Measuring ‘Sustainability’

‘Sustainability’ has become a pervasive part of social and business discourse. However getting down to specifics on sustainability is a much debated issue.

This is of particular relevance for climate change. In particular, how can we speak of, or imagine ‘sustainability’, given the underlying conflict that emerges between the pursuit of ‘economic progress’ defined in terms of the production and consumption of goods and services, and the ever escalating production of greenhouse gas emissions.

Atmospheric concentrations of major greenhouse gases (CO2, methane, nitrous oxide), from http://www.globalchange.gov/HighResImages/1-Global-pg-14.jpg
Atmospheric concentrations of major greenhouse gases (CO2, methane, nitrous oxide). Source: http://www.globalchange.gov/HighResImages/1-Global-pg-14.jpg

Recently, well-known Harvard management ‘guru’ Professor Michael Porter has launched a new initiative the Social Progress Imperative which includes a cross-national Social Progress Index. Presented as a user-friendly interactive website, the index provides a comparative breakdown of key components of social progress such as basic human needs, health and well-being, and social opportunity. According to a recent article in The Guardian, Professor Porter is keen to incorporate the SPI into broader government and corporate thinking as part of his broader focus on ‘creating shared value‘ (CSV).

While there are no great surprises here in what the SPI reveals, it is a very useful resource in teasing out national comparisons of social, economic and environmental performance. Importantly, it underlines a key dynamic of modern industrial and economic development – that is the disconnect between economic modernisation and environmental degradation (increasing greenhouse gas emissions, declining biodiversity, species extinction, ocean acidification, chemical pollution). As The Guardian article noted:

Wealth, for example, is no friend of planetary boundaries. Nearly all rich countries perform poorly on ecosystem sustainability – especially large countries with abundant natural resources like Australia (46th), Canada (47th), and the United States (48th).

For instance, the SPI includes measures for ‘ecological footprint for consumption’, ‘CO2 emissions per capita’, ‘energy use per $1000 GDP’, and ‘water withdrawals per capita’. Activating these options on the SPI website does not present a pretty picture of the environmental costs of the developed economies’ on-going addiction to ‘affluenza‘.

ScreenHunter_33 Apr. 13 08.29
Ecological footprint of consumption (orange) (Source: http://www.socialprogressimperative.org/data/spi#performance/countries/spi/sub1,sub2,idr32,sub3)
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4 thoughts on “Measuring ‘Sustainability’”

    1. Chris,

      Many thanks for the reblog.

      While nothing new, this Index (and its web interface) starkly highlights the divergence between environmental sustainability and ‘economic progress’ – particularly in large developed and fossil fuel rich economies like the US, Canada and Australia. One future question that emerges is whether continued environmental exploitation will soon reap reductions in social progress itself (i.e. as more planetary boundaries are breached)?

  1. Reblogged this on Dr Alf's Blog and commented:
    This is an interesting blog with more information on Michael Porter’s Social Progress Index, which seems to rank the UK as the most desirable after Sweden. Perhaps, this will be a topic of conversation this weekend between David Cameron and Angela Merkel?

    1. Many thanks for the reblog. It’s well worth going to the Social Progress Index and exploring the different metrics for basic human needs, health and well-being, and social opportunity. You can click on countries within each of these to explore the different indicators and how for example the UK (or Australia) compares with others.

      My interest was the clear disconnect between environmental sustainability and economic development – particularly in large developed and fossil fuel rich economies like the US, Canada and Australia (demonstrated starkly by this graphical data). This seems to undercut the rather smug satisfaction that underpins ecological modernism, particularly where fossil fuel resources are institutionally