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The Natural Step for Eco-Villages


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. 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 trying!

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 lives).

* 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.

TIM MONTAGUE is co-editor of Rachel’s Health and Democracy, where this essay originally appeared. He can be reached at:




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