Can sustainability be measured?

An academic paper prepared in 1998 by Paul Newman

There is, currently, a fashionable view that only issues that can be measured are of significance. This, I believe, is summed up in two recent quotations: “What can be counted, counts” (MacGillivray, Weston, and Unsworth, 1998 p1) and, in a specific context, “If you can’t measure your energy consumption, you can’t manage it” (Nick Horner of Powergen plc – spoken during an Energy Management Seminar held at Park Hall Hotel, Charnock Richard, Lancashire on 27th October, 1998). If this view is correct, then the question “Can sustainability be measured?” is not just of academic importance but vital to the wider acceptance of the concept of “sustainable development”.

Perhaps it is for this reason that there has been a considerable amount of work on the development of measures at international, national and local levels since 1992. This essay will look, critically, at the scale and variety of what has been achieved so far before exploring the theories (mathematical, economic and social) that not only underpin these but also further possible methods that involve measurement. It also examines the claim that the issues of sustainability can be tackled without the need for indicators or quantification. From this base, it is possible to consider whether there can actually be an answer to the initial question and the way that measurement can help shape the future.
Current work on developing and applying measurement to sustainable development

The World Conservation Strategy, published in 1980 by the IUCN, suggested the need ‘for national accounting systems, which will include non-monetary indicators of success in conservation’ (Section 9 of this document, as summarised in Reid, 1995 p40). Subsequently, in ‘A call for action’, which formed the final part of ‘An Overview by the World Commission on Environment and Development’, there was a request for an international conference to be convened ‘to promote follow-up arrangements that will be needed to set benchmarks’ (Brundtland Report, 1987 p23). As a result of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (also known as the ‘Earth Summit’) held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, a UN Commission on Sustainable Development (UNCSD) was established. From this has come the Work Programme on Indicators of Sustainable Development adopted by the Commission on Sustainable Development at its Third Session in April 1995 (Waller-Hunter, J, Director, Division for Sustainable Development, Department for Policy Co-ordination and Sustainable Development).
The Brundtland Report is cited as the inspiration for work on indicators undertaken by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (Johnston, D. J., OECD, 1998) and acknowledged by the UK Government (Indicators of Sustainable Development for the United Kingdom, 1996 p1). However, it was the commitment made by the British Government at the Rio Earth Summit that led to the development of the indicators themselves. Rio is also cited as the starting point for the work carried out by the World Bank (World Bank Group, 1997 p2) and indirectly by Eurostat the ‘Statistical Office of the European Communities’ (Eurostat, 1998 p1), who based their approach on that adopted by UNCSD.

All of the supranational organisations mentioned have chosen the approach of constructing a long list of indicators, albeit organised into ‘some type of analytical framework’ (UNCSD, 1997 p2). Within the UK, not only the British Government but also regions, such as North West England, counties (e.g. Cheshire) and local authorities (e.g. Vale Royal) have opted to follow a similar pattern. The numbers of such indicators are high: UNCSD – 134, UK Government – 118 and the estimated number of different types across the UK localities taking part in Local Agenda 21is ‘1500’ (MacGillivray, Weston, and Unsworth, 1998 p2). It is also noticeable that there is a lack of consistency between the measures included in lists from one tier of government to the next, in either direction. As the collection of data is essential for an indicator to be of any use or significance, it is evident that a considerable amount of work would be generated to calculate all the values on each of these lists. Moreover, monitoring would need to be maintained over time to determine progress or decline and this requires political will.

An example of how political differences can have a significant effect has emerged in the UK since the General Election of May 1997. The incoming Labour Government has taken the decision to create a new set of UK indicators, rather than implement the list, referred to above, that they inherited from the previous, Conservative Government. They would claim that they are doing this for sound environmental reasons because there were important methodological flaws within the previous set. To give one example:
In policy development, there is the danger of ‘circular arguments’, whereby indicators are used to justify a policy which is in turn used to justify the use of certain indicators. An example of this is the ‘predict and provide’ policy formerly followed by the UK Government in its transport policy, where predictions of greater use of roads, and resultant concerns about increased traffic congestion, were used to justify further development of the road network. Such expansion is now recognised as a factor in the generation of more traffic. Not only did the policy fail, but it was deleterious to sustainability (UK Round Table on Sustainable Development, 1997, paragraph 24).
Nonetheless, the effect of this change of policy is that the UK will not have a new set of indictors to implement until 1999, at the earliest, according to a report given by the New Economics Foundation (NEF, September 1998 p4). This can be seen as providing ammunition for the critics of the concept of national sustainability indicators.
The fact that the drive to produce indicators has cascaded down to the local, as well as national, level is a direct consequence of ‘The Declaration on Environment and Development’ that was a product of the Earth Summit held in Rio. This includes the statement:

Environmental issues are best handled with the participation of all concerned citizens, at the relevant level. At the national level, each individual shall have appropriate access to information concerning the environment that is held by public authorities, including information on hazardous materials and activities in their communities, and the opportunity to participate in the decision-making processes. States shall facilitate and encourage public awareness and participation by making information widely available. Effective access to judicial and administrative proceedings, including redress and remedy, shall be provided (Earth Summit, 1992, principle 10).

As a result, participation has been encouraged at a local level in a world-wide effort known as Local Agenda 21. This is named after ‘the international action plan agreed and ratified by 179 world leaders at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development – the ‘Earth Summit’ – held at Rio de Janeiro in 1992′ (quotation taken from a Poster produced by the North West Regional Association, 1998). Taking the UK as an example, this does seem to have led to the introduction of some very personal definitions of what constitutes appropriate information concerning the environment. Thus, in Longformacus & Cranshaws, Scotland, the number of events held in the village hall is regarded as significant. Whereas in Reading, England, a key concern is ‘the amount of dog turds in parks’. This information, together with others of a very individual nature, is featured on a poster produced in conjunction with the book Communities Count! – edited by MacGillivray, Weston, and Unsworth, 1998.

However, a difference approach has been adopted by some other organisation with an interest in trying to measure sustainability. This involves trying to calculate a single indicator that will ‘enable us to determine our impact on the planet’ (Southampton Environment Centre, 1998 p1). This challenge has also been taken up, in particular by academic institutions such as Tokyo University, on behalf of cities and nations. The most popular method is one derived from the work of Mathis Wackernagel and William Rees (both from the University of British Columbia) and is described in their book ‘Our Ecological Footprint’ (Wackernagel & Rees, 1995). Using a city as an example:
If a city were to be enclosed within a capsule that allowed only light and no material thing in or out the city would starve, suffocate, or die from pollution within a very short space of time. Now imagine the city surrounded by cropland, pasture, and all other ecologically productive land in proportion to these types of land available on earth. How big does the capsule have to be for the city to be able to sustain itself on the land within the capsule? In other words what is the city’s Ecological Footprint? (Southampton Environment Centre, 1998 p1). The result of the calculation is either given using a measure of land area, such as hectares, or as a factor of the known area of the city or nation, or even in terms of ‘its fair share of the earth’s productive land’ (Southampton Environment Centre, 1998 p1).

The problem with this method, or any other complex equation, is that the assumptions that underlie the calculation can be challenged. In addition, there is no guarantee that, even if these are accepted, it will inspire the desired response. For example, we are told that Southampton’s Ecological Footprint is 719,044 hectares or 138 times the area of the City and that this implies that it uses ‘2.33 times its fair share of the earth’s productive land’ (Southampton Environment Centre, 1998 p1). A person who believed in the concept of competitive capitalism might see this information as an indication of the relative success of the municipality. They might say that it is a sustainable outcome because other less successful cities will have to make do with less of the world’s resources. Having worked in the field, I can envisage how the City’s Industrial Development Office could use the data to encourage potential inward investors to take advantage of the highly skilled and motivated work force that could produce this result! Other people, with a sceptical econometric bias, might question whether the area for the City (5,200 hectares, taken from the Municipal Directory) is accurate, because it refers only to the boundaries of the Local Authority and not the associated Travel to Work area (as defined by the UK, Department of Trade & Industry using data from the latest Census) or even the more nebulous concept of a local market. Others might oppose the estimate of 1.5 hectares as the per capita ‘Fair Earthshare’ (derived from Wackernagel & Rees, 1995). They might suggest that it is incalculable because we cannot put a precise value on what is fair for each individual, as their needs will vary with such factors as size and age. Alternatively, they might ask if we yet have sufficient scientifically testable data to determine the full extent of the earth’s resources and carrying capacity. These arguments are recognised by those proposing this type of measure (see, for example, Wackernagel & Rees, 1995 pp48-49) but are still a matter for academic debate (Bayliss & Walker, 1996 p90).

An alternative single measure technique that has been developed for use by individual households is EcoCal (Going for Green, 1997). This derives an indicator of environmental impact from questions about the use of seven factors (transport, energy, water, shopping, house and garden, waste and community action) and presents the result both in the form of a score and a colour based on the concept of a traffic light. However, even if one comes out with a green indicator- meaning a ‘score better than most similar households’ (Going for Green, 1997) – this is not related in any way to the concept of sustainability.
Even those proposing a variety of indicators have an acknowledged problem with the theoretical basis for their choices:
For economic indicators, the system of National Accounts is an example of a framework that is based on a theoretical model of the economic system, and applies generally accepted concepts, definitions and classifications. Such a widely accepted analytical framework does not yet exist for indicators of sustainable development (UNCSD, 1997 p2).
UNCSD has chosen a Driving Force-State-Response (DSR) framework because:
The DSR framework is adapted from a more generally agreed framework for environmental indicators, namely, the Pressure-State-Response (PSR) framework. In the DSR framework, the term “pressure” has been replaced by that of “driving force” in order to accommodate more accurately the addition of social, economic and institutional indicators. The use of the term “driving force” allows that the impact on sustainable development may be both positive and negative as is often the case for social, economic and institutional indicators (UNCSD, 1997 p2).

As can be seen, there has been a conscious attempt to incorporate and build on measures that are currently widely accepted. However, even the most widely used of these, Gross Domestic Product (GDP), which appears first in the UK Government list (Indicators of Sustainable Development for the United Kingdom, 1996) has been the subject of criticism for it lack of suitability as an environmental measure:
What is wrong with GDP is quite simple. It only performs, repeatedly, one simple arithmetic calculation. It adds. Yet, in reality, much of what it adds in fact serves to reduce the quality of life. It is as if economists have not yet learned to subtract (Mayo, MacGillivray and Mclaren 1997).

Mayo and his associates also quote the late Senator Robert Kennedy, who accused GDP of measuring “everything except that which makes life worthwhile”. They note, previously, that ‘the limitation of using GDP as a measure of welfare range from factors such as the absence of accounting for the depreciation of human-made capital’. The preferred measure, outlined in their briefing paper, is the Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare (ISEW), which they say was ‘pioneered (for the United States) by Herman Daly, John Cobb and Clifford Cobb in an appendix to Daly and Cobb’s seminal 1989 book For the Common Good’ (Mayo, MacGillivray and Mclaren 1997). For them:
The environmental component of ISEW is a significant one. This reflects the importance of environmental sustainability to well-being and to present and future economic performance (Mayo, MacGillivray and Mclaren 1997).
They go on to detail three elements that ISEW attempts to account for, to justify this opinion. These can be summarised as: the depletion of non-renewable resources (e.g. North Sea Oil); climate change (e.g. the growth of carbon dioxide in the global atmosphere); and ‘the negative feedback a polluted environment has on human well-being’ (Mayo, MacGillivray and Mclaren 1997). However, although the ISEW does indicate both negative and positive environmental changes, critics can point to the fact that it does not establish whether the situation described is sustainable or not.

In Britain, there does seem to be a clear political will to produce a limited set of significant indicators but there is also an appreciation of the serious problem of making them meaningful:
The Minister of State for the Environment, the Rt. Hon. Michael Meacher MP, has expressed the wish that in addition to a broader core set of national indicators, as small set of key of ‘headline’ indicators of sustainable development should be developed in order to capture the public imagination. Speaking this year, he said:
‘I would like these indicators to have a high profile – to be reported on the 6 o’clock news for instance, as are the key economic indicators. Only then, when they become common currency, will they become real levers of action
I have set my Department’s statisticians the challenge of coming up with a much smaller set of only 6 or 7 key indicators which encapsulate sustainable development. I recognise how difficult it may be to select them. But a much smaller set of indicators could help to really focus attention.
I suspect it will not be too difficult to come to a consensus over what the key issues are. The really difficult part is trying to develop meaningful indicators of them.’ (UK Round Table on Sustainable Development, 1997, paragraph 63).

