First published in Futures, 1998, 30, 4, 367-375
and to appear in Nov 2001 in The Environment and Anthropology, eds. Nora
Haenn and Richard Wilk, NY Univ Press
up to Sustainability
Akatea Rd, Petone, New Zealand
+64 4 589 1575 email:
a concept sustainability has captured our imaginations and
aspirations. As a
tangible and identifiable goal it eludes us.
Having developed indicators to measure and monitor economic,
social and environmental conditions, we want now to measure
emphasis on the physical, the objective, and the rational however
sees only the external manifestations of sustainability.
The internal manifestations of sustainability, the
non-material, the subjective, and the experiential, are put to one
side, since they are messy, interpretive and time-consuming - the
world of hermeneutics. Sustainability
however is more than a ‘thing’ to be measured, since it is about
ecological integrity, quality of life and transformation or
than ask how we can measure sustainability, it may be more
appropriate to ask how we measure up to sustainability.
the past two decades interest has grown in developing indicators to
measure sustainability. Sustainablity
is presently seen as a delicate balance between the economic,
environmental and social health of a community, nation and of course
the earth. Measures of
sustainability at present tend to be an amalgam of economic,
environmental and social indicators.
Economic indicators have been used to measure the state of
the economy for much of this century.
Social indicators are largely a post-WW2 phenomenon and
environmental indicators are more recent still.
Interest in developing these indicators largely began when
their respective theatres became stressed and where the purpose was
to monitor performance and to indicate if any ameliorating action
was required. Whereas
economists have no difficulty deriving objective and quantitative
indicators (their relevance is another matter), sociologists had and
still have great difficulty in deriving indicators, because of
intangible quality of life issues.
Environmental scientists have less difficulty when limiting
themselves to abundance of single species rather than biodiversity
and ecological integrity.
however is more than just the interconnectedness of the economy,
society and the environment. Important
though these are, they are largely only the external manifestations
of sustainability. The
internal, fundamental, and existential dimensions are neglected.
Sustainability therefore may be something more grand and
noble, a dynamic, a state of collective grace, a facet of Gaia, even
of Spirit. Rather than
ask how we can measure sustainability, it may be more appropriate to
ask how we measure up to sustainability.
Concept of Sustainability
at least as a concept, has permeated most spheres of life, not
solely because it is a political requirement but because it clearly
resonates with something deep within us even though we have a poor
understanding of what it is. The
concept first emerged in the early 1970s but it exploded onto the
global arena in 1987 with the Brundtland Report1, in
which sustainable development is defined as .. development
that meets the needs of
the present without compromising the ability of future generations
to meet their own needs.
very noble definition however defies objective interpretation or
operational implementation. Most
of us would see our own personal needs within the context of our
circumstances rather than as absolutes.
Our perceptions of the needs of future generations therefore
beggar the imagination. ‘How
much is enough?’ is a question we have to explore together but can
only answer individually. Yet
we rarely ask this key question of ourselves individually, let alone
the ecological integrity of the earth is ensured and our basic needs
are satisfied, how much is enough?
The question should be posed mostly in the developed
countries where, amidst the affluence, there is still inequity.
Increasing and deliberate inequity at that, for it is a
necessary feature of a growth economy and the driver of material
though high standards of living may be, there are finite global
limits. Since our
concern for the environment decreases as we become more affluent2
we should not expect our quest for sustainability to increase as we
become more affluent. Indeed
the few examples of sustainability that we have are where there is
no affluence, the states of Kerala and Cuba, and in Amish and
Mennonite communities. Here
there is greater equity, justice and social cohesion.
The challenge for the affluent developed world is to strive
for equity and justice, whilst at the same time creating the
conditions for appropriate qualitative development.
are other definitions of sustainability which sidestep human needs
preferring to talk about ecological integrity, diversity and limits.
These too defy objective interpretation.
These deficiencies in the definitions, if that is what they
are, cause much frustration to the rational mind, particularly for
those trying to measure sustainability3.
Meanwhile our reductionist mentality has tended to link it in
a servile capacity to quantitative and productive activity, such as
sustainable agriculture, forestry, land management, fisheries, etc.
In consequence sustainable growth and sustainable development
have been captured by the dominant paradigm where for example -
development is brandished as a new standard by those who do not
really wish to change the current pattern of development
development alone does not lead to sustainability.
Indeed, it may in fact support the longevity of the
unsustainable path 5.
the concept is still with us and getting stronger.
have a better understanding of what is unsustainable rather than
what is sustainable. Unsustainability
is commonly seen as environmental (in its broad sense) degradation,
from the stresses of human population, affluence and technology on
ecological and global limits. Since
these stresses are all of our own construction, their control is,
theoretically at least, within our capabilities.
Human nature being what it is, we may push the global
physical and biological capacities to their very limits, which will
be survival rather than sustainability.
Survival is merely not dying, whereas we probably think of
sustainability in terms of justice, interdependence, sufficiency,
choice and above all (if we were to think deeply about it) the
meaning of life.
therefore is also about the non-material side of life - the
intuitive, the emotional, the creative and the spiritual, for which
we need to engage all our ways of learning (being and insight as
well as doing and knowing). Perhaps
there are indeed some fundamental and universal truths if meaning
and spirituality are components of sustainability.
Morals and values however are not necessarily absolutes, and
can be very difficult to define.
Values for instance are qualities we absorb from our
experiences. If our
experiences confirm the implicit values, we are more likely to adopt
those values. When our
experiences continually contradict the implicit values we are more
likely to modify our personal values to the projected values, ie. we
do as we are done by rather than as we are told.
New ways of thinking need to emerge.
Even Einstein recognised that
we cannot solve the
problems that we have created with the same thinking that created
them. The very
etymology of sustainability contains both its appeal and its paradox
- to hold together with
beauty in our inability to define sustainability means that we
cannot prescribe it. The
future may then unfold according to our visions and abilities
provided we recognise the global limits.
Sachs6 presents three perspectives of sustainable
development: the contest
perspective that implies growth is possible infinitely in time; the astronaut’s
perspective that recognises that development is precarious in time;
and the home perspective
that accepts the finiteness of development.
These could be considered, respectively, as the perspectives
of the dominant paradigm, the precautionary principle, and the
are, and will be, many other perspectives.
a generation now we have wrestled with the concept.
We may have as much difficulty with sustainability as we did
with the concept of evolution 150 years ago.
Wilber7 suggests that the whole of history, and
thereby evolution and the future, is a collective transcendence or
transformation. We have
been ignoring subjective and non-physical dimensions of the
collective self as well as the individual self.
In so doing we have both created the ecological crisis and
prevented ourselves from transcending it.
Thus any debate about sustainability is essentially a debate
about ultimate meaning - the what, who, why and how am I?
But we are extremely reluctant to engage in that debate on a
collective basis, not even locally let alone nationally or globally,
partly because it’s messy, interpretive and time-consuming - the
world of hermeneutics. There
is therefore a crisis of perception.
On this side of the crisis there is mainly banality, whereas
on the other side we see only uncertainty and fear 8.
Social Discourse on Sustainability
is little dispute that our present path is unsustainable.
The challenge of sustainability is neither wholly technical
nor rational. It is one
of change in attitude and behaviour.
Sustainability therefore must include the social discourse
where the fundamental issues are explored collaboratively within the
groups or community concerned.
We do not do that very well, partly because of increasing
populations, complexity, distractions and mobility, but more because
of certain characteristics of the dominant paradigm that are seen as
the discourse does occur it tends to be structured and rational
where aggressive debate is esteemed and other ways of knowing and
experiential knowledge, particularly of indigenous peoples, and
feelings are disregarded. However
the process of discourse is as important as the analysis of
discourse where knowing and acting could be seen as points on a
journey, rather than as an end, as a start or a new beginning9.
In sociological terms sustainability is an absent
referent or the absence
of a presence. Veiderman10
may have come closest to a definition with .. sustainability
is a vision of the future that provides us with a road map and helps
us focus our attention on a set of values and ethical and moral
principles by which to guide our actions.
however will not readily enter into abstract discourse, particularly
where they suspect they will have to get by with less or that their
standard of living will decline - at least not until the need for
discourse becomes inevitable and perhaps too late.
