Can We Measure Sustainability?
Every year at the peak of the Alpine ski season, the world’s movers and shakers, the heads of the largest corporations and wealthiest governments, head for the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. This year an event occurred there that was largely unreported but possibly historic. The attendees were presented with a ranking of the world’s nations according to environmental sustainability.
The search for sustainability measures is hot right now. The United Nations has a mandate to produce them. Many nations and states and cities are developing their own. Academic groups argue endlessly about them. The search is based on a darn good question: How long can we keep this up? To what extent is our frantic economic activity eating into the planet’s resource base, its waste absorption capacity, its life-ssupport systems?
It’s great that this question is being asked. It’s like the moment when a young spendthrift who has inherited a fortune finally wonders, “Hey, is this money going to last?” Or like the long-ago breakthrough when some bright accountant first realized the difference between capital and income.
You would think that concept, so basic to every business and household, would have been applied long ago to national and world accounts. But it never has been. We have been mesmerized by the measure called GDP or GNP, which counts only spending. That’s about as useful as a dashboard that tells us our speed but not how much gas is in the tank. We have never kept good track of our fundamental forms of capital: the natural systems that give us vital streams of materials and energy and clean water and air, and the social systems — families, communities, all kinds of organizations — that produce, raise, educate, maintain, heal, inspire, and fulfill human beings.
It’s hard to imagine that folks who call themselves capitalists have done such bad capital accounting for such a long time. But we have. As a consequence we pride ourselves when GDP goes up, while forests, soils, waters, families, and communities go down. Finally, like maturing wastrels, we’re beginning to notice that our wealth is shrinking and to ask questions that can only be answered by new measures.
That we don’t yet know how to do sustainability accounting is demonstrated by the apologetic tone of the report just delivered at Davos and by the silliness of the rankings. “A number of serious limitations in the available data relevant to environmental sustainability drastically limit the ability of the world community to monitor the most basic pollution and natural resource trends,” say the authors (mostly from Columbia and Yale) in academic report-speak. “The methods used are experimental and should not be construed as definitive statements about precise levels of environmental sustainability.”
In short, the numbers are dubious and the rankings are tentative. We can take with a grain of salt that the five “most sustainable” nations are Norway, Iceland, Switzerland, Finland, and Sweden and that the five “least sustainable” are Zimbabwe, Egypt, El Salvador, Philippines, and Vietnam. And that the United States comes in 16th among the 56 nations listed.
What’s most glaringly wrong with this list is that it may tell us where these nations are relative to each other, but not where they are relative to sustainability. Norway — which imports virtually all its food, which has fished out its rich offshore cod stocks, whose income and machines depend on oil deposits that will run out in a few decades and that, while they last, are changing the climate — is nowhere close to sustainable. Maybe no more so than Egypt, whose burgeoning population crowds the narrow zone of polluted, depleted soil and water along the Nile. Switzerland, a source of toxic chemicals and nuclear waste and luxurious consumption based almost entirely on imports, has no call to pride itself on being more sustainable than the Philippines, which has decimated its forests and fisheries while enriching a corrupt upper class and impoverishing everyone else.
I wouldn’t bet that any of these nations can maintain its current way of life for the next 100 years or 50 or 30. Having spent considerable time in Oslo and Zurich, having friends in Manila and Cairo, I wouldn’t say that any of these ways of life contains much wisdom about what life is for.
I don’t want to be too hard on the Davos environmental sustainability list. I’m delighted that it exists and that it was delivered to people in high places. I hope there will be more such lists, growing in sophistication, accuracy, and connection to what is important in the world. I just don’t want people in high places to think that the Davos numbers give us any idea of how quickly we are spending down irreplaceable wealth or achieving real human development.
We can learn at least as much about sustainability by turning our eyes away from numbers and noticing the soil washing down the streams, the clearcuts where forests once stood, the changing climate, the smell of city air, the places on earth too contaminated to live in or too desperate to be safe in, and the hectic emptiness of our lives. Some day we may have numbers to measure these blatant signals of unsustainability. In the meantime we can admit that we already know.
Get Grist in your inbox