PCDForum Column #26, Release Date February 25, 1992
by Karl-Henrik Robèrt
Up to now, much of the debate over the environment has had the character of
monkey chatter amongst the withering leaves of a dying tree. Individual
questions on isolated issues spark heated debate that finds no resolution. Is
the green house effect really a threat or will it actually prevent another ice
age? Are the reproductive organs of seals destroyed by the chemical PCB?
Posed to scientists, such questions about the leaves of the environmental
tree seldom produce clear answers. It is only when one focuses on the branches
and the trunk, taking the discussion to more basic questions, that the answers
become clear and consistent. For example, while the impact of PCB on the
reproduction of seals remains open to debate, there are a number of questions on
which scientists almost universally agree.
- Is PCB a naturally occurring substance? No it is artificially manufactured
- Is it chemically stable, or does it quickly degrade into harmless
substances? It is stable and persistent.
- Does it accumulate in organisms? Yes it does.
- Is it possible to predict the tolerance limits in nature for such a stable,
unnatural substance? No, since the complexity of ecosystems is essentially
limitless. Nevertheless, it is known that there are limits to biological
tolerances for all such substances, often very low, which cannot be exceeded.
- Can we continue to introduce such substances into the ecosystem? Not if we
want to survive.
The final answer provides the necessary basis for action. Recognizing the
need to move the debate beyond monkey chatter, Sweden’s scientific community has
arrived at a consensus regarding the fundamental nature of the global
environmental crisis that has proven very useful in advancing public education
and policy debate. We defined the trunk of the tree as follows.
Billions of years ago our earth consisted of a toxic primeval atmosphere,
toxic liquids, and a desolate and disordered surface. The transformation of this
useless stew of disordered inorganic compounds into the wealth of mineral
deposits, breathable air, drinkable water, soil, forests, fish and animal life
that provided the habitat from which the human species and its civilization
emerged and flourished began with the green plant cell. These wondrous cells had
the ability to capture surplus solar energy beyond their own growth and
maintenance needs, an ability they used over billions of years to create the
many structured and concentrated compounds on which all human life and activity
depends. We might say that all life and wealth as we know it depends on the
green plant cell.
Since animals lack the capacity to directly capture and convert solar
radiation to useful energy, all activities of animal species, including humans,
have the consequence of dissipating the order created by green plant cells. This
was not a consequential problem so long as these activities fell within the
bounds of the ability of earth’s green plant cells to convert animal wastes back
into useable ordered matter. Growing, self-sustaining cycles in which the “wastes”
of one species provide nutrition for another can go on indefinitely.
Then about a hundred years ago humans began to make significant use of
concentrated energy sources first coal, then petroleum, and eventually nuclear
to process natural resources in a linear direction. We were soon turning ordered
matter into visible as well as molecular garbage far faster than the earth’s
remaining green cells could reprocess it. This allowed us to expand our dominion
over ecological space with such speed and force that we literally began to
reverse earth’s evolutionary process. Indeed, a consequential portion of human
waste now consists of toxic metals and stable unnatural compounds that cannot be
processed by green cells at all an enduring monument to our technical mastery
and biological ignorance.
We now have no choice but to end this reverse evolution and restore an
essential cyclical balance to earth’s life processes. That is the basic nature
of our environmental problem.
There is immediate need for a variety of models model homes, buildings,
companies, communities, and countries, all demonstrating how to make the
transition from linear to cyclical processes. Positive examples are a powerful
force for change, and it takes only a small portion of a population perhaps as
little as 15 percent to stimulate dramatic improvements.
Karl-Henrik Robèrt is one of Sweden’s leading cancer researchers,
founder of the Natural Step Movement that is building a national commitment to
making Sweden a model sustainable society, and a contributing editor of the
People-Centered Development Forum. This column was produced and distributed by
the PCDForum based on his article “Educating a Nation: The Natural Step,”
In Context, No. 28, Spring 1991. Further information is available from Natural
Step, Box 70335, 10723 Stockholm, Sweden.