Karl-Henrik Robèrt, M.D., Ph.D. (born 1947), is a Swedish cancer scientist and an important figure in the worldwide sustainability movement. He is known for The Natural Step, a framework that lays out the system conditions for sustainability, that arose from his consultations with municipalities, businesses, government departments, environmental organizations, and the arts community. Having secured the imprimatur of the King of Sweden, The Natural Step was launched with attendant television coverage and distribution of educational material to every school and household in Sweden.
The Natural Step framework sets out the system conditions for sustainability, as well as guidelines to systematically approach compliance with the principles. The framework has been applied to fields as diverse as agriculture, forestry, energy systems, information and selection of tools for sustainable development, green building and the ecological management of river basins. The Natural Step aims to be both scientifically based and readily understandable in its articulation of principles for sustainability.
His 1979 doctoral dissertation, at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, studied leukemia. As head of the Division of Clinical Hematology and Oncology at the Department of Medicine at the Huddinge Hospital, Stockholm, Sweden and director of research at the Karolinska Institute, he conducted research and lectured widely on several forms of cancer, including leukemia, lymphoma and lung cancer.
From his study of cancerous cells, he realized that “cells are the unifying unit of all living things. The difference between our cells and the cells of plants are so minor that it's almost embarrassing; the makeup is almost identical all the way down to the molecular level.” The natural and the human world are both built of cells. His studies led him to realize that cancer rates and other threats to global health, would only increase with increasing concentrations of pollutants and other unsustainable mechanisms. His focus on toxins and their health implications, led him to see the link between these and a systems perspective on future health.
Research on damage to human cells underscored, for Robèrt, the importance of environmental concerns. He observed that since the late 19th Century, humans have been increasingly interfering with natural processes. He characterized many of the processes of modern society as linear (unidirectional, such as extractive mining technologies) that were producing garbage at unprecedented rates — not only that visible in garbage dumps, but also unseen molecular garbage. Since "all linear processes must eventually come to an end," the only way to save ourselves from the consequences, in his view, would be to restore the cyclical processes of nature:
For roughly the past hundred years, humans have been disrupting the cyclical processes of nature at an accelerating pace. All human societies are, in varying degrees, now processing natural resources in a linear direction. Our resources are being rapidly transformed into useless garbage, some of which is obvious to the naked eye, but most of which escapes awareness. The smaller portion can be seen in garbage dumps and other visible waste. By far the larger portion can be thought of as "molecular garbage" - consisting of the vast quantities of tiny particles that are daily spewed out into the earth's air, water and soil.
With few exceptions, none of this garbage finds its way back into the cycles of society or nature; it is not taken up for repeated use by industry, nor is it put back into the soil. As a result of poor or non-existent planning, the volume of garbage is too large for nature to reassimilate, and some of it - toxic metals and stable unnatural compounds - cannot be processed by the cells at all.
He has argued against a proliferation of definitions of what constitutes sustainability. He promotes a change in "human life-styles and forms of societal organization that are based on cyclic processes compatible with the earth's natural cycles."
Origin of The Natural Step
In 1989, he circulated a paper on sustainability to 50 scientists, asking for their input. The extensive deliberative process involved 22 versions, but a consensus emerged that led to The Natural Step.
Awards and honours
In cancer research, Robèrt won the 1984 Swedish Hematological Association Research Award. In environmental sustainability, he won the Green Cross Award for International Leadership in 1999. He was awarded The Social Responsibility Laureate Medal by the Global Center for Leadership & Business Ethics. In 2000, he was awarded the Blue Planet Prize, often referred to as the "Nobel Prize" of ecological sustainability, "for scientifically laying out the systems perspective needed to plan strategically for sustainability and for changing the environmental awareness of business, municipalities and others." In 2005 Robèrt received the Social Responsibility Laureate Medal by the Global Center for Leadership & Business Ethics. He was included in the publication 100 Visionaries of the 20th Century in 2006. In 2009, he was recognized as an Ashoka Fellow. and in 2011 as Ashoka Globalizer .
If we think systematically, we will stop asking, "How much is nature worth?" We will know that we are a piece of nature ourselves. --K.-H. Robèrt
Notes and references
- Robèrt, K.H. (1991). "That Was When I Became A Slave." Excerpts from an interview with Karl-Henrik Robèrt by Robert Gilman and Nikolaus Wyss. In Context 28:10.
- DuBose, J. and A. Pearce, A. (1997). "The Natural Step as an Assessment Tool for the Built Environment," Proceedings of the 1997 CIB Conference on Green Building, Paris, France, June. Retrieved: 2007-04-09.
- Tippett, J. (2005). “The Value of Combining a Systems View of Sustainability with a Participatory Protocol for Ecologically Informed Design in River Basins," Journal of Environmental Modeling and Software 20 (2): 119-139.
- Hawken, P. (1995). “Taking The Natural Step.” In Context 41: 36
- Robèrt, K.H. (1979). Libris: Functional characterization of blood lymphocytes in chronic lymphocytic leukemia
- Blekinge Institute of Technology. World Student Environmental Summit: Speakers. Karlskrona, Sweden. Retrieved on: 2011-09-17.
- Sustainability and Appropriate Technology Videos About Karl-Henrik Robert. The Natural Step, Part IV. Retrieved on: 2011-09-17.
- Ashoka: Innovators for the Public. Profile: Karl-Henrik Robert. Prepared when Robert was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2009. Retrieved on: 2011-09-18.
- Robèrt, K.H. Curriculum Vitae. Blekinge Tekniska Högskola (Blekinge Institute of Technology).
- Robèrt, K.H. (1991). "Educating A Nation: The Natural Step."In Context 28:10.
- Johnston, P.; Everard, M.; Santillo, D.; Robèrt, K. H. (2007). "Reclaiming the definition of sustainability". Environmental science and pollution research international 14 (1): 60–66. doi:10.1065/espr2007.01.375. PMID 17352129.
- Eriksson, K. E.; Robèrt, K. H. (1991). "From the Big Bang to sustainable societies". Acta oncologica (Stockholm, Sweden) 30 (6 Spec No): 5–14. PMID 1910872.
- Interface. A Shared Journey: Interface Partners in Sustainability - Dr. Karl-Henrik Robert. Retrieved on:2011-09-17.
- Jönköping UniversityBiography Professor Karl-Henrik Robèrt. Retrieved on: 2011-08-29.
- Robèrt, K.H. (1995). The Cycle of Nature. 1995 Schumacher Lecture. Schumacher College. Retrieved on: 2011-08-29.
- Personal homepage at Blekinge Institute of Technology
- The Natural Step UK
- Big Picture TV Free video streams of Dr Karl-Henrik Robèrt
- Schumacher Lecture 1995, Cycle of Nature by Karl-Henrik Robèrt