The Value of a Systems View of Sustainability Criteria

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Name: Joanne Tippett

Course: PL702 Contemporary Issues in Planning

Tutor: Dr. Williams

Date: April 2, 2001

PhD Supervisors:       John Handley, Joe Ravetz, Jeff Hinchcliffe (Mersey Basin Campaign)

Submitted as course work for Masters in Economic and Social Research

University of Manchester

School of Planning and Landscape


The Value of a Systems View of Sustainability Criteria


The need for sustainability criteria 2

Potential Sources for Criteria 2

Concepts of truth and objectivity in relationship to criteria 4

Need for criteria for different aspects of planning and management 5

The Natural Step – valuable characteristics as a tool for sustainability planning_ 6

The Natural Step as a strategic planning tool 7

Dialogue process in formulation of principles 10

Criticisms of the model 11

Conclusion_ 12

References 12


There are a plethora of definitions of sustainability, and many attempts to describe criteria of sustainability. This essay suggests that there is a need for different sets of criteria at different levels of scale and for different purposes. It concludes that the use of a commonly agreed framework for sustainability at the level of the entire Earth can form a foundation for elaborating project and context specific criteria for sustainability. Such a systems view holds several advantages, in particular for strategic planning and participative dialogue.

The Natural Step (TNS) model of sustainability will be discussed as a potential model of a consensus based approach to sustainability principles from a systems perspective.

The need for sustainability criteria

If, as many social scientists suggest, theory is inextricably linked with observation, it could be suggested that the process of testing concepts, research and project decisions against ‘objective’ criteria is an impossible endeavour (Smith and Deemer 2000). Critiques of the concept of deriving criteria for assessment of projects emanate from social scientists and are echoed by philosophers of science. However, there is a broad social consensus that some degree of action needs to be taken to improve environmental conditions, social equity and the possibilities for a participative democracy. If projects are to proceed, there are few alternatives on offer between the shifting sands of a radical relativist position, where ‘anything goes’ and a top-down normative approach to assessing projects. In this context, a search for commonly agreed criteria for sustainability to act as a basis for decision making and assessment can be seen as both a difficult task and an important one. This is particularly the case when dealing with complex phenomena, where changes can be spread over multiple levels of scale and dispersed over time in a way that is difficult to predict, and even more difficult to measure accurately.

In addition to the societal context, in which the agenda of sustainable development is increasingly being seen as a motivating force both for local action and for governance, criteria for sustainability are of importance in the following areas:

While considerable work has been undertaken to develop sustainability criteria and indicators, there is still much work to be done to establish a common set of targets in this burgeoning field (Partidario and Moura 2000). In particular, there is a need to build a more complete picture of the use of sustainability criteria, investigating different levels and sources of criteria.

Potential Sources for Criteria

There are many potential sources for criteria, each with its own advantages and disadvantages. Natural science provides a starting point for many views of sustainability. This may take a focus on environmental quality measured through environmental monitoring, or the best available knowledge of how systems work, with a greater emphasis on modelling. Two important questions in both cases are: what is being assessed and at which point in the casual chain effects are being measured.

Azar, Holmberg and Lindgren (1995) suggest that indicators for sustainability can focus on three main areas:

  1. Societal activity indicators
  2. Environmental pressure indicators
  3. Indicators of the state, or quality, of the environment

Much of the work on developing non-monetary measures and concepts of sustainability have focused on ways of measuring and assessing the state of the environment, or ‘environmental quality indicators’, as opposed to the ‘relations between society and the ecosystems’ (Azar, Holmberg et al. 1995. pg. 2). These tend to focus attention late in the casual chain, and can be late to give warning signals about damage to the environment, as there are often time delays between emissions and effects. Once the effects can be measured, the damage has already been done (Azar, Holmberg et al. 1995). This is particularly important with build up of societally produced chemicals (persistent synthetic compounds), as they may have a non-linear effect on the environment, so that little or no effect can be discerned at levels of pollution before a certain threshold, but rapid and dramatic changes can take place once the threshold has been reached. This focus may also deflect attention from fundamental redesign of societal systems, which is arguably the ultimate cause of environmental degradation.

