into rust.
Matter doesn’t disappear. It cannot be consumed. What we can consume is quality or material value, defined as the concentration and structure of matter. If some substance is not concentrated at all, then it cannot be worth anything. However, if it is concentrated, it very often has a value that can be sold. Iron ore can be sold because it contains a higher proportion of iron than the surroundings. It can then be further concentrated so that eventually it becomes pure. The price per kilo increases during that process. Finally it can be designed and structured into a tractor, which makes the price go up even more.
We can analyse this with reference to a small system, like a bathtub of clean water. When ink is added, it disperses and becomes invisible. This does not mean, obviously, that it has disappeared. As more and more ink is added, the water in the bathtub slowly turns light blue. Would anyone try to sell this diluted ink? Could anyone sell the water polluted by the ink? Separately, the components had a purity with value attached, which could have been sold. But mixed together, the value has not only gone down to zero but actually dipped below zero, because it has become a disposal problem.
Because of the second law of thermodynamics our world would be doomed to decay if it wasn’t for the fact that energy is obtained from outside the system, reconcentrating and restructuring substances in the ecosphere ‘free of charge’. There is only one large scale production unit which systematically ‘pays the bills’ from decay in our habitat, and that is the plant cell. The plant cell does not need to run a combustion process in order to produce. It is the primary producer, working free of charge, net concentrating and restructuring of the decay products from everything, including human beings.
We do not have solar cells on our heads, so we need to run a combustion process, eating a variety of things and breathing in oxygen. Our bodies emit waste products. But the trick is that ‘the bills’ are all paid because the solar driven water cycles and solar driven winds feed waste products into new primary production. This cycle is the stream of life going on all around us.
IF OUR CELLS ARE compared with plant cells, the differences are so astonishingly scarce that it is almost embarrassing. The one major difference between human cells and plant cells is that the latter have chloroplasts which are able to utilize solar energy. Even some of our genes are identical to those of plants. If we go far enough back in time, we all come from the plants. Hence we have genes in common even with the most primitive imaginable yeast fungi. The conditions required by cells are non-negotiable. We cannot urge them to process mercury or other chemicals which we allow to leak into nature. We cannot expect immunity when other species are being damaged. And still we continue to ask the question, ‘How much is nature worth?’ We forget that we are a piece of nature ourselves.
So the great stream of life refers to the quality cycle between plant cells and animal cells, with quality being run down by animal cells and rebuilt by plant cells. But there is also a very slow cycle between nature and the Earth’s crust in sedimentation and bio-mineralization processes, leading to the formation of coal and various mineral ores, etc. And there are tiny reverse flows from volcano eruptions and weathering of rock, but these flows are slow and slight in comparison with the strong, rapid sun driven quality cycle.
If the consultants on the moon had been standing there about 4.5 billion years ago, they would then have seen for themselves the original chaotic soup of inorganic materials such as ammonia, methane and other toxic dispersed ‘junk’. The first cell appeared on the scene one billion years later, according to the scientific evolutionary model. Cell division took place, and within another billion years there were some very primitive organisms around. The surplus of sulphurous compounds and heavy metals that could not be utilized by the life cycles accompanied dying cells as they sank to the bottom of lakes and the ocean, and were mineralized into rock after millions of years. Dispersed junk was either recruited into life itself or deposited into the Earth’s rock. In this way, the toxic soup was turned into resources.
Then came the animal cell, one billion years ago. By this time the Earth was clean; there were food and oxygen, both provided by plants. Then came the dinosaurs and then came humans. Along a time scale represented by a railway line from the very south of England to the northern tip of Scotland, the first civilizations appear as the train jerks to a halt at the very last station in Scotland. So we haven’t been around for very long, but most of the time that we have been here we have fitted reasonably well with the cycles of life.
HOWEVER, THE LAST century has seen a drastically increasing linear flow of materials, powered by fossil fuel sources. The end products from rubbish bins, chimneys, exhaust pipes, drains and sewage treatment works, do not simply disappear – nothing can disappear. Any of this which is not recruited into new resources, by either society or nature, will accumulate as waste whilst at the same time the available resources will diminish. All environmental issues linked to survival take part in this linear process. Human societies can survive in the long term only if we regain the balance between the consumption and recreation of resource quality.
