Principles of Sustainability
The earth is a naturally sustainable system. However, the accumulated impacts of human activity threaten our continued well-being. Research by an international network of scientists defined three basic conditions that must be met to maintain the essential natural resources, structures and functions that sustain human society. They also acknowledged that human action is the primary cause of the rapid degradation of nature. A fourth system condition addresses the social and economic considerations driving those actions and our capacity as human beings to meet our basic needs.
While written to be clear scientifically, the specific wording of the four system conditions can be confusing. Reworded as basic sustainability principles, they provide explicit guidance for individual and organizations moving towards sustainability.
The Natural Step’s approach to a sustainable society is defined by these principles. The help organizations identify what they are doing that may be unsustainable and to define strategies and actions that will create a more sustainable future.
|The Four System Conditions...
||. . . Reworded as The Four Principles of Sustainability|
|In a sustainable society, nature is not subject to systematically increasing:||To become a sustainable society we must...|
|1. concentrations of substances extracted from the earth's crust||1. eliminate our contribution to the progressive buildup of substances extracted from the Earth's crust (for example, heavy metals and fossil fuels)|
|2. concentrations of substances produced by society||2. eliminate our contribution to the progressive buildup of chemicals and compounds produced by society (for example, dioxins, PCBs, and DDT )|
|3. degradation by physical means||3. eliminate our contribution to the progressive physical degradation and destruction of nature and natural processes (for example, over harvesting forests and paving over critical wildlife habitat); and|
|4. and, in that society, people are not subject to conditions that systemically undermine their capacity to meet their needs||4. eliminate our contribution to conditions that undermine people’s capacity to meet their basic human needs (for example, unsafe working conditions and not enough pay to live on).|
The problem is not that we mine and use heavy metals, or use chemicals and compounds produced by society, or disrupt natural processes, or even temporarily interfere with people’s capacity to meet their basic needs. It is, rather, that our industrial system has developed so that substances extracted from the earth and produced by society will continue to build up indefinitely in natural systems. That means a progressive buildup of pollutants and substances that not only harm us directly but damage natural processes that have taken billions of years to develop.