Robert, Daly, Hawken and Holmberg (1997, pg. 3) suggest that a theoretical model for sustainability has several critical requirements. The first two are: that is must be “based on a scientifically acceptable conception of the world and that it must contain a scientifically supportable definition of sustainability”.

The Natural Step (TNS) model is based on a set of scientific principles, which have undergone extensive rounds of dialogue amongst leading scientists and practitioners in Sweden to establish common agreement that the principles hold true[1]. A similar process has subsequently been repeated in many of the countries in which TNS has been licensed (e.g. USA, UK). There are three common-sense ideas that underpin The Natural Step: that space on Earth has a finite limit – it is a fixed size. There is life on Earth, we are living creatures, and we share the same Earth (Holmberg, Robert et al. 1996). The scientific principles and the common-sense basis are elaborated into the four systems conditions of TNS[2]. These system conditions focus attention on the social activities which cause environmental damage.

In discussing environmental valuation, O'Connor (2000, pg. 177) suggests that a ‘democratic’ perspective recognises an inherent value in the process of decision making “based on deliberation with a few expressions of individual views”. In discussing a multi-criteria evaluation of water issues in Sicily, De Marchi et al (2000 pg. 282) suggest that a research product emerging from the pluralist, participative methodology they were testing would “be the outcome of an organic community process and would then have the legitimacy and the robustness of a ‘non-imposed’ solution”.

A difficulty with almost any set of criteria is what could be termed the ‘not invented here syndrome’, in which people resist imposed concepts and solutions as they have had little say in their formulation. The use of TNS principles could be prone to such a syndrome, unless their use is combined with work to establish locally relevant criteria.

Cultural values and religious concepts have been touted as a possible source of environmental values, especially focussing on ‘aboriginal’ cultures. However, there is much potential for disagreement in a set of criteria based on religious or cultural ideas if applied to a larger geographical area. If they are applied in contexts of rapid change the original context for their formulation may alter, rendering the concepts groundless. Wole Soyinka (1988), Nobel Laureate, stressed the need for a “common secular basis for common global values independent of religious beliefs” in his paper Religion and Human Rights.

Many projects rely on sustainability criteria from policy (O'Riordan 1998), a pragmatic approach that not only allows managers of a project to be reasonably certain of complying with current legal requirements, but also reduces the time spent on discussing and agreeing on criteria. This use may be problematic as a basis for broad scale consensus, often because the reasoning behind the criteria is not clearly accessible and is not given as part of the dissemination of the principles in use, which may reduce participants’ understanding of criteria as well as their commitment to them in practice. This is particularly the case when the list of criteria is very long (not an uncommon occurrence) and it is hard to grasp the overall significance of each aspect of the list. As George (1999, pg. 198) has pointed out, there may also be problems of developing project criteria based on the assumptions inherent in such policies:

“The criteria represent a true test for sustainable development only to the extent that the assumptions underlying them are valid. In particular, it is assumed that the Kyoto agreement on greenhouse gas emissions is sufficient to prevent any significant threat of serious or irreversible damage; and it is assumed that a loss of natural habitat in developing countries up to that already experienced in industrial countries will not result in any serious loss of global biological diversity. Both assumptions are suspect. Should global agreements emerge that impose tighter constraints, the relevant criteria may be amended accordingly.”

Legal frameworks provide a means of making decisions and an essential framework for action. However, it must be remembered that codes and regulations are often the minimum requirement, and a proactive and long term strategic approach may need to go beyond the minimum criteria set down in such codes.

A ‘rule of thumb’ method of assessing sustainability may be derived from experience and observation. This can be a valuable complement to other forms of assessing sustainability, and can provide qualitative knowledge that could be missed in more quantitative measure, for example the experience that a farmer has of her/his farm may lead them to a better understanding of soil quality from look, feel, watching plans grow and observing indicator species than can be gained from soil tests. Field experience and observation may also provide valuable frequent and rapid assessment in-between more formal assessments, which can provide timely indication of problems or changes. Any such approach is, however, generally only applicable on the small level of scale and complexity, and should be regarded as complementary to a model which is more accessible to shared testing.

