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 by man.
  • 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.

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