A Natural Step Towards Trust

September 1, 2000

By Michael Jessen

"I don't trust them and that's the difference." -- Mayor Gary Exner of Nelson, quoted in the August 16, 2000 edition of the Nelson Daily News, speaking about local environmentalists and why he wouldn't listen to their views about the annual allowable cut in the Kootenay Boundary timber supply area.

Nelson's mayor is not the first person to express his mistrust of environmentalists. The list includes such political luminaries as Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and Bill Vander Zalm. Developing confidence in the integrity, honesty, veracity, and justice of your local environmentalists is as simple as comprehending how we act and think. Some common ground wouldn't hurt either.

The first thing to understand about environmentalists is that we rely on our hearts a lot because that's where real change and feelings are centered. Anything that doesn't come from the heart is just cosmetic.

A second thing is that we're holistic thinkers. Put simply, we believe when damage is done to one part of an ecosystem, all parts are affected in some way. I think that's why we keep referring to Mother Nature. It's really helpful in understanding that the planet (read Mom) is in charge of everything.

By the way, the Earth has been acting strangely lately. A couple of weeks ago, Dr. James McCarthy (director of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University and the co-leader of a group working for the United Nations-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) reported an ice-free patch of ocean at the North Pole. Describing the reaction of his fellow passengers at the sight of the one mile or so (1.6 km) of open water, he said: "There was a sense of alarm. Global warming was real, and we were seeing its effects for the first time that far north." On a similar cruise six years ago the icebreaker plowed through an icecap six to nine feet thick at the North Pole, according to Dr. McCarthy.

Some media reports of the finding indicated there may not have been open water at the North Pole since the Eocene, a geological period around 55 million years ago. Dr. Claire Parkinson, a climatologist with the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, said she definitely disagreed with that statement. "However," she added, "the fact that the tourist ship that found the open water at the Pole also had a very easy passage both up to the Pole and back is of more interest and indeed is in line with the findings from satellite data of a slightly retreating ice cover over the past 20 years and from submarine data of a thinning ice cover over the past few decades."

And did you read that front-page story in the Toronto Globe and Mail on August 22nd? The one about the publication of "The Health of Canada's Children" that stated there has been a 25-percent increase in the rate of childhood cancers in the past 25 years and that all of them are believed to be influenced, at least in part, by exposure to environmental contaminants. The report also stated there has been a fourfold increase in childhood asthma during the past two decades.

Dr. Trevor Hancock, chairman of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, commented that it is illogical that people who would not dream of abusing a child think nothing of passing on to their children and grandchildren an environment that has been abused.

The foregoing illustrates another thing about environmentalists. We really check our facts and usually have plenty of evidence and great quotes to back up our case. Oh, environmentalists also like to err on the side of caution and often display a highly developed concern for future generations.

But I will admit environmentalists are sometimes confused, especially when a judge says a logging company can enter their watershed and endanger the quantity and quality of their water supply. Those environmentalists are sure there's a UN convention that gives everyone a right to clean water and their sense of justice is rightly offended.

Now that common ground I mentioned earlier. I suggest the Natural Step framework, developed in Sweden in 1989 by Dr. Karl-Henrik Robert to illustrate how we can create a sustainable society. With the help of 50 Swedish scientists, Dr. Robert and Swedish physicist John Holmberg defined a set of system conditions for sustainability, which are based on laws of thermodynamics and natural cycles.

The four conditions are 1. Fossil fuels, metals, and other minerals cannot be extracted from the earth at a faster rate than they can be redeposited. 2. Toxic substances must not be produced at a faster rate than they can be broken down in nature. 3. We must adjust our harvest of renewable resources, our consumption, and our land-use practices to fall well within the regenerative capacities of ecosystems. 4. In order to meet the first three conditions, there must be a fair and efficient use of resources to meet human needs.

If you can buy into the fact that abuse of any or all four of these conditions eventually results in humans going out of business, then we can talk. Just so you don't think the Natural Step is some sort of environmentalist's plot, companies like Nike, Ikea, Interface, Collins Pine, Scandic Hotels, and McDonald's of Sweden have adopted this framework into their operations. If big companies like Lowe's and Home Depot can come to understand old-growth trees won't be there forever, a change of heart is possible.

