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Backcasting from the future

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Karl-Henrik Robert on where Whistler is in the Natural Step and where it could be

Dr. Karl-Henrik Robert, founder of the Natural Step framework, was in Whistler last week to speak at the Leadership Through Innovation speaker series. Robert, who received the Blue Planet Prize, known as the Nobel Prize for the Environment, in 2000, is a global leader in sustainability. He talked with Pique editor Bob Barnett following his Whistler speech.

Pique: You spoke earlier this week about being encouraged by what Whistler has done with the Natural Step and sustainability. What’s so encouraging?

K-H R: It’s about social change, all of this, and the methodology of the Natural Step is very robust. It’s a scientifically and logically robust framework for planning that acts as a sort of language between people when they are thinking ahead toward sustainability and planning toward sustainability. So it’s good for community building as well.

And when I look at Whistler I would say that you are probably amongst the few top municipalities in the world when it comes to comprehending, to having the language, to run with a vision, and the community building aspect – having the mayor running it and having so many people who are really starting to be good at it.

So the dialogues I’ve been having here this week have been the most enlightening and comforting that I can almost remember. It’s been a wonderful time.

When it comes to concrete change there are a number of municipalities in Europe that are further ahead, for instance in Sweden, when it is about technical development. There are a number of municipalities that are almost entirely run on renewable energy, 90 per cent, even in the north of Sweden.

So that’s one point, but it is the community level (in Whistler) that makes me very intrigued.

Pique: Is Whistler’s situation comparable to what has been done by some of the corporations that have adopted the Natural Step?

K-H R: Yes it’s very similar actually. Large corporations are almost like countries or municipalities. It’s political, a lot of stuff in big companies. And very large investments are political as well, with shareholders and others you have to think about. So the similarities are profound. And the need to have a robust framework by which you can communicate is very essential.

But that is not instead of polarities. Polarities are good. That’s good for creativity and vitality, to have polarity. But we don’t need polarity that is based on misunderstandings and poor knowledge and sloppy restrictions of the system boundaries you are considering. Those kinds of polarities we can do without. And to that end the framework is excellent.

Also to see where the true polarities exist, that are based on a different set of values.

And so to that end the similarities are profound, between large businesses and municipalities.

Pique: There is a lot of emphasis on the individual within the Natural Step. You mentioned that you have never met "Electorlux" or "Ikea." Is it all about individuals stepping forth and making change?

K-H R: That’s right. Individuals very often gather and some time top management have it all right, all of them, and that gives the impression that the whole company is moving in that direction. And then it is perceived as a good company. But it is those good people there, enforcing everything, being creative, selling the message of sustainability in a way that others want to follow – good leadership.

And then they get aggressively purchased by another company, or the CEO becomes the CEO of another company. It’s always at risk, always vulnerable.

Previously I took it personally. I felt like Ikea was my baby, in a way. And then any failure or drawback or stumbling block I took personally – until I realized that it’s people.

For instance when we started to train Scandic Hotels, which is one of the largest hotel chains in Sweden, and all of northern Europe by the way, because they’re all over the place. (They were) at the level where they were on the edge of bankruptcy. They didn’t have any core values, they had nothing.

So the board fired the whole management team and brought in another one. And they started to work with us right away, to build up core values, create a language which was the same for everybody, and got such a strong team that they converted the company to the most successful hotel company in that region of the world.

Last year they were purchased by Hilton, and the old management team of Scandic vanished. And now they are trying to make Hilton absorb Scandic’s sustainability standards globally, but we don’t know. So now it can go either way.

A few years ago I would have been shocked, but now I don’t take it so personally because the CEO of Scandic and those others, they haven’t died.

When the top management of Electrolux left for Volvo it really started a slow decline in perception, which is steady in Electrolux but it’s growing in Volvo.

I’ve started to take it much more professionally now. I understand these people.

Pique: But isn’t it difficult for individuals or small companies or small towns to move toward sustainability given the obstacles built into our society? For instance, Whistler is looking at more sustainable sources of energy but it’s difficult to find practical alternatives to oil and gas and other fossil fuels. There aren’t any hydrogen-powered vehicles available right now.

K-H R: It’s like saying I’m not going to start running until I’m in good shape. We must do it step by step. That’s why we call it the Natural Step. And that’s why it’s so important to have the vision clear and then do moves that at least do not stop your ability to comply with those principles. Because that would be horrendous. It would cost a lot of money and be destructive from all points of view.

But on the other hand you must also make people realize that every sub-goal is only a sub-goal. How do you do that? By making them understand that the long-term vision is here. And then you can celebrate every sub-goal in that direction. And nobody then gets disappointed.

You can accept that certain things will take longer than others, as long as there is a systematic move in that direction.

This also makes companies and municipalities less vulnerable to criticism, when they have entered this path. Because if somebody would say ‘Oh, you’re working with sustainability issues, are you?’ And I say ‘Yes’ and they say ‘Well, look what I found in your backyard, and look at these toxins and look at this bad stuff and look at these fossil fuels’ and so forth. If you can play this game well, with confidence, you can say ‘Oh yes, and not only that, look at that problem and this problem, and you forgot to mention that is a problem. But you see we must first do this, and then we do that, and then we do this and then we do that. And by the way, we’ve already done those steps.’

So you answer in a process-oriented way. And this eventually becomes an attitude which is very comforting, very nice. It’s like living on a garbage dump, and every day it becomes a little bit more beautiful. Some more garden grows and some more trees grow and more flowers blossom and it becomes neater and neater and neater. And then people can find a very good living.

But if you live in a castle and every day it deteriorates more, and windows fall out and it becomes worse and worse, even if you never reach the garbage dump level in your lifetime it’s still downhill all the time.

So I think mankind reacts on the direction of development. If it goes in the wrong direction you are depressed, even if you are rich and everything is fine around you. I think this is psychologically the most important aspect of sustainable development. It’s possible to see disaster going on around you if at the same time you see a lot of good things happen, in a systematic way, and to be in such a community, such gatherings of people. I got that question in a meeting yesterday: How do you put up with it? How can you be so positive? It’s just to me the people, otherwise I would be mad.

Do you know about delerium tremors, where alcoholics go mad – they see spiders and very awful things. Before we had very active drugs to treat those poor patients they died, around 30 per cent, it’s a high mortality rate, from heart inflections and suicide because it was so horrible to experience those things – until doctors learned to see the spiders too. So when the patient screams out and points at the spider the doctor sees it too, and starts to chase it out of the room. It’s very easy then to… convince that the doctor actually sees it, because that’s also part of the disease. And then anxiety goes down enormously, because that’s how social we are. The worst thing about seeing a spider 2 X 2 metres is not the spider, it is to be alone seeing it. Nobody else sees it.

I think if you were alone in this understanding, this would be like going to hell. It would be disastrous. But to be amongst a growing number of friends who are a team fighting about it, this is what makes it bearable. We have each other to cure each other’s delerium tremors. In this case I think the spider’s winning, unfortunately.

Pique: I understand you have some thoughts on Whistler and the Olympic bid as it relates to the Natural Step.

K-H R: With our methodology, we backcast from success. We say, ‘OK Whistler made it, what does that mean?’ Well, in the future Whistler does not contribute to anything from the earth’s crust increasing in concentration, green house gases or sulpherous acid rain or phosphates in lakes or cadmium in kidneys – nothing. The same goes for chemicals – PCPs, DDT… you don’t contribute to that, not here, not anywhere else. So it’s not only here it has ceased to increase, you don’t contribute to that problem. Physical encroaching has stopped, and you don’t contribute to it. And the same goes for humanity, you don’t violate human rights anywhere. On the contrary, you are lifting people higher here and elsewhere.

How did you get there? Could possibly that Olympic Games be a stepping stone in this direction? Of course it can, but it depends on how you do it, not ‘is it good or is it not.’ That is never the issue. It is always ‘how did you do it?’ Did you use it as a stepping stone or didn’t you? I think that depends on the terms. If you want to go for it, on what terms do you go for it? What kind of extra community building things around it did you launch? And not the least important, what other alternatives were around, so that you don’t take one stepping stone that attracts that much focus and then maybe miss something that you should have done instead.

On the other hand, I could imagine that if the whole community would go for it with the right intention of fostering and promoting systematic sustainable development, and did it in a way that it would really show, then it could do two good things. 1. It could promote sustainability globally, and 2. It could make a team of the people who did it, and that would really be something to make high-fives of.

So it depends on the conditions, always. In the same way, is plastic better than paper or is it the other way around? There is no such thing. You succeeded to comply with the principles and then you ask yourself, did we choose paper or plastic? It depends on how you did it. If you, for instance, buy plastic from a producer who is systematically moving towards compliance with the principles, and you buy from him to help him move in that direction...

Plastic can be a fantastic product in the future if it does not release persistent unnatural compounds, heavy metals like lead and mercury, because it is so light and strong – it can help us avoid a lot of other materials like heavy metals… See what I mean?

But if you buy paper from somebody who is systematically moving in that direction, which is wood, you are also doing good things. It always depends on ‘how.’ And that can not be perceived with today’s perspectives. Today we only look at the impacts we know. You must stand in the future, understanding how to define success, and then you see the paths that may lead there.

By the way, it’s the same dialogue that’s going on with the World Economic Forum in Whistler. If Whistler is going to go for it or not, because it has been offered to them.

Again, on what conditions, on what terms? What would be the terms with regard to the curriculum and the contents of that meeting, so that it is not a traditional economic growth seminar but a true world economic forum, with a world perspective and a sustainable perspective.