Agenda 21 requires developed countries to reduce their use of
natural resources and production of wastes whilst simultaneously
improving human amenities and the environment.
That statement does not necessarily imply a reduction in the
standard of living (defined for the moment as material consumption).
Through greater efficiencies it could mean maintaining the
standard whilst simultaneously improving the quality of life.
In that event we would be more willing to enter into further
discourse to see if further improvements in the quality of life can
be achieved, even at the expense of the standard of living if
necessary. Just as
human needs are not absolutes, neither is the standard of living nor
the quality of life. The
mystics may well indeed be the enlightened ones.
Involuntary simplicity on the other hand is a form of
within this social discourse the visions for the future can emerge.
suggests three principles to underlie the discourse on
humility principle, which recognises the limitations of human
precautionary principle, which advocates caution when in doubt, and
reversibility principle, which requires us not to make any
and indicators have always been essential components of closed
physical systems. They
are integral to the scientific method.
In this context each indicator should have a threshold and a
target to guide political and social action.
Their usefulness for closed socio/biophysical systems (eg.
human well-being, confined eco-systems) and particularly for open
physical systems (eg. corporations, national economies, regional
sustainability) is still really unknown, in that accommodation of
the full impact of the externalities may not be possible.
Ultimately however the earth is a closed system, except for
the energy flux. In
that sense accurate measures are theoretically possible at the
global scale but it is local measures that are potentially more
meaningful and actionable. The
impact of some issues however may only be evident globally, eg.
global warming and ozone depletion, whereas the solutions may be
has written extensively on indicators, notably the chapter in
Paradigms in Progress. The
proliferation itself of indicators is indicative of the confusion
and uncertainty of what is to be measured, and perhaps the absence
of debate and understanding.
is much dissatisfaction with economic indicators, even among
economists. Most would
claim that they are not indicators of anything other than the
economy. Some do not
believe they are even meaningful measures of economic sustainability12.
adherents for the most common indicator, the Gross National Product
(GNP), now replaced by the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), are getting
fewer, but it is still widely used.
Daly and Cobb13 have developed the Index of
Sustainable Economic Welfare (ISEW), which has recently been further
refined as the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) by Cobb et al14.
Consumption is still the base of the index, but instead of
adding negative or deleterious consumption (eg. defence,
environmental protection) it subtracts them and adds previously
unmeasured positive beneficial consumption (eg. voluntary work,
caregiving, housework). Whereas
the GDP in the United States has continued to increase since 1950,
the GPI shows a steady decline which mirrors people’s experiences
and perceptions of their well-being.
GPI is a more realistic alternative to the GDP.
The proponents of GPI presumably believe it is more likely to
receive establishment endorsement by starting from the received
wisdom. It is worth
pointing out however that 50% of Americans consider themselves to be
overweight, that 40% consider they consume alcohol in excess of
‘moderation’, that 70% of smokers would like to stop, and so on
with gambling and credit card use14.
In other words most of us are knowing victims of the consumer
society and would like to change.
Therefore it is difficult to conceive how any index which has
consumption as its base can be a measure of sustainability.
the GDP and the GPI are single indices.
Both are aggregations of specific economic indicators.
Whereas economic indicators may be equally responsive, in
respect to time, to actions of adjustment, or can be meaningfully
weighted in their aggregation, this is not true of social,
environmental and sustainability indicators.
Economic indicators are therefore not particularly useful as
measures of sustainability but economic considerations need to be
the very foundation of modern economic theory is suspect.
Firstly, because it determines rather than reflects political
and cultural development. Secondly,
because it assumes scarcity of resources, most of which, until
relatively recently at least, are in abundance.
An economic theory that goes beyond greed and scarcity and
which reflects human needs as suggested by Lietaer15 is
likely to yield much more useful indicators.
are broadly five types of social indicators - informative:
predictive; problem oriented; programme evaluative; target
social indicators are in part economic, environmental and
sustainability measures too. They
can be comparative, between and within socio-economic and ethnic
conditions, such as the standard of living, are measured by
analysing time-series information on observable phenomena.