There are four conditions for achieving this balance within the whole system of ecosphere and society; we can call them system conditions. The first is that we do not take more from the Earth’s crust than is slowly redeposited. If we do, there will be a systematic increase of matter from the Earth’s crust because matter disperses but cannot disappear. To begin with, this matter collects up in products in society, but sooner or later, it will accumulate as dispersed matter in society. Hence, even if we recycle 95% of all batteries containing cadmium, and in each technical cycle only 5% escapes into nature, a time will come when the entire cadmium content from our mines has leaked into nature. In other words, there will be a systematic increase in nature. So the rationale for recycling minerals from the Earth’s crust is that it should lie so efficient that we do not need to take more from the Earth’s crust than is slowly being redeposited.
System condition number two is this: nature cannot sustain a systematic increase of chemical compounds. At present there are around 70,000 of them – PCBs, DDT, dioxins, bromide organic compounds are just a few examples – which cannot be processed by nature because they are foreign to nature. Even such substances that can be handled by nature must not be produced at a faster pace than they can be broken down and integrated into the cycles of nature or deposited into the Earth’s crust. If not, they will continue to accumulate just like the ink in the bathtub. Everything disperses but nothing disappears. The whole global bathtub is slowly turning light blue.
The first two system conditions are rooted in chemistry. The third system condition is physical: we cannot keep on pushing nature away. The physical basis for productivity and biodiversity in nature cannot diminish. We cannot keep putting ever-increasing amounts of asphalt over green surfaces, or allowing forests to turn into deserts, or agricultural soils to be degraded, or harvesting fish stocks faster than they can regenerate. Our health and our prosperity depend on nature’s solar powered capacity to add value by reconcentrating and restructuring dispersed substances into new resources.
So there are three conditions placed on civilization on Earth. We cannot take more from the Earth’s crust than is redeposited again – which is a minimal amount compared with what we are extracting today. Secondly, we cannot emit more waste products than nature can process. And, thirdly, we must preserve nature, at least because it is the only large scale net producer of quality. How can we achieve this? The bottom line, given these three conditions, is that there must be fair use of resources in order to meet human needs on Earth. When one billion people are starving whilst another billion are overproducing disposable plastic bags, this cannot be perceived as efficiency or fairness. People whose basic human needs are not being met will hardly want to hear about system conditions. This is the challenge. The first three system conditions restrict the sustainable resource flows available to society. So, in order to achieve fairness, the available resources must be used with high levels of efficiency and sophistication. We need to do more with less.
IN SPITE OF OUR record, we are intelligent as individuals. Anybody can understand the system conditions, for instance. But together we are extremely stupid. We send out carbon dioxide specialists and ask them about the greenhouse effect. We send out cadmium specialists and ask them about cadmium toxicity. Decade after decade, society continues asking specialists the same dumb questions:
‘Has the threshold for this compound already been exceeded? Is the greenhouse effect already here? Are we already suffering from cadmium diseases in our kidneys?’ We find the scientists downstream, immersed in arguments about the extreme complexity involved. Society sits back and waits for an answer, taking this as a cue to relax. Meanwhile, the overall principles continue to be ignored and dispersed junk continues to accumulate.
Problems must be dealt with upstream. The sort of stupidity that we are displaying collectively is analogous to an individual standing in a flooding kitchen. There are three taps in the kitchen, and a fourth tap for the mains water. Instead of simply turning off the gushing taps, this individual asks questions about thresholds in the system. Where will it leak out first? Will it flood the living room or the dining
room? He phones various specialists, and they argue amongst themselves. He feels comforted by the fact that the specialists are not fully agreed. On the other hand, he does not need specialists to tell him that he is getting wet feet. The problem is obvious, so whilst the taps flow he mops the floor!
At what age does an individual get smarter than this? The answer is, when he or she is around three years of age. Suppose there is a small child and a stone is thrown over her head, hitting the wall behind her. If she were still undeveloped in her systems thinking, she would look down toward the stone. But after a certain age she would look up for explanations. Where did the stone come from? Who threw it? Why?
