Links and Info


Rachel's Democracy & Health News #878

"Environment, health, jobs and justice--Who gets to decide?"

Thursday, October 26, 2006..............Printer-friendly version -- To make a secure donation, click here.



From: Rachel's Democracy & Health News #878, Oct. 26, 2006

[Printer-friendly version]


The Natural Step for Communities

By Tim Montague

Sweden has a penchant for safety and cleanliness. Swedes invented the

Volvo, one of the safest automobiles. Volvos are built to minimize

harm to passengers during accidents, and they are built without toxic

flame retardants. Swedes invented the safety- match and dynamite too

-- much safer than the alternative it replaced, black powder.

Recently, Sweden has become known for its innovations in sustainable

development -- safer development.

Sweden recently declared that it will create an energy and

transportation economy that runs free of oil by the year 2020. But the

groundwork for this radical declaration was laid in the 1980s by

Sweden's eco-municipality movement, which successfully incorporated

sustainability into municipal planning and development.

Before former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland became a

household name in international environmental circles, Sweden and

Finland were stimulating local economic growth in ways that were good

for people and the planet. The town of Overtornea -- Sweden's first

eco-municipality -- was an early adopter of what we now call

sustainable development, which "meets the needs of the present without

compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own

needs."[The Brundtland Report, 1987].

Simultaneously, The Natural Step (TNS) was being developed by

Swedish scientist Karl-Henrik Robert. The Natural Step began as a

way for individual companies to create more environmentally and

socially responsible practices; see Rachel's News #667, #668, and

#676. And TNS was quickly embraced by Swedish planners, government

officials and residents who wanted to achieve their goals AND minimize

harm to the environment and human health.

The Swedish economist and planner Torbjorn Lahti was one of the

visionaries in Overtornea -- a town of 5,000 that had 25%

unemployment and had lost 20% of its population during the previous 20

years. Lahti and his colleagues engaged the community -- getting

participation from 10% of residents -- to create a shared vision of a

local economy based on renewable energy, public transportation,

organic agriculture, and rural land preservation. In 2001 the town

became 100% free of fossil fuels. Public transportation is free. The

region is now the largest organic farming area in Sweden and more than

200 new businesses have sprung up.

The story of the eco-municipality movement is documented in the new

book, The Natural Step for Communities; How Cities and Towns can

Change to Sustainable Practices (2004; ISBN 0865714916) written by

American planner Sarah James and Torbjorn Lahti. Today there are

more than 60 eco-municipalities in Sweden -- representing 20 percent

of the population -- and this movement for social and ecological

sanity has spread throughout Norway, Finland and Denmark as well.

Here in North America, cities like Whistler, British Columbia,

Portland, Oregon, and Santa Monica, California are on the

bleeding-green edge with city-wide master plans in which

sustainability is more than just a buzzword. These cities are making

the transition to renewable energy, mass-transit, green building, zero

waste and open-space preservation. As a report card on Santa

Monica's progress shows, they have a long way to go, especially on the

social-justice front, to meet the Brundtland Report definition of

sustainability. But they are trending in the right direction. They are


What is the Natural Step for Communities and how does it work?

Like the Precautionary Principle -- which is another lens for

sustainability -- the Natural Step (TNS) says that the decision-making

process must be inclusive and participatory. TNS recognizes that the

communities we live in will be self-sustaining only when resources are

justly distributed. You can have the greenest buildings, the cleanest

energy in the world, and the best public transportation. But without a

just social system, the community will not achieve sustainability.

The Natural Step has four 'system conditions' which, when achieved,

will create sustainable conditions. 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

4. and, in that society human needs are met.

In other words, we should minimize harm to the earth and human health;

we should use alternatives to fossil fuels, toxic metals, and other

persistent toxic substances. We should achieve zero waste (or darn

near). And we should protect and restore nature and the ecosystem

services it provides. But most importantly, we should meet basic human

needs for food, shelter, education and healthcare. I would add that

basic human needs include a social environment free of social

isolation bred of racism and classism, an environment that nurtures

and respects everyone.

According to The Natural Step for Communities, social justice is a

prerequisite that will either allow or prevent the other system

conditions from being achieved. And while TNS for Communities is rich

with examples of towns and cities that have improved their physical

and natural environments, the examples of improved social environments

are fewer and less concrete.

The indigenous Sami people -- a trans-arctic people living in

Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia -- are struggling to hold on to

their traditional reindeer herding culture which is being crowded out

by logging, development and environmental degradation. While some

groups of Sami -- as suggested by TNS for Communities -- are

transitioning to an economy based on eco-tourism, the growth of that

phenomenon isn't necessarily socially, economically and

environmentally sustainable. If the traditional Sami culture dies,

then this movement has failed.

While there are obvious technological fixes to some of our

environmental woes -- like wind energy and electric vehicles --

solving the issues of institutional racism are not specifically

addressed by the Natural Step. Still, I believe TNS for Communities

does hold several important pearls of wisdom for all cultures.

** Begin and guide a planning process with a community-defined vision

of a desired future (set goals; involve residents in the process).

** Combine vision, planning, and action from the start and throughout

the planning process (assess alternatives and choose the best one;

pick the low-hanging fruit and dive into real projects that improve


** Include the full range of community interests, values, and

perspectives in a meaningful way (involve those most affected; use

open, democratic decision-making).

** Plan in cycles, not just one linear pass (learn from your mistakes

and oversights; correct course accordingly).

** Focus on finding agreement, not on resolving disagreement (consider

the positive).

** Lead from the side (involve those most affected: let residents be

the experts).

There is mounting evidence that the Nordic model -- including Sweden

and Finland -- of free education, affordable healthcare, and cradle-

to-grave social services COMBINED with high rates of investment in

industrial research and development produces a high standard of living

and a vibrant economy.

As we begin to acknowledge that the social determinants of health are

MORE important than purely environmental factors, those of us who are

building a movement for a sustainable urban environment have much to

learn from the Natural Step and the eco-village movement.