Concepts of truth and objectivity in relationship to criteria

One weakness with many of the sustainability indicators and criteria in use is that many are seen as guidelines and used as checklists, often without much clear explanation of why they are important and how they relate to a larger picture of sustainability. This can lead to increased potential for conflicting priorities at different levels of scale and also to sub-optimal solutions, which stem from decisions based on an limited understanding of the reasoning behind criteria.

A search for criteria for assessment is not an unproblematic endeavour, if one takes into account the ontological and epistemological discussion of the nature of truth and the possibility of discovering truth. Lincoln and Guba (2000) suggest that positivist and constructivist paradigms are incommensurable. Whilst I do not adopt a positivist view, as I do not believe that there is an inherent truth in categories which we use to communicate about the world, I do think that there is a world, which we inhabit, and that it is possible to perceive basically useful and stable concepts, which can then provide a foundation for action. I believe, with Lakoff and Johnson (1999) that as humans we share two basic levels of reality, we inhabit bodies and we act our lives in a shared physical environment. While this enables us to discuss commonly held truths, it does need to be borne in mind that we filter our perceptions of the world through our nervous systems and our cultural worldviews. These perceptual filters may need to be examined in order to discern levels of embedded concepts that influence how we perceive the world.

An attempt to search for sustainability criteria, against which decisions can be tested, could be perceived as a foundationalist endeavour, which aims for a “template as much clear of human bias, misperception, and other ‘idols’ (Francis Bacon)… as instrumentally possible” (Lincoln and Guba 2000, pg. 176). I contend, however, that a dialectic position incorporating a constructivist point of view and a concept of embodied realism (Lakoff and Johnson 1999), in which shared perceptions and biological functions are used to construct a dialogue, is both possible and am important epistemological position in searching for sustainability criteria[3]. To be consistent with a constructivist epistemology, in which people are understood to create meaning through interpretation, such an endeavour requires a high degree of reflexive questioning.

The Natural Step model has been subjected to a process of rigorous questioning by many scientists and has been applied fruitfully in many contexts (Nattrass and Altomare 1999). Further testing of the concepts in research, in particular in action based research, will help to maintain a spirit of enquiry while at the same time as making use of a commonly agreed set of principles which can guide strategic decision making.

One weakness of  the TNS model is that it is based heavily on an ‘objective scientific’ view of the world. Future research into the model would benefit from a more socially aware discourse than has been the case in much of the applied work focussed on corporate sustainability. Such discussion should include a critical perspective of ways in which scientific discourse is used to entrench positions of power.

The fourth system condition[4], in many ways the core of the model, is easily diluted to ignore the pressing need for a discussion of distribution not only of material goods but also of the control of capital. Discussion about governance and corporate hegemony, which are relevant to the sustainability issues concerning the flow of materials and resources, should take into account the fact that decisions about resources are often made at a great distance from local areas which are affected by these decisions.

Need for criteria for different aspects of planning and management

Due to the complexity of the management and design decision involved in attempts to solve social and environmental problems, an understanding of sustainability criteria needs to be responsive to different contexts and aspects of planning. Literature about sustainable planning has highlighted the need to work at multiple levels of scale (Ward 1993; Freemark 1995; Black, Strand et al. 1998; Gibson, Ostrom et al. 2000). Systems thinking may provide tools and principles for understanding complex interactions and social and natural systems as holistic entities (e.g. Rijsberman, 2000; Robert, 2000). To add to this complexity, each sector (e.g. transport, agriculture) has particular concerns, reliance on, and effect on, the environment. Thus, there is a need for different types of sustainability criteria to guide different types of project.

At the same time, the importance of participation in planning for sustainability and the value of incorporating local contexts and goals into planning is being increasingly recognised (e.g. Roe, 2000; van de Kerkhof, 2000; Kidd, 2000]. One premise of The Natural Step model is that it acts as an overall systems perspective of sustainability, which can then be used to formulate and test locally appropriate goals and strategies, providing a common framework of agreed-upon principles that can ground local values in a clear concept of sustainability.

Much work to develop sustainability criteria has focused on a fairly small level of scale, (for example Life Cycle Analysis) with less success at developing methods of sustainability assessment for a larger level of scale (Rijsberman and van de Ven 2000, pg. 334). Environmental and sustainability management tools have boundaries in space and time (Jonsson 2000), but the effects of human actions are characterised by being dispersed over large geographic areas and potentially over long time spans (Gibson, Ostrom et al. 2000; Kidd 2000). Approaches to making environmental science relevant to policy must take into account larger geographical scales than has often been the case in scientific inquiry (Cortner 2000).

As Rosner (1995, pg. 108) suggests, “to understand the whole complexity of the issues we face, we can no longer rely on the analytical approach, which attempts to understand all the details, but we have to take a look at the broader picture”. Forman (1998) suggests that it is important to assess slowly changing attributes in order to avoid misleading conclusions drawn from environmental and social characteristics that exhibit frequent fluctuations, a characteristic of complex, dynamic systems. These are easier identified at larger levels of scale, both spatial and temporal.

In this endeavour, we will need new mental models. Detailed checklists of criteria are useful in the analytical sense and as a check to make sure that vital aspects of sustainability are not being missed. However, engaging, clear and systems orientated mental models will be necessary to help people to understand the relevance and adaptive use of these checklists.

The Natural Step – valuable characteristics as a tool for sustainability planning

The valuable characteristics of The Natural Step as a set of sustainability criteria spring in part from the way it is used as a backcasting tool[5] and in part from the way it has been formulated as a conceptual framework. These characteristics can be summarised as:

·         Taking a global systems perspective

·         Clarifying the difference between ‘Sustainability’ as desired future state and ‘Sustainable Development’ as a means to an end

·         Precautionary principle

·         Moving from Is to Ought – Turning a description into a set of working principles

·         Unique process to develop criteria

These characteristics lead to the following advantages:

·         Facilitation of dialogue and search for areas of consensus (shared mental models)

·         Comprehensive and complementary

·         Tendency to increase upstream thinking and creativity

·         Easy to communicate, foundation for pedagogy

·         Facilitates work across scales and sectors

·         Increases focus on ‘whole picture’

The Natural Step as a strategic planning tool

The TNS model takes as its boundary the entire globe, so that actions and effects can be assessed against an understanding of bio-geological flows and ecosystem functions at a large level of scale. The model of TNS begins with a description of how the overall system (in this case the Earth, bathed in sunlight from outer space, as the largest functional unit that we are dealing with in terms of sustainability) is constituted (Robert 2000, pg. 248). From this principles of sustainability are derived, which describe a ‘favourable outcome’ in the system (not to be confused with ecological principles, which offer descriptions of how ecosystems appear to function, which can be used as a normative set of criteria) (Robert 2000, pg. 248). In the TNS framework, Robert (the founder of TNS) suggests that the main objective is “not to study the ecosphere per se, but to discover the principally different ways by which it can be destroyed – and then to phase out all activities that are part of such destructive mechanisms” (2000, pg. 248).

In its initial conception, the TNS model was seen as a pedagogic tool (Robèrt 1991). As it has developed and been applied in many countries and contexts, it has developed into a decision making tool and focus for collaborative strategic planning (e.g. Martin, 1999; Carnegie, 2000; Nattrass, 1999; Holmberg, 1998).

There are numerous examples of TNS being used as a pedagogic an strategic planning model in companies such as Tarmac, BP Air, Wessex Water, Electrolux, Ikea, Scandic Hotels, McDonalds Sweden, Interface and Collins Pine ( Martin, 1999; Nattrass and Altomare 1999). A dialogue process using the TNS framework has been organised among many different stakeholders in fields as diverse as agriculture and the PVC industry, with the aim to find areas of consensus as a common platform for action (Everard, Monaghan et al. 2000). The governor of Oregon has stated that the system conditions of TNS will form the basis of state wide programmes to move towards sustainability, and the American Planning Association accepts that the principles form a valid foundation for planning for sustainability (TNS US

The TNS framework aims to cut through the confusion in the sustainability debate by defining the condition of sustainability. It achieves this by describing the functioning of the Earth’s ecology in systems terms, then logically working out the ways in which we as a society is acting in a systematically unsustainable way, so that we can understand what it is we need to change in order to behave in a sustainable fashion (backcasting). In contrast to this approach, George (1999, pg. 176) has suggested that most of the work put into indicators for sustainable development has been “devoted to retrospective analysis of past development”. The comprehensive nature of the principles stems from the fact that they cover the main ways in which we can behave in an unsustainable way in a closed –loop system based on the cycling of materials run by photosynthesis. The principles do not overlap, each are functionally different, and are ‘first order principles’ in that they are logically worked out from basic scientific premises which have widespread agreement.

As von Seht (1999) has suggested, there are not many generally agreed-upon criteria for defining significance. The TNS framework can be used as a means of selecting input data and illuminating the potential significance of various environmental impacts in other approaches that are tailored to a particular end application (Jonsson 2000). The model is not sufficient in and of itself as a complete description and basis for sustainable development criteria, without further grounding in the local conditions and particular sectoral concerns of a project. It provides a powerful tool for assessing approaches such as eco-labelling and Life Cycle Analysis (which often provide a comparison of relative environmental harm between products or approaches, rather than a overarching vision of what sustainability could be) against the overall concept of sustainability.

The term ‘system’ in the concept of system conditions intentionally draws attention to the fact that the conditions should be used in decision making as a system, all four aspects should be taken into account, so that a change which reduces violation of one condition does not increase the violation of one of the others. Both these aspects of decision making, comprehensiveness and complementarity, decreases the likelihood of making decisions which will lead to long term unintended consequences, a common characteristic of our environmental decision making in the past. An example of this is the introduction of CFC’s to replace toxic (but biologically degradable) ammonia in refrigeration. The CFCs, being persistent synthetic chemicals, had the unintended consequence of affecting the ozone layer. There was a time delay between the introduction of the chemicals and the effect. By focussing on the systems properties and the overall view of how the components of the system behaves, decision makers are able to invest towards long term sustainability, avoiding what Robert terms ‘blind alleys’, which have a positive improvement for the environment in one aspect, but which have potential long-term negative effects in another. An example of this is Electrolux’s decision not to invest in developing HCFC refrigerators, as the HCFC’s are still likely to have unintended negative consequences, but rather to develop forms of refrigeration which use chemicals that can be readily assimilated into bio-geo-chemical cycles.

The comprehensive nature of the criteria, covering all of the ways that we can be unsustainable, helps to make decisions that are more likely to be sustainable in the long run, helping decision makers to “navigate in uncertainty”, a concept which proves useful when discussing sustainability in the business context. An advantage of TNS is that by focussing the attention upstream in the causal chain, measures can be taken to avoid these unintended harmful effects, by “removing the underlying sources of problems rather than... ‘fixing’ problems once they have occurred” (Robert 2000, pg. 244).

Through a process of backcasting, it is possible to see if there are solutions to problems outside of the trends of today, such that thinking is not limited to what appears to be realistic given today’s issues and concerns (Robert 2000, pg. 244). Then, in planning towards a desirable future state, the assumptions and conditions that prevail in the present circumstances only affect the pace of transition, not the trajectory. Backcasting is “a method to analyse future options”. Dreborg (1996) suggests that the value of backcasting should largely be judged in the ‘context of discovery rather than the context of justification.  “It is an approach which may encourage creativity, by shifting the focus from present conditions to a situation sufficiently far off into the future to permit radical change” (Dreborg 1996, pg. 814).

By conceiving of a picture of sustainability as a goal in the future, Robert (1997, pg. 4) suggests that it is possible to overcome many of the limitations of other models of sustainability, which start with today’s conditions and circumstances. These disadvantages include the possibility of investing in “sub–optimised measures, or blind alleys that do not lead to the significant environmental improvements possible by taking into account a larger picture of what a sustainable society could look like, and the possibility of missing out on “many possibilities for more efficient overall societal planning”.

Sustainable development is the process of moving towards a desired state of sustainability, a concept clarified in the Forum for the Future’s definition of sustainable development, “a dynamic process which enables all people to realise their potential and to improve their quality of life in ways which simultaneously protect and enhance the Earth’s life support systems” (FFF 1998). 

The TNS model does not describe how to move toward sustainability (the process of sustainable development), though there are some useful heuristic tools implicit in the discussion of backcasting, which provide ideas on strategy. The concept of sustainability as a desirable future state does not imply that once society has reached a sustainable state (if this is even possible) that there is then no development. Holmberg et al (1996, pg. 18) suggest that the process of sustainable development is a two-phase process, in the first of which “global human society develops towards sustainability, in the second phase society continues to evolve within the boundaries given by sustainability”.

Herman Daly has formulated five principles of sustainable development: (from Holmberg et al 1998, pg. 13):

1.       Human scale (throughput) should be limited to a level which is within carrying capacity.

2.       Technological progress for sustainable development should be efficiency-increasing rather than throughput-increasing.

3.       Waste emissions should not exceed the regeneration rate.

4.       Waste emissions should not exceed the renewable assimilative capacity of environment.

5.       Non-renewable resources should be exploited but at a rate equal to the creation of renewable substitutes.

These principles would be strengthened by an application of the system conditions of TNS, increasing their comprehensiveness. At the moment, they do not cover all of the ways to be unsustainable. The backcasting understanding implicit in the TNS model would also help to clarify the differences between means and ends, which are conflated in these principles. Sustainability is the end goal, whereas some of these principles suggest useful strategies in the transitions to the goal, they are not goals in themselves.

The thinking behind The Natural Step model is based on the precautionary principle, which takes into account the difficulty of predicting accurately the actual effects of pollutants in the environment, due to interactions between materials, time delays and the potential biological effects of a long term build up of chemicals over time (Azar, Holmberg et al. 1995). This is echoed by current thinking in environmental science and the emerging disciplines of Post Normal Science, referred to in the literature as ‘irreducible uncertainty’ (Funtowicz and Ravetz 1994; Ravetz 1997; Waltner-Toews and Wall 1997; van de Kerkhof and Leroy 2000). O'Riordan (2000, pg. 21 –32) suggests that there are three levels of uncertainty in science:

·         Data shortage

·         Model deficiencies

·         Beyond the knowable

Strong sustainability is characterised by a particular adherence to the precautionary principle, as set out in Principle 15 of the Rio declaration:

“where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost effective measures to prevent environmental degradation” (United Nations 1992 quoted in George 1999, pg. 184).

The TNS model is based on a general rule, “not to allow deviations from the natural state that are large in comparison to natural fluctuations” (Holmberg, Karl-Henrik et al. 1996, pg. 3). The translation of the description of the ecosphere into principles for action requires “principles on which the moral argument is to be based” in order to avoid the naturalistic fallacy (Thompson 1999, pg. 22). There are two values from which Holmberg, Karl-Henrik et al. (1996, pg. 45) state that the Natural Step model derives its practical principles: the “value of human life with dignity” and, based on the concept that “humans in the global human society are living beings among other life forms”, the value of “continued life on Earth”.

The concept of carrying capacity has profound implications for the ethic of intergenerational equity, which forms the core of the most common definition of sustainability based on the Brundtland Report, that of meeting human needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. One difficulty is that we will only know that we have exceeded carrying capacity once the effects of the excess are discernible. Given an increasing understanding of the non-linearity of changes in complex systems (Capra 1996), this point is very hard to predict. George (1999, pg. 179) suggests that the concept of intergenerational equity should promote the conservation of natural resources beyond the level that may be determined by an area’s carrying capacity.

Dialogue process in formulation of principles

The concept of searching for areas of consensus amongst the research community has been gaining wider acceptance in the discourse following a post-Kuhn and post-modern questioning of the possibility of an objective scientific viewpoint. Hammersley’s (1990, pg. 63) “line of argument ends in a discussion of the norms that should govern discourse among members of a scientific community…First, all findings should be subject to ‘communal assessment’, with an effort to ‘resolve difference by seeking common grounds…and trying to work back to a resolution of the dispute relying only on what is accepted as valid by all disputants. Second, all involved should not only attempt to persuade, but be willing to be persuaded and change their views. Finally, the community is open to those who are “willing to operate on the basis of the first two rules” (quoted in Smith and Deemer 2000, pg. 881).

The formation of the scientific principles which underpin the system conditions underwent an extensive peer review process (Wingspread 1997). At the Wingspread conference in Racine, Wisconsin, more than twenty scientists, including Nobel Prize Winners, signed a declaration that we “believe that the application of The Natural  Step’s four system conditions is a valid approach for addressing [environmental] problems, and is especially useful for organising information regarding sustainability” (Wingspread 1997;  quoted in Upham 2000).

Robert’s original motivation for the extensive dialogue process that he initiated was to see if a set of easily understood, common principles could be found to form a ‘shared mental model’ of sustainability. The Natural Step “provides a common language to talk about sustainability and facilitates the creation of shared goals that move the company in a sustainable direction. These attributes allow scientists, strategists, experts and non-experts, technicians, production line personnel, marketing and sales people, and accountants at all levels within an organisation to earn together effectively and implement actions that lead to a robust and sustainable future” (Nattrass and Altomare 1999, pg. 18).

There has been a shift in planning theory to a wider acceptance of the importance of participation in planning and in collaborative goal setting (Therivel and Partidario 2000). The concept of ‘planning as learning’ can be strengthened by a clear framework of understanding of the bio-physical conditions of the earth as a context for decision making.

TNS is essentially a pedagogic model, which can help to provide the understanding necessary for people to feel committed to engage in partnership approaches for sustainable development (Carnegie, Nielsen et al. 2000, pg. 393).

It is possible to mitigate the ‘not invented here syndrome’, by assigning importance to the local development of criteria. By linking the local goals to the overall framework of sustainability developed in the TNS model, these local criteria gain a clear goal of sustainability at multiple scales, which is often missing from a process focused only on the local context. Contextual information can help to prioritise actions in sustainable development. Such a dialectic and participative approach requires not only well developed facilitation skills but also a pedagogical approach which ensures that all participants are aware of the overall systems conditions of sustainability, developing what Orr (1994) terms ‘ecoliteracy’.

Criticisms of the model

There is an implicit emphasis in the TNS framework on the precautionary principle, which is considered by some practitioners to be far too conservative. Due to the aim of promoting principles with a broad base of consensus, TNS also deliberately refrains from making judgements of damage thresholds or critical concentrations, which are open to interpretation, hard to predict and likely to cause contention. Instead, they use a “criterion of systematic progression or worsening”, which are based on rate corollaries, which contrast anthropogenic rates of dispersion of matter with natural flows and break down of matter. These are difficult to measure accurately and there  is no agreed upon methodology for converting global flows into measures for local areas (Upham 2000, pg. 447).

Holmberg (1995) provides charts of aggregated measure of both flows, which can, however, be used to gain rapidly a sense of likely significance of different flows. An example of the way this can influence decision making lies in comparing anthropogenic flows of copper, a relatively rare mineral in the composition of the soil and other components of the ecosphere, to aluminium, a relatively abundant mineral in the ecosphere. This comparison suggests that where possible, aluminium should be substituted for copper. Systemic analysis of this decision points to the high embodied energy stemming from the process of mining aluminium, which suggests that this aluminium needs to come from recycled sources, which has implications for product design that uses aluminium so that it can be easily separated for re-use at the end of the useful life of the product.

Upham’s (2000, pg. 451) assertion that “failure to explicitly deal with toxicity is a serious shortcoming of TNS” is only a criticism that holds when TNS is used in isolation from indicators relevant to local and sectoral conditions and decision making criteria, which is held to be an essential component of implementing TNS in a management and design process. TNS explicitly deals with global trends that are likely to cause unsustainable conditions, and recognises that there may be other, local problems caused by emissions that would not necessarily constitute a long term risk to global sustainability, but which are none-the-less important in their local impact. In particular, any analysis of emissions should be linked to likely effects on human health and to an understanding of the concept of critical load and level in local ecosystems, so that the vulnerability of receptors is factored into any decision making on a project level.

Upham (2000, pg. 449) suggests that to take the principles of TNS to their logical extreme would imply that there should have been no development of infrastructure or mining in the ‘stone, iron, bronze, agricultural and industrial revolutions in human history’. He suggests that any decisions as to what level accumulation of materials may be considered to be appropriate in human society are in themselves value judgements, which “complicates the scientific pretensions of TNS” (ibid). He contends that TNS is a “limits-to-growth message that uses science for widespread appeal” (Upham 2000, pg. 454).

Cortner (2000, pg. 24) suggests that value judgements are an inevitable issue that must be faced in any attempt to turn “questions involving fundamental human values into technical problems”. However, the process of bypassing “opportunities to acknowledge the inherently value-laden nature of the task and involve the public in a broader democratic process” (ibid, pg. 25) is not an inevitable outcome of any attempt to use scientific approaches to environmental problems. As a model, TNS offers an opportunity to enhance meaningful debate about exactly where those limits lie, and more importantly, to discuss what can be done to move towards a state where they are not being systematically exceeded.

Upham also suggests that a strict adherence to TNS conditions would make it difficult for less industrialised regions to develop ‘expanded physical economies’, though he also mentions in his article that lithospheric materials and synthetic substances already in use and present on the Earth’s surface should be ‘repeatedly circulated and their access more equally distributed’ (ibid, pg. 449).

Another major criticism of TNS has been that the fourth system condition, which deals with the concept of human needs, is not in and of itself a scientific principle, and implies value judgments as to what constitutes a ‘fair’ use of resources. Such a view is supported by many critiques of the current trajectory of ‘development’ which often serves to make the already rich richer, and erodes local control over resources and technology, such that local food security and employment is threatened, with the poorest the most affected by any negative consequences (Lappe and Collins 1986; Shiva 1989).

Much discussion has centred on what exactly human needs are in this context.  Integrating the work of Manfred Max-Neef, a Chilean economist and ‘development’ expert and his elaboration of human needs (Max-Neef 1991) into the pedagogy of TNS would help to move this discussion into a more fruitful and creative avenue. This integration was discussed by Holmberg and Robert at the May 1998 Natural Step conference in Chicago, and is further discussed in a recent article on backcasting and TNS (Holmberg 1998).


The systems perspective provided by the TNS model offers many advantages for long term sustainable planning. The comprehensive nature of the principles allows for a greater possibility of making decisions which avoid unintended negative consequences. It is important to incorporate local goals and values, or sector specific criteria into the elaboration of the model in a particular context. The use of global level criteria based on commonly agreed scientific principles allows for both a gain is strategic perspective and also in the ability to communicate about sustainability across different contexts. Though in some ways easily comprehensible, TNS is hard to teach well and it is easy to interpret as “50 simple ways to save the world” when it is taught without a firm theoretical basis. The incorporation of teaching about the scientific principles and ecological understanding which forms the core of the model can help to increase ecoliteracy and in turn people’s ability to make strategic sustainable decisions in a multitude of projects and decision making contexts.


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[1] Scientific Principles of The Natural Step

1.        Matter and energy cannot appear or disappear (1st law of thermodynamics & law of conservation of mass)

2.        Matter and energy tend to disperse (2nd law of thermodynamics)

3.        Biological and economic value (quality) lies in the  concentration and structure of matter

4.       Sun driven processes are essentially the only net producers of concentration and matter (photosynthesis).

[2] System Conditions of The Natural Step

In order for a society to be sustainable, nature’s functions and diversity  are not systematically:

1. subject to increasing concentrations of substances extracted from the earth’s crust. (stored deposits)

2. subject to increasing concentrations of substances produced by society. (cycling of materials)

3.impoverished by displacement, over-harvesting, or other forms of ecosystem manipulation. (ecosystem integrity)

4. Resources are used fairly and efficiently in order to meet basic human needs globally. (social system integrity) ã TNS

[3] This concept is further elaborated in the methodology for the author’s doctoral research.

[4] Human needs worldwide must be met through a fair and efficient use of resources.

[5] The process of backcasting creates an image of a desirable future, from which a strategic process of development can be worked out to achieve the future envisioned state (Dreborg 1996). It is especially concerned with how to achieve a desirable future state, and as such is a normative tool, which involves working backwards from the imagined point in the future to the current situation and working out how the desirable future can be attained. Backcasting is a suitable methodology for situations when: (adapted from Dreborg 1996, pg. 816):

·         the problems under study are complex

·         there is a need for a major change

·         dominant trends are part of the problem

·         the problem consists of or is affected by externalities, or factors with which the market cannot adequately deal

·         there is a long enough time horizon to allow for deliberate choice