If systems thinking worked as smoothly in society as it does in our own brains, the dialogue would run very differently. The decision makers– that is, everyone, for we are all decision makers – would formulate questions for scientists. ‘How should we handle nature to preserve our health and economy?’ Scientists, in response, would warn about the systematic build-up of dispersed junk, the manipulation of green causes and the rising cost of postponing solutions. We would then be in a position to turn off the taps. Then we would ask them about priorities so that we could address the most serious problems first. ‘Which is the most damaging: mercury, lead or cadmium? What are the combined effects?’ The scientists would then, doubtless, answer: ‘You see, the ecology is so complex and unpredictable that we really cannot agree very much.’ The debate amongst scientists would then urge us to turn off the taps even faster.
We can see the kitchen flooding; asthma and allergies are increasing, less and less water is drinkable, more and more people cannot fred themselves. Wastes are mopped into garbage dumps, filter deposits, air, water and soil. What shall we do when all the towels are wet? Do we really need the specialists to agree every detail? Each day we delay means less resources and more dispersed junk. We haven’t even yet seen the full consequences on nature. Even when we have stopped producing persistent substances and stopped digging for minerals the problem will grow as wastes slowly leak out from society.
For example, calculations about the amount of mercury imported into society show that concentrations are ninety times higher than in nature. We cannot even say, ‘So far so good,’ because this mercury will eventually have to be disposed of, like nuclear waste. Companies without a systems perspective go out and boast: ‘We have reduced mercury emissions ‘ But we could ask them: ‘Where is the mercury now?’ If the mercury is simply transferred to filters and in other products, this is not a solution. Instead, they must stop using mercury altogether, and find a substitute which can be processed in nature. This is especially important for all minerals that are scarce in nature, since they will lead to quicker increases in concentration when they leak out.
The system conditions are not just one way of looking at these questions. They actually represent an overall frame for sustainability. Why is that? They are relevant to the whole of society, and at any scale of operation. They cover all significant environmental issues and describe the problems upstream where they can be resolved. Linking principles to details, they enable greater control over the outcome of activities, and they also make sense of other tools like environmental auditing and life-cycle analysis. Environmental auditing and life-cycle analysis without contact with the overall principles may even be dangerous in that they can lull company management into a false sense of security.
THE NATURAL STEP is an organization which helps people who want to be good examples, taking a lead by merging ecology and economy. We tell them this: there are five billion people on this Earth. The Earth is neither growing nor contracting, and resources are systematically becoming junk. It is as if civilization is running at a brick wall and the room for manoeuvre is constantly decreasing because of continual contradiction of the system conditions. Those who want to prosper economically must not invest themselves into the wall but rather towards the future market. Many business leaders already understand this. They understand that they need to observe the system conditions in their corporation or municipality. That they need to become systematically less dependent on fossil fuels, mining, persistent unnatural compounds and centralization which leads to more road transport on fertile land. The survivors in this game will be the ones who can provide most benefit to people with the least amount of resources. They will be tomorrow s winners.
Then there is the spectre of failure. A sceptic might say: ‘What if there is no hope? Civilization might not make it. If we are on the Titanic, we may as well travel first-class!’ Some people really think like this. But even if we cannot survive, even if we are bound to fail, we must ask an important question. What will the future look like for a company investing against the system conditions? It is like placing a bet against the laws of nature. Prices will rise for raw materials, there will be taxes, fees and financial penalties for dangerous emissions, as well as plummeting confidence in their business and international trade restrictions. Sooner or later, in one way or another the laws of nature will impose themselves, no matter how we act, no matter what we want to believe. We are all in the same boat and whether or not it is the Titanic, first-class means going along with the laws of nature.
What the Natural Step does is to help companies prosper by making the right investments at the right time. In this way, the ‘good guys’ become stronger economically and are then able to commit themselves to better investments. There will be less resources tomorrow because we are converting’ resources to therefore, what the company gains today from saving resources will be worth even more tomorrow, for them as well as for the rest of us. We are working with fifty large corporations and fifty municipalities in Sweden who are applying this model. Some of them have made substantial investments of several billion Swedish crowns. All their programmes are related back to the system conditions.
When those working in municipalities or corporations accept that they can only be part of a society observing the four system conditions, they then try to envision the future. Their question is this: ‘What can we do to improve our chances of reaching these goals?’ By asking this question, investments that run into the wall can be avoided.
