You Can’t Eat Scenery II: The Search for an Index for Sustainable Development

pollution_historic_cody.gifAs was brought up in my previous post, the release of the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report 2007-2008 draws attention to the prominent and crucial role socio-economic statistics play in formulating policies that will determine our collective futures, as well as that of the environment which sustains all forms of life on earth.
The preeminence of GDP as “the be-all and end-all” measure of a nation’s health and progress is certainly understandable from the viewpoint that it measures the total output of goods, services and capital, at least some portion of which makes life better, easier and more comfortable for more people than ever before – and it’s forecast that there will be 7 billion of us come 2012, the vast majority on the lower end of the material possessions and consumption scale.
What by definition GDP doesn’t even attempt to include or measure has always been a valid and serious source of criticism that led researchers to try and develop more comprehensive, socially and economically representative and useful measures. Such efforts have taken on an even greater urgency with the likes of Brazil, China, India, Russia and a host of other countries shifting to consumer-driven economies. Ignoring the costs to biodiversity, environmental quality and health of economic activities, economists’ and policy makers’ reliance on GDP or any other limited and strictly traditionally defined economic statistics can only result in a blueprint for fatally flawed mispricing and misallocation of capital and resources and, eventually, environmental and social catastrophe.

A Thorny Challenge

The difficulties associated with developing more broadly defined measures of sustainable development that take environmental and social factors into account and can be generally accepted, as well as practical means of implementing them, also has to be taken into account. Finding a practical solution to the latter is one of the advances that have come into effect with the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism and the EU’s emissions trading scheme.
There is a large and still growing number of statistical efforts related to sustainable development. In the mid-1990s, the United Nations Commission for Sustainable Development (UNCSD) in cooperation with several member countries, conducted pilot tests and updated a “menu” of sustainable development indicators in the wake of the Rio Earth Summit.
A decade later the UNCSD commissioned the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) to prepare a summary and evaluation of sustainable development indicators and suggest strategy directions to develop them further and put them to use within a global framework in preparation for a meeting of experts that took place back in December 2005. The result was a proposed set of 134 indicators of sustainable development.
According to Peter Bartelmus’s Indicators of Sustainable Development, “Indicator lists of varying length seek to capture the different – economic, environmental, social and institutional – dimensions of sustainable development. They are indicators for (the assessment of) sustainable development. They differ in the particular selection of ‚Äòrepresentative’ indicators of these dimensions and related sustainability concerns. Indicators of sustainable development are more in the nature of indices that reflect the state of overall concepts or social goals such as human development, sustainable development, the quality of life or socioeconomic welfare.”
Bartelmus goes on to note that while it’s almost impossible “to give a reasonable overview of the large variety of national and international programs of compiling and publishing social, environmental and sustainable development indicators,” they generally include some or all of the following:
* Population (growth, migration, refugees)
* Human needs (health, food, housing, education, equity, security, etc.)
* Renewable and non-renewable natural resources
* Environmental quality (air, water, land)
* Ecosystems (acidification, eutrophication, biodiversity)
* Economic sectors (and their impacts, including emissions, natural resource use, production and consumption patterns, technologies)
* Natural and man-made disasters
* Global environmental problems (climate change, ozone layer depletion)
* Globalization
* Institutions
According to the Encyclopedia of the Earth indicators of sustainable economic development are intended “to provide early warning about non-sustainable trends of economic activity and environmental deterioration. They can also support policy formulation and evaluation. Policy use requires the setting of targets or benchmarks against which progress or failure can be assessed.”
Practically speaking, defining common, generally acceptable measures, and means of measuring, the value of such large, crucial and often incompletely understood environmental factors such as clean air, clean waters, natural forests, wildlife, etc. has and still poses significant hurdles to the development, adoption and use of sustainable economic development indicators.
Political negotiations within the UNCSD, for instance, could not produce agreement on common targets and what resulted revolved around settling on a listing of goals and standards. Country case studies and further discussion led to the promotion of a “core set” of 54 indicators. Also worth noting, the UN’s Millennium Development Indicators are apparently more popular than the UNCSD’s more narrowly defined core set of environmental and sustainable development. indicators.
Unfortunately, sustainable development and clean technologies are still viewed as impractical on large scales and looked at more in the way of an additional cost burden as opposed to as a primary strategy that can provide stimulate economic growth, social improvement and opportunities to develop new models and means of developing healthy economies and societies.
Note: For those of you who care to, click here if you want to see the TV commercial featuring Iron Eyes Cody that was used to help launch the 1971 Earth Day Campaign and which played such a big part in raising Americans’ litter and pollution consciousness quotient.

An independent journalist, researcher and writer, my work roams across the nexus where ecology, technology, political economy and sociology intersect and overlap. The lifelong quest for knowledge of the world and self -- not to mention gainful employment -- has led me near and far afield, from Europe, across the Asia-Pacific, Middle East and Africa and back home to the Americas. Twitter: @mightysparrow LinkedIn: andrew burger Google+: Andrew B Email: