Thursday, 19 August 2010

The Sustainable Society Index

This is a comment from Geurt van de Kerk in response to Jon Hall's last blog post titled From homo economicus to homo edoctus: evolution in the information age. We thought the comment was so interesting we would publish it as a new post.

You have written an appealing and challenging blog, Jon. It provokes me to write a reaction. You have posed a question about measuring and I happen to know the answer to that question. But first of all, what do you want to measure? Success? Progress? Progress to what? Happiness? Or ‘just’ to replace GDP by a better measure?

Of course we can measure everything that is important or at least interesting. But should our main concern not be about progress to sustainability? Without living within the ecological limits imposed by our planet and the social limits set by the community of mankind, life cannot be continued. Happiness is less important than sustainability. If we are talking about progress, it should be about progress on the way towards sustainability.

We can use the famous Brundtland definition for expressing what we mean by sustainability and add a third sentence to this definition to make explicitly clear that Environmental wellbeing and Human wellbeing are both included. The extended Brundtland definition may run as follows:
A sustainable society is a society

  • that meets the needs of the present generation,
  • that does not compromise the ability of future generations to meet their own needs,
  • in which each human being has the opportunity to develop itself in freedom, within a well-balanced society and in harmony with its surroundings.

There is overwhelming proof of the risks we run by the ever increasing GHG emissions, by the social inequalities worldwide, by the loss of biodiversity, by damaging our environment. Let’s not quarrel about the question which indicator or set of indicators is best. Any set of indicators that covers the main aspects of sustainability and is built upon reliable data is OK.

Let’s not fool ourselves by measuring things like happiness. Of course, it is awfully nice if everybody is happy. Apart from the question how to measure happiness, what does it tell us? What does it mean in the long run?

Allow me a sideline. You say that you’re “pretty sure that enforcing a massive cut in CO2 emissions, would make most Westerners decidedly less happy at the moment”. I am not pretty sure, but absolutely sure that this is not necessary. Will you be less happy if your electricity is produced by solar or wind energy than by fossil fuels? Will you be less happy if you buy local or regional food, having travelled less kilometres before it ends up in your stomach? Will you be less happy if you live in an well insulated house, requiring only some quart (or less) of the present energy consumption? I am sure your answers will be negative. And if we turn it round, how can you be happy if temperature rise will pass the tipping point and will cause yet unknown environmental and social damage? For the sake of happiness, we’ll have to cut the GHG emissions.

I admire Bhutan for having replaced the GDP by their own index, the Gross National Happiness. It is an audacious step. It would be even better to replace GDP by a set of indicators that measures the conditions for the possibility of being happy, not only today, but also on the long run. That is a set that measures the main aspects of sustainability in its broad sense, as expressed by the extended Brundtland definition. And for those who prefer a single figure, the scores of all indicators may be aggregated into one overall figure.

Oh sorry, I nearly forgot to answer your question about measuring. One of the possible solutions may be the Sustainable Society Index (SSI), a set of 24 indicators, covering all main aspects of Human, Environmental and Economic Wellbeing. And showing one overall score for sustainability as well as the scores of each indicator separately. So it’s up to you which one you prefer.

Let’s act. It requires all our efforts to prevent mankind to evolve from homo sapiens to homo stupidus.

Geurt van de Kerk

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