The Natural Step is a non-profit organisation founded by paediatric oncologist Karl-Henrik Robèrt who was investigating growing rates of cancer in children. After the Brundtland Commission’s report in 1987, Robèrt developed the Natural Step framework (also known as the Framework for Strategic Sustainable Development). Using a scientific and structured understanding of the socio-ecological system, the framework articulates four conditions for sustainable human activities on Earth. The conditions provide a scientifically based definition of sustainability that can be used to guide actions for sustainable development.

In a sustainable society nature is not subject to systematically increasing concentrations of:

  1. substances extracted from the Earth’s crust,
  2. substances produced by society,
  3. degradation by physical means, and
  4. in that society, people are not subject to conditions that systematically undermine their capacity to meet their needs.

These four conditions are often written as positive principles, simplified for application to any organisation, community or product.

To become sustainable we must:

  1. Eliminate our contribution to the progressive build-up in nature of substances extracted from the Earth’s crust (for example, heavy metals and fossil fuels).
  2. Eliminate our contribution to the progressive build-up in nature of chemicals and compounds that are produced by society (for example, plastics, dioxins, PCBs and DDT).
  3. Eliminate our contribution to progressive physical degradation and destruction of nature and natural systems (for example, over-harvesting forests, destroying habitat and over-fishing), and
  4. Eliminate our contribution to conditions that undermine people’s capacity to meet their basic human needs (for example, unsafe working conditions and poverty wages).


Discussion forum activity

  1. Read this paper “A compass for sustainable development” by Karl-Henrik Robèrt, Paul Hawken, Herman Daly and John Holmberg.
  2. Think about these questions:
    • Do you consider the four system conditions to be a comprehensive definition of sustainability? What are the main reasons for your answer?
    • Compare and contrast the four system conditions with the Brundtland definition. Which do you think is the most useful to inform organisational and community planning? Again, what are the main reasons for your answer?
  3. Write your answers in the Discussion Forum. Look for the appropriate topic.

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