Heroes of Sustainability: Karl-Henrik Robèrt

Most people can’t claim that an idea they had has earned a royal seal of approval, but then again, Karl-Henrik Robèrt isn’t like most people.

A pre-eminent Swedish cancer scientist, Robèrt saw that the debate on sustainability was divided, with no agreement on what the scientific foundations of sustainability are.

“My epiphany came one day when I was studying cells from cancer patients,” Robèrt told YES! magazine. “It hit me that cells are the unifying unit of all living things. The difference between our cells and the cells of plants are so minor that it’s almost embarrassing; the makeup is almost identical all the way down to the molecular level. … Since politicians and business people also are constituted of cells, I had a feeling that a broad understanding of these cells might help us reach a consensus on the basic requirements for the continuation of life.”

Developing a Framework
That led in 1989 to The Natural Step, a framework based on the laws of thermodynamics for the system conditions of sustainability. Robèrt enlisted the help of a number of other scientists and others to come to a consensus on the guidelines. The four conditions are:

1. nature is not subject to systematically increasing concentrations of substances extracted from the Earth’s crust;
2. nature is not subject to systematically increasing concentrations of substances produced as a byproduct of society;
3. nature is not subject to systematically increasing degradation by physical means;
4. people are not subject to conditions that systematically undermine their capacity to meet their needs.

The Natural Step was approved by the King of Sweden and subsequently sent to households and schools all over the country. It quickly spread outside the bounds of the Scandinavian country, with a number of businesses, towns, and individuals adopting the framework, from the ski resort of Whistler in British Columbia to Nike to Paul Hawken. It’s also been used in a number of different fields, including green building, managing river basins, forestry, energy systems, and more.

“Nobody Wins from Destroying Our Habitat”
Along the way, Robèrt has picked up numerous awards. He won the Green Cross Award for International Leadership in 1999; the Blue Planet Prize (known as the Nobel Prize for ecological sustainability) in 2000, and the Social Responsibility Laureate Medal by the Global Center for Leadership Business Ethics in 2005, to name just a few.

“My vision is that we develop a mainstream understanding that nobody wins from destroying our habitat, and that people will see that you do better in business if you work as though society will become sustainable and as though different cultures will survive, because cultural diversity is also essential,” Robèrt told YES! magazine.

Today, The Natural Step is a global network of non-governmental organizations that lead change toward environmental and social sustainability. Learn more about it here.

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