The TNS framework helps individuals and organizations address key environmental issues from a systems perspective, reduce the use of natural resources, develop new technologies, and facilitate better communications among employees and members. It gives people a common language and guiding principles to help change existing practices and decrease their impact on the Earth.

More common ground can be found by understanding the burden carried by most environmentalists. We realize that humanity is on a collision course with Nature, which author Alan AtKisson likens to being stuck in Cassandra's Dilemma. Cassandra was the youngest daughter of the last king of Troy. To win her affections, the god Apollo promised to give her the gift of prophecy if she would love him. But when Cassandra could not bring herself to love Apollo, the god revenged himself by assuring that no one would believe her prophecies.

As AtKisson says in his recent book Believing Cassandra, "The role of Cassandra, issuing unpopular warnings of avoidable danger, is a no-win situation. Failure to convey the message effectively results in catastrophe. Success in being understood means ultimately being proven wrong."

AtKisson's book is not about the end of the World or saving the World, but about understanding how to escape from Cassandra's Dilemma. He says we need to understand the World "is in a continuous process of transformative change" and the task before us is "to redirect that process toward an elegant set of solutions to the unprecedented problems facing humanity -- and to do so quickly."

The future, according to AtKisson, rests in the word "sustainable."

"Sustainability wraps economics, ecology, social and personal well-being together in one package. It ties the package up with system dynamics, and mails the whole thing decades or even centuries into the future. No wonder it's had a hard time making it to Main Street," he writes. "It may take longer, but eventually, this idea will catch on."

And catch on it must with those who ignore the warnings of their local Cassandra. A sustainable World is not one to fear, says AtKisson. "Sustainability is beautiful and reasonable and profitable, all at once."

Just like the Natural Step, AtKisson advocates a set of conditions of sustainability. There are seven principles: think long term, understand systems, recognize limits, protect nature, transform business-as-usual, practice fairness, and embrace creativity.

Dr. Robert and AtKisson are only two of the many guides environmentalists are listening to today. We're also touched by the teachings of Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Mahatma Gandhi, Rachel Carson, Paul Hawken, and David Suzuki.

Sustainability is an ideal like truth, freedom, democracy, love, and yes -- trust. We may never reach our ideals, says AtKisson, but striving for them defines us as a culture.

If it can't be done forever, it isn't sustainable. And neither is making decisions after hearing only one side of a story and harboring feelings of distrust toward a whole segment of society -- now that's a burden no one should be carrying.

ONE SMALL STEP - You can avoid the often-toxic ingredients and fumes of aerosol furniture cleaners by making your own polish of olive oil and vinegar. Use one part white distilled vinegar and three parts olive oil. Add a little natural lemon oil (not the synthetic kind) and you've got a great polish.

RESOURCES - The Climate Institute works to protect the balance between climate and life on earth by facilitating the dialogue among scientists, policy makers, business executives, and citizens. In all its efforts, the Institute strives to be a source of objective, reliable information. It has a web site at www.climate.org/. "The Health of Canada's Children: A CICH Profile - 3rd Edition" is available from the Canadian Institute of Child Health, Suite 300, 384 Bank Street, Ottawa, ON K2P 1Y4 Canada for $40.50 for members and $45.00 for non-members. It can also be ordered online at the CICH web site at www.cich.ca/. You can find out more about the Natural Step at www.naturalstep.org/. New Society Publishers published "The Natural Step for Business" by Brian Nattrass and Mary Altomare in 1999. "Believing Cassandra: An Optimist Looks at a Pessimist's World" by Alan AtKisson was published in 1999 by Chelsea Green Publishing Company.

Michael Jessen has been an environmentalist for 30 years. He is the owner of toenail environmental services, a consulting firm that helps business profit from environmental leadership. He can be e-mailed at toenail@netidea.com and his award-winning web site is at www.toenail.org/.

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