The good example is not someone who already meets all the system conditions. From today’s perspective, that would be implausible. No, the good example is a company or individual who is able to comprehend the goal set and to plot the investments to a sustainable position. What new competence is needed? What kinds of new tool or new transportation infrastructure? What new perceptions on global issues? The list should be exhaustive, without a single omission. There are many obstacles along the way. People don’t buy products just because the manufacturer knows about system conditions. However, managers can manoeuvre up to the limits of the obstacles. Then they can push away the obstacles, because the only way of shifting an obstacle is to get right up to it and start pushing.
WHEN I PRESENTED these ideas to the management team at IKEA several years ago, one of them said: ‘Well, you can apply all these system conditions to the federation of farmers and municipalities and some other of your examples, but not here at IKEA . . .’ When I asked him why, he started talking: ‘Because the fundamental idea at IKEA is to supply the cheapest possible furniture to the customer. Now we must stop using metals in our sofas unless they can be recycled back into the same quality so that we can stop our demand for mining. And according to system condition number 2, we have to stop using a lot of chemicals in our plastics, glues and paints. As for condition number 3, we have to make sure that our suppliers of wood also run their forestry operations properly. How much will that cost? Who is going to pay for all this? The Department of the Environment? No, the customer will. You have ruined the whole business idea of IKEA. Thank you!’
At the Natural Step we never imagine we are as specialized as the specialists. So I responded simply: ‘I don’t know. I’m a medical doctor; it would be ridiculous for me to tell the management team of IKEA how to sell furniture.’ But because the model is intellectually solid, it always survives. At least 50% of any management team are generally wise enough to realize that there is no escape and want to apply it right away. Finally, one of the IKEA managers replied: ‘He never said that we had to demolish the obstacles. All he said was that we should go up to the obstacle and push. In this case, we could manufacture two ranges of the same product. One range of our normal sofas and another range which has been manufactured according to the system conditions. All we have to do is to ensure that both ranges are the cheapest of their kind.’ The answer, when it came, was so simple that the original cynic flushed with embarrassment. And now, a few years later, the founder of IKEA says that as soon as the company closes up to the system conditions, he wants to discontinue publicly the old range right in front of the customer, with the explanation: ‘This is our new sofa. The quality of this new sofa is not only inherent in its construction but extends right across the entire ecosystem. Sure, it is more expensive, but this quality of sofa cannot be found at a better price anywhere else!’
When I presented this mental model to the management of IKEA’s warehousing operations in Sweden, they left with all the tools they needed to train their own personnel. The manager of the Gothenburg warehouse, sitting on the train on his way home after the seminars, said to himself: ‘I will never again allow myself to get washed downstream and lose touch with the system conditions.’ On Monday morning he arrived back to his office and the phone was ringing. There was an anxious voice at the other end: ‘Do you remember the contractor who was supposed to start emptying the garbage container twice per week instead of once? Well, he hasn’t done it; the garbage is spilling out all over the parking area!’ The manager angrily dialled the number of the contractor, but then noticed that it had taken him a mere fifteen seconds to get washed downstream. He put the phone down and started thinking.
He phoned his worried colleague back and instructed him to empty the container out. This caused some surprise. He then led key members of his middle management team to inspect the contents of the container. Double layer packaging was found, which violated system condition number 4, since single layer packaging had always been sufficient before. How had metals ended up in an IKEA garbage container? This, being a company that had adopted system conditions numbers 1 and 4, had accepted that metals should be recycled. Hazardous chemicals were also found, violating system condition number 2. The manager, having straightened out these practices, found that as a result the container would now only need emptying every two weeks and some of the wastes could be sold for recycling. In total, the Gothenburg warehouse turned a 250,000 Swedish crown annual waste disposal outlay into a 50,000 Swedish crown profit just by looking upstream. If such initial steps actually return a profit, there can be no reason to do nothing.
The above text was edited by Henning Koch and James Greyson.
Profissor KarI-Henrik Robert, MD is one of Sweden’s foremost cancer scientists,who, in 1989, initiated an environmental movementcalled The Natural step. In 1995, Dr Robert was appointed Profissor of Resource Theory at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden.