The Science in Sustainability

By Jennifer Nickel 05/06/2012

Wouldn’t it be great if we used our scientific knowledge to come up with some basic principles that would ease our understanding as to whether something is or isn’t sustainable in the long term?

Well, back in the 1980’s when the warnings about the detrimental environmental effects of our ‘activities’ were already quite reasonable, a Swedish doctor and cancer scientist wondered just that.

His name is Dr. Karl-Henrik Robèrt and specifically he wondered whether the scientific understanding of cells could be used to come up with guidelines for the requirements of the continuation and wellbeing of human life.

Obviously no small task! So after he began he sent his work to over 50 other scientists and doctors to ask for their input, and after many revisions they came up with somewhat of a consensus.  This formed the base of what would later become known as the four system conditions for sustainability and the framework for strategic sustainable development (a planning method).  It was published by Dr. Robèrt in 1992 in a book called ‘The Necessary Step’ and then applied in real life through the non-profit organisation ‘The Natural Step’.

The 4 system conditions are:

In a sustainable society, nature is not subject to systematically increasing…

1.    …concentrations of substances extracted from the earth’s crust.

2.    …concentrations of substances produced by society.

3.    …degradation by physical means.

And in that society, people are not subject to…

4.    …conditions that systematically undermine their capacity to meet their needs.

Here is a quick 2 minute video explaining this:

For those that like reading and reports, the information is also described in detail in The Natural Step Sustainability Primer, which can be downloaded here.  I have come to learn about all of this as it forms the basis of the Graduate Diploma course I am currently studying at Otago Polytechnic.  To get a bit of an idea of it in context, here is the New Zealand: Planning for Sustainability starter guide.

As I have come to learn, the great power of this method is that it takes the conversation beyond the arguments of what is and is not possible, beyond what may be left or right wing, and instead takes it to an easy to understand level based on scientific fact (our understanding on what makes life possible, how our biosphere functions and how we are part of earth’s natural systems) that can be applied by anyone and with anyone (i.e. for interdisciplinary cross sector cooperation) for positive and measurable change towards sustainability.

For those who would like to see Dr. Robèrt speak, here is a video of one of his keynote speeches in 2008:


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