The Natural Step

The Natural Step is a global not-for-profit organization with a simple mission: to promote real change toward a sustainable world.

The Natural Step Framework is a proven, scientifically robust approach that helps organizations make strategic decisions to move toward sustainability.

Some Key Elements of The Natural Step Framework

NOTE: This information is adapted from "Building a Shared Understanding of & Language for Sustainability:  A Workshop for Sustainable Twin Ports [Duluth, MN and Superior, WI] Early Adopters,” The Natural Step (TNS) Canada, 28-29 October 2008, which was prepared by Mike Purcell, Senior Sustainability Advisor with TNS Canada and Lisa MacKinnon, TNS Associate.

Four Sustainability Principles

In a sustainable society, nature is not subject to systematically increasing…

  1. …Concentrations of substances extracted from the Earth’s crust (e.g., fossil fuels, dispersed metals, etc.)
  2. …Concentrations of substances produced by society (e.g., dispersed pesticides, persistent chemicals from our manufacturing processes and our products, etc.)
  3. …Degradation by physical means (e.g., paving wetlands; deforestation; overharvesting fish; agricultural and forestry practices that result in the loss of soil, soil ecosystems and valuable nutrients; urban sprawl; loss of diversity through monoculture; etc.)

and, in that society…

  1. … people are not subject to conditions that systematically undermine their capacity to meet their needs (e.g., lack of access to education, poor wages, time pressure from our jobs or spent in traffic rather than with our families, etc.)

Backcasting vs. Forecasting

Backcasting is a planning approach by which a successful future outcome is imagined, followed by the question: “What do I/we need to do today to reach the successful outcome?” 

Backcasting is a fancy term for something that most of us do naturally as individuals. For example, if I decide that I want to become a lawyer, I would hold up that goal as my desired successful outcome.  I would then plan and take the necessary steps to reach that goal, i.e., take the prerequisite courses and attain the grades to get into law school, go to law school, take the bar exam, apply for a clerkship, etc.

We tend to rely more on a different approach called forecasting. Forecasting basically involves looking at past trends and data and projecting those same trends and data out into the future, and then deciding what to do today based on those projections. The problem with relying solely on forecasting is that if past trends and behaviors are part of the problems we are trying to solve, then we risk projecting those same problems out into the future as well.

The ABCD Process

The four sustainability principles – or “system conditions” – denote the basic principles of success for a sustainable society.   The “A-B-C-D” process provides a systematic way of guiding the process of backcasting from these basic principles of success.

Step A – Awareness: The framework – including the sustainability principles, the step-by-step approach to comply with them, and the motivation for doing so in a strategic manner – is shared as a model for community building (i.e., participating community members approach sustainable development by collectively using the same rules).

Planning for sustainability requires a systematic, integrated approach that brings together environmental, economic and social goals and actions directed toward the following four objectives:

  1. Reduce and eventually eliminate our contribution to the buildup of materials taken from the Earth’s crust. This includes fossil fuels and their associated wastes.
  2. Reduce and eventually eliminate our contribution to the buildup of synthetic substances produced by society.
  3. Reduce and eventually eliminate our contribution to the ongoing physical degradation of Nature.
  4. Reduce and eventually eliminate our contribution to conditions that undermine people’s ability to meet their basic needs.

Step B – Baseline Analysis: An assessment of "today" is conducted by listing all current flows and practices that are problematic from a sustainability perspective, as well as considering all the assets that currently are in place to deal with the problems or to assist in getting closer to the community’s vision of success. In this step you are assessing your current reality using the same principles that define success for you in the future. This is an essential element of backcasting. This is how you assess and reassess the course you are taking after each action – in relation to the principles of sustainability.  
The two key tasks of Step B (Baseline Analysis) as applied to an energy system include:

  • Inventorying all the ways in which the current energy system is contributing to violations of the four system conditions.; and
  • Inventorying all of the assets that are currently in place that can serve as building blocks for a transitioning towards alignment with the four system conditions.

Step C – Compelling Vision (and Creative Solutions): The visions and solutions that will lead to success “tomorrow” (i.e., the opening of the resource funnel) are developed and listed by applying the “constraints” of the sustainability principles to trigger creativity.
The two key tasks of Step C (Compelling Vision) as applied to an energy system include:

  • Envisioning a future energy system that sustainably meets people’s needs (i.e., one that is in agreement with all four sustainability principles) and describe its main “characteristics”; and
  • Brainstorming potential actions/solutions that could move the current energy system towards that vision.  

Agreeing on the desirable characteristics is the most important task in creating a vision.  The characteristics will provide the key content of the vision and should describe an actual sustainable outcome.  To help ensure that it does, it is important to compare your vision with the Baseline Analysis (Step B). Is each of the violations of a sustainability principle described in your baseline assessment eliminated by your characteristics?
The following provides some examples of characteristics:

In the future, as a community in a sustainable society:

  • We have a net carbon impact of zero – that is, no net carbon will accumulate in the atmosphere as a result of energy production and use in our community
  • We have zero waste: we are highly efficient in our use of energy, water, materials, etc.
  • We generate only benign emissions – that is, emissions that nature can deal with in the regular functioning of its systems
  • We derive 100 percent of our energy from renewable sources
  • Our energy system is resource-efficient

Step D – Down to ActionSuggestions from the C-list are prioritized (or scrutinized for their potential as stepping stones to eventually achieving sustainability) by searching for measures that generate "yes" responses to the following three questions:

i. Does this measure proceed in the right direction with respect to all principles of sustainability?
Sometimes a measure represents a trade-off that proceeds in the right direction
with respect to one of the principles while working against others. Asking thisquestion helps illuminate the full picture and leads to complementary measuresthat may be needed to take all sustainability principles into account.

ii. Does this measure provide a stepping-stone (i.e., “flexible platform”) for future improvements?  
It is important that investments, particularly when they are large and tie up resources for relatively long time periods, can be further elaborated or completed in line with the sustainability principles in order to avoid dead ends. An example of something to avoid under this analysis would be investing heavily in a technology that will cause fewer impacts in nature today, but that doesn’t have the potential for adapting to contribute to complete compliance with the sustainability principles in the long run.

iii. Is this measure likely to produce a sufficient return on investment to further catalyze the process?
It is important that the process does not end due to lack of resources or bad investments along the way. Note that "investments" do not just refer to financial resources, but also to political, social, and cultural resources.