Subjective conditions, such as quality of life, are
measures of perceptions, feelings and responses obtained
through questionnaires with graded scales.
It is well known that there is little correlation in the
level of well-being as measured by objective parameters on the one
hand and subjective parameters on the other.
There are considerable difficulties associated with the
aggregation of indicators and in the design of weighting schemes.
There can be aggregation of indicators of a similar nature,
but in general aggregation, and certainly a single index, is
reviews the debate about indicators of progress suggesting the need
to clarify the confusion of means (ie. the obsession with economic
growth) and ends (human development).
indicators tend to relate to the environmental sphere closest to
human activity and can include economic, social and sustainability
parameters too. They
measure the quality of the living and working environment, usually
for the three spheres of air, land and water, and may include
measures of our productive use of resources, eg. agri-environmental
indicators relate more to ecosystems, where in some cases the human
impact is not so evident. Indicators
pertinent to the integrity of ecosystems and biodiversity are
prominent. The OECD
produced a pressure/state/response model which many countries have
used in the preparation of their
State of the Environment Reports, whilst focusing on their
particular environmental/ecological issues.
of the indicators have, or will have, thresholds and targets.
There is little desire or attempt, at present, to aggregate
indicators or derive a single index.
ecological footprint is a useful measure for urban societies and
industrialised countries, as they have become distanced from and are
less aware of their dependence on the products of the land.
It is a method for estimating the area of productive land
required to produce the materials and energy required to support and
to absorb the wastes generated by the present way of life.
The average North American needs around 4 hectares to support
his or her lifestyle. Vancouver
depends on an area 24 times its size, and the Netherlands (as a
small densely populated country) 14 times.
If the rest of the world were to support such life styles we
would need a planet with 5 times more productive land than it
footprint is an input/output measure of consumption, technological
activity, and trade flows of all biophysical material needed by and
produced by that city or nation expressed in terms of productive
land area but using monetary conversions.
It is a single index. Small
cities or countries highly dependent on external flows (ie.
exports), and with little influence over international currency
fluctuations, such as New Zealand, would have footprints highly
susceptible to factors beyond their control.
Footprints put relative numbers on what we already know or
suspect, that cities and small densely populated countries are
footprint may be useful for internal and temporal reference, but
there could be a tendency to compare performance against other
cities or countries and perhaps provide an excuse not to take
appropriate action. Ecological
footprints are therefore not particularly useful measures of
of sustainability at present tend to be an amalgam of economic,
environmental and social indicators.
The first two are amenable, but with difficulty, to
quantitative measurement as they can be expressed in biophysical
terms. There is a
tendency to express social indicators in such terms too, but with
less success. There is
therefore a tendency to see sustainability only in biophysical
of sustainability indicators for a city and which reflect their
origin in other indicators are:
per capita ratio for upper and lower deciles
waste generated/water consumption/energy consumption per capita
of workforce in the employ of the top ten employers
of good air quality days/year
and population of specified urban fauna (particularly birds)
travelled on public relative to private transport per capita
densities relative to public space in inner cities
hospital admission rates for selected childhood diseases
of low birth weights among infants by income groupings
advocates a theoretical basis for indicators of sustainable
development based on our knowledge of sociology and ecology.
He likens our stage of development to that of a climax
community within an ecosystem succession.
He then presents system attributes (energy use, community
structure, life history, nutrient cycling, selection pressure and
equilibrium) in terms of goals for sustainable communities.
These number 23 necessary but not sufficient conditions.
Boswell18 evaluates these goals against the
indicators selected by Sustainable Seattle19 and the
ranking that Hart20 has given over 500 indicators.
Although an approach based on human ecology is clearly
appropriate, Boswell18 does concede that the communities
themselves should determine the strategy and the indicators.
these are facets of sustainability, we must look beyond conventional
measures to include a sense of quality of life, well-being,
belonging, relatedness, and harmony.
We may have to be prepared to accept semi-quantitative and
even qualitative indicators.
and social indicators are rarely expressed as a single index..
Nevertheless there is some interest in
developing a single index of sustainability based on a
weighting of a selection of economic, environmental and social
indicators. Such an
index cannot possibly cater for response times that range from a few
years (eg. medical intervention) to generations (eg. global
for the Selection of Sustainability Indicators
monitoring of sustainability is a long term exercise.
As much as we would like the criteria for selection and the
indicators themselves to be appropriate over a long time frame we
are on a steep, and perhaps long, learning curve.
We will need to be flexible, for our ideas and preferences
will change with time. The
criteria and preferred indicators could be different for the groups
who will choose and use them. Expert
systems may be appropriate.
may prefer quantitative, and if necessary, complex criteria that are
amenable to rigorous statistical analysis.
Some may wish to reduce a large group of indicators to a
single index of sustainability.
Communities on the other hand may prefer, or be prepared to
accept, qualitative criteria and few indicators in the interests of
simplicity and direct relevance.
If we exclude qualitative criteria because they are not
readily amenable to objective analysis we are likely to exclude some
essential features of sustainability.
are many sets of criteria, eg. Liverman21, Sustainable
range from the simple (the efficiency, equity, integrity,
manageability of Opschoor and Rejinders22) to the
believes that the best measures may not have been developed yet but
suggests the following criteria:
linking two or more categories (eg.economy and environment)
looking (range 20 to 50+ years)
on local wealth, local resources, local needs
on appropriate levels and types of consumption
that are easy to understand and display changes
accurate, frequently reported data that is readily available
local sustainability that enhances global sustainability
of these criteria are short on human or social criteria, such as
quality of life, sense of safety and security, sense of relationship
to others and our connectedness with the earth.
A criterion that doesn’t appear to be mentioned is one that
reflects the degree of choice an individual has in an action.
Most of us are locked into systems of our own collective
construction within the dominant paradigm, many of them
the choice to be different can be socially, economically and
practically difficult. Examples
include - the use of solar radiation and rainfall upon one’s own
house, and the choice not to own a car.
Much more sustainable actions could result where the
individual can make choices free of systemic pressure and economic
Analysis and Comparative Risk Assessment
in all theatres of qualitative and insufficient or imprecise
quantitative information and uncertainty,
where much is at stake and there may be several options for
action, risk analysis can help in selecting the preferred, the least
cost, and/or the least risk option.
The poorer the information and the greater the uncertainty,
the more risk analysis may need to be used.
At a time when we are confronted with a whole barrage of
different issues and problems with insufficient resources, a prior
analytical stage has emerged - that of comparative risk assessment.
This technique ranks the issues/problems according to the
urgency, cost and likelihood of success.
The proceedings of a conference to debate, and no doubt
advance, the technique presents just as convincing arguments against
comparative risk assessment as it does for23.
often we argue we have insufficient information, or inappropriate
information, upon which to take sound objective action, particularly
action affecting sustainability.
Yet in our hearts we know there are systemic functional
deficiencies, both within ourselves and in our organisations.
Rather than make a personal, corporate or political decision
we call for more information, for more research.
We prevaricate. Too
often that information or research adds to the uncertainty or
time is lost and yet more unnecessary work is embarked upon.
We know the direction our action should take even though we
do not know precisely what it should be.
We lack the collective will to do so because we do not
collectively address and own the problem.
Much publicly funded research and development is a surrogate
for social action24.
Many of the problems and solutions are neither technical nor
entirely rational. A
new mythology needs to emerge and that may be sustainability24.
They are soluble only through social action, where the
populace as well as the technical experts become informed on the
issues and make informed recommendations to the decision-makers.
of Measures of Sustainability
though we cannot define sustainability objectively and unambiguously
we should not abandon or defer attempts to measure it.
Even if we come to recognise that there are other equally
valid ways of learning, we have to start where we are, which is
within a highly reductionist, rational, material, and acquisitive
can define limiting aspects of sustainability (eg. the sustainable
productive capacity of a specific area of land, or the carrying
capacity of the world) and trends in the direction of sustainability
(eg. greater use of public transport, more equitable distribution of
income) and choose indicators that are appropriate and meaningful.
The former would be thresholds below which we enter an
unsustainable state. The
latter would be directions in which we need to move.
Many in fact are really indicators of unsustainability.
Many debates and studies about the measurement of
sustainability do not define, or even derive a common understanding,
about what is to be measured..
The context of sustainability cannot be separated from its
should acknowledge at the outset the limitations of quantitative
measures and that any measures are merely
the map not the territory (Bateson) - merely the
finger pointing at the moon (a Zen saying).
But we must be on our guard to keep well clear of thresholds.
Surplus ‘capacity’ may be a spur to further inane growth
and consumption, and international trading in sustainability units
could mean we all arrive at global survival (not sustainability)
measures are really measures of how close we are to the carrying
capacity of the earth. Thus
biophysical measures are only indirect, partial
and limiting measures of sustainability.
though sustainability is about the quality and other intangible
non-physical aspects of life that does not mean we may not be able
to derive measures for them. Just
as biological indicators (eg. trout) are now used to measure the
quality of industrial effluents, in addition to conventional
chemico-physical indicators, we should be able to derive parameters
that measure how well we and the earth are as we swim around within
the maelstrom of life.
to Measure Sustainability
indicators are being developed and applied at the grass root level -
the communities themselves, eg. Jacksonville, Pasadena, Seattle in
the USA, and at the institutional level in Europe, and North
indicators tended initially to be a pot pourri of the three types
above and there are still resemblances.
As communities learn from the experience of others more
appropriate and community-specific
indicators should emerge.
most promising of overseas initiatives to monitor sustainability are
those that the public have initiated, and who largely retain
‘ownership’ and control, eg. Sustainable Seattle19 -
despite the fact that only 8 of the 40 indicators have shown some
they may be flawed, but the success lies not in the indicators
themselves but in the process and the participation, for it is here
that the real debate and the sharing occurs and the mutual voluntary
adjustments can be made. There
is a limit, however, to the extent to which individual voluntary
adjustments, or pressure for collective adjustment, can be made when
our attitudes and behaviour may have been shaped more by the nature
of our society (our systems of governance and organisation) than
from free choice. In
other words, if systemic change (eg. to our economic system) is
needed, it may be easier and quicker if it is effected by those with
the power and influence.
discourse of sustainability is part of the process of working
towards sustainability. We
will find we will know we are becoming more sustainable without
having to measure it. Part
of that discourse will be measures of sustainability, both the
relatively easy that measure proximity to thresholds and directions,
and the qualitative. But
they will be consequential, for the hard graft of achieving
sustainability will have begun.
Therein lies the success of initiatives like those in
commencement of that discourse is the challenge.
It is already in progress within NGOs, and environmental and
social change groups but they may not see their particular window of
interest as progress towards sustainability25.
The discourse needs to be extended to the community at large,
to local communities, to open debate of the big issues ahead of us,
and to a more effective and participatory democracy.
Local communities need to renegotiate the meaning of
community in the modern world and find avenues for expression.
Citizens’ juries and consensus conferencing are great
vehicles for exploring these deep and wide issues26.
There is growing acceptance for the concept of sustainability
despite our inability to objectively define it and therefore to
Sustainability is more than ensuring ecological integrity and
the standard of living. It
is about the quality of life, and thus addresses the ultimate
questions about meaning in life.
Sustainability is as much a process of discourse and effort
as it is a state.
Institutional initiatives and debates about measuring
sustainability are reluctant to engage with the concept of
there is no common or shared understanding of what is to be
Sustainability indicators are often an amalgam of economic,
social and environmental indicators, but show signs of maturing into
better measures of sustainability.
Such indicators however are limiting measures reflecting
unsustainability and survival rather than sustainability.
Their main value is in indicating direction of change rather
than a desirable state.
Indicators are the map not the territory (the finger pointing
at the moon). The hard
work of achieving sustainability lies elsewhere.
The most successful initiatives to measure sustainability are
those initiated and controlled by autonomous public groups (eg.
Sustainable Seattle), where the process is more important than the
The greater the effective participation in democracy, in
executing the role of community, in consensus conferencing, in
citizens’ juries, etc the more chance we have of achieving
We will need to address the fundamental existential questions
and seek meaning in life if we are to achieve sustainability.
As we seek to measure sustainability we should be asking
ourselves how we ourselves measure up to sustainability.
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