A scientific understanding about how ecological and social systems work is critical if we are to know what to aim for in creating a sustainable future; a future that works for humans as a living biological species.

The Natural Step’s framework for strategic sustainable development (FSSD) provides four concrete principles to guide a creative process that can envision sustainable outcomes as part of a planning process aimed to arrive at a specific destination – sustainable activity for humans on Earth.

The principles quickly highlight that the current success model for our society has inherent design flaws that are placing our eco-systems, life-support systems and social systems under ever more strain. Using the Natural Step’s four principles we can see that:

  1. Our society is built around a reliance on digging up materials from the Earth’s crust that then are allowed to accumulate in the biosphere as polluting waste. This includes the atmospheric accumulation of carbon from fossil fuels, the atmospheric accumulation of hydrofluorocarbons from refrigerants and aerosols; and the accumulation of heavy metals in water and soils from various industrial processes and IT equipment such as computers and mobile phones.
  2. Our society produces and uses large numbers, over 100,000, of different synthetic chemicals which are also allowed to accumulate in the biosphere as polluting waste. Many of these chemical compounds are foreign to nature and do not easily break down. This includes pharmaceutical chemicals, like antibiotics, that accumulate in water, pesticides and insecticides that build up on water and soil systems and enter the human food-chain; and industrial chemicals used for plastics and mining.
  3. The growth of our society has relied upon consistently increasing its encroachment upon and alteration of natural and ecological systems. We dam rivers for power, or drain water from them for irrigation reducing the flow to a mere trickle. We have removed vast amounts of forests, over-fished the oceans, destroyed soil systems with mono-culture and intensive agricultural methods, and we have dramatically reduced the prevalence of wetland systems that purify water and control flooding. In the process the amount of biodiversity has plummeted, with species extinction now estimated to be up to 1,000 times the natural background rate. Many biologists believe we are now heading towards a man-made mass extinction event.
  4. The gap between rich and poor is now at epidemic proportions. A study by the World Institute for Development Economics Research at United Nations University reports that the richest 1% of adults alone owned 40% of global assets in the year 2000. And, the three richest people in the world possess more financial assets than the lowest 48 nations combined. Working conditions, pay rates and labour rights for many in the developing world, where much of the world’s manufacturing industry is based, are poor. Even in the rich countries, democratic processes and personal freedoms have been systematically eroded, largely under the auspices of national security and the war on terror. Working hours have generally increased, with many people having less time to spend with family or on recreation.

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