Exploring Theoretical Models
It is reasonable to consider, in view of Michael Meacher’s final comment, whether there is any existing theoretic model that can help in the quest. Three likely areas from which assistance might come are mathematics, economics and anthropology.
John Stuart Mill suggested four basic ‘Methods of Experimental Inquiry’ in his book,
System of Logic (1842). The first is the ‘Method of Agreement’, which uses addition (GDP is a good example of a measure that is produced by using this method). The second is the ‘Method of Difference’, which uses subtraction. It is worth noting that Mill points out that the first two methods can be used in combination and I would suggest that the ISEW can be used an example of this technique. The third is the ‘Method of Residues’, in which the presence of an unseen component is suggested by the effect that it has on the remainder, in other words it is used to detect the missing piece of a mathematical puzzle. Finally there is the ‘Method of Concomitant Variations’, which is more familiarly known today under the name ‘correlation’. These methods are described in more detail by John Madge in his book The Tools of Social Science (1953), pp 61 – 64. An examination of the indicators suggested by UNCSD and those in the existing British list reveals that most are likely to be calculated by using the first Method, with, perhaps, some use of the second. However, it would certainly seem possible that an indicator could be constructed that examined the correlation between a specific human problem and environmental pollution, for example the incidence of asthma in children (suggested by Mayo, MacGillivray and Mclaren, 1997 p5). Given that some people regard ‘sustainable development’ as a nebulous concept, perhaps the third ‘Method’ could help identify it!

One mathematical concept that has found much favour with those described as seeking to adopt an ‘environmental ‘managerialist’ approach’ to policy for sustainability (Bayliss & Walker, 1996) is that of a “Benchmark”. This has been defined as ‘A point of reference or standard against which measurements can be compared. Benchmarks allow you to judge how you are doing compared to how you were doing before, or how other places are doing (MacGillivray, Weston, and Unsworth, 1998, appendix giving definitions). Mill’s Methods one and two are the ones that are most likely to be used to make the comparison with a benchmark.

As mentioned above, the Brundtland Report called for the international community to ‘set benchmarks’ (Brundtland Report, 1987 p23). By examining Chapter 2 of the Report, it is possible to deduce seven potential benchmarks: –
1. The rate of depletion of non-renewable resources
2. Growth that is less material and energy intensive and more equitable
3. The improvement or deterioration in the stock of natural resources
4. Population that is stabilized against the productive capacity of the ecosystem
5. The conservation and efficient use of energy
6. Emission standards that reflect likely long-term effects
7. Wider responsibilities for the impact of decisions
(Brundtland Report, 1987 pp 43 – 65)

Although it is possible to agree with these as a set of ideals (or ‘key issues’, to use Meacher’s words – see above), numbers 2, 4 and 5 – 7 all contain terms that are not mathematically precise. This problem, of turning a benchmark issue into a mathematical parameter, from which measurement can be made has been addressed by another managerialist approach, Monitoring & Targeting (M&T). This technique has been widely promoted by the British Government in the context of its Energy and Environment programme is (see various DETR publications). The concept is that of pulling performance up by ones own bootstraps. In other words, monitoring is used to identify where you are at present and then you set yourself a target that improves on that performance. Thus, instead of waiting for external benchmarks to be given you set them internally. A good example of the use of this technique, in the context of improving the environment, is seen in the Kyoto Protocol, 1997, following the UN Climate Change Conference, held in Kyoto in December 1997. At the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 an agreement was made for:
‘the so-called annexed countries (the developed countries and the former Soviet countries) to return their emissions of CO2 to 1990 levels by the year 2000. Now at Kyoto, spurred on by a new, more urgent assessment by the intergovernmental panel, the world has tried to firm up its commitments. They have agreed on a set of more binding constraints to limit emissions of a wider range of six green greenhouse gases to a level 5% below 1990 levels for the target period 2008 – 2012’ (Osborn, 1998)

Participating Governments and supra-governmental organisations have set themselves legally binding targets that enable them to honour the Kyoto agreement. However, this depends on an internal assessment of where they are and what can be achieved. The European Union (EU) has set itself the target of a reduction of 12.5% by 2010, which is to be achieved by ‘distributing differing reduction rates to its member states’ (Czech Republic report on results of Kyoto (1997), p1). Within the EU, Britain has accepted a target that it will establish with force in British law of 12% by 2010 (6% by 2000). However, the UK Government has also declared a voluntary target of 20% by 2010 (reported at an Energy Management Seminar held at Park Hall Hotel, Charnock Richard, Lancashire on 27th October 1998). The one question that does not seem to have been addressed by all this target setting is what would be a sustainable level of emissions?

J. S. Mill is also cited as the founder of ‘the recognition that the human economy must be a subset of the global ecosystem’ (Reid, 1995 p34). This he did, according to Daly, in his book On the Stationary State published in 1848. In the last thirty years, Boulding, Georgescu-Roegen and Daly, in particular, have developed this ‘steady state’ economic model further (Reid, 1995 pp24-28 & 34-35). However, as yet, there does not seem to be a wide accepted plan showing how to put this alternative economic model into practice.
However, there are experimental communities in existence that are trying to demonstrate sustainable ways of life. In Britain, a good example is the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT), which claims that it ‘is a unique demonstration centre designed to inspire, inform and enable society to move towards ecologically sustainable lifestyles’ (CAT, 1998 p1). In the South, there have also been influential projects, such as the Chipko Movement, in India and the Greenbelt Movement, in Kenya, both of which are, in addition, examples of women’s practical concern about the environment (Braidotti, Charkiewicz, Hausler & Wieringa, 1994 p85 & p98).

There is a long history behind the notion that people should seek to found communities that are more environmentally friendly or sustainable and this is described in great depth by Pepper in his book Modern Environmentalism – An introduction (Pepper 1996). From within this tradition (note the relationship between the Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth explained by Pepper, pp 217-218) there has come a view that action is more important than measurement (Bayliss & Walker, 1996 p88).

The main problem with both the ‘get out and do it’ approach and much (if not all) of the work on the construction of indicators is their claim to base what they are doing on the achievement of ‘sustainability’. If this concept does not exist, then it is impossible to either measure against or take action to reach.

The Brundtland Report gave a definition of sustainable development: ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’ (Brundtland Report, 1987 p43). This has been quoted widely and was generally accepted at Rio and since but it is an expression of an ideal. There is no general agreement on what constitutes the needs of the present, let alone those of the future.

There is, however, a much clearer concept of ‘unsustainability’. This was demonstrated scientifically in 1905 by F. F. Blackman, who set out his ‘principle of limiting factors’ as follows:
‘When a process is conditioned as to its rapidity by a number of separate factors, the rate of the process is limited by the pace of the “slowest” factor’ (quoted in Fogg, 1963 p47)
What Blackman also showed that if one of the factors was missing the organism died. Even though trade is of great antiquity (for example the archaeological evidence from 4,000 years ago uncovered in Bahrain – Bibby, 1970), history has furnished us with some good examples of what can happen to communities that become isolated. Shortly after Blackman carried out his work, there was the Scott Expedition to the South Pole, in 1910, which proved fatal to the leader and his companions. Thus, it is evident that the effects of unsustainability can, sometimes at least, be measured.

Daly, by quoting from Georgescu-Roegen’s work, makes the connection between human economic activity and the environment that relates it to the laws of nature that effect all other living organisms:
‘The economy maintains itself by this throughput in the same way as an organism lives by sucking low-entropy mater-energy (raw materials) from the environment and expelling high-entropy matter-energy (waste) back to the environment (Georgescu-Roegen, 1971). In a steady state economy this throughput must be limited in scale so as to be within the regenerative and assimilative capacities of the ecosystem, insofar as possible’ (Daly in Kirkby, O’Keefe & Timberlake, 1995 p331).

This combination of the results of scientific experimentation and economic model building offers, for me, a clear indication of the potential role for measurement in relation to the broad question of ‘what is sustainable’. Effective measurement should start with the problem, which is ‘unsustainabilty’. Evidence needs to be collected to establish what the ‘limiting factors’ (in Blackman’s terms) are. From there, it would be possible to set real benchmarks, which we must not transgress. By constructing indicators in relation to these, we could show the extent to which present practices needed to be modified and this should lead to a change in attitudes (there is, of course, no guarantee of this). At this point there would be the need to establish a new model, or models, of behaviour. The various model communities, both past and present, could furnish some basis for this. My own view is that, whereas ‘the unsustainable’ is an expression of a concrete limit, there could be many ways of achieving a society that operated without transgressing those limits. Thus, people need to change values and agree a course of action, in proto-societal groups, to create these new sustainable communities. Thereafter, there would still be a need to measure progress to maintain the new model and prevent it from becoming unsustainable.

Paul Newman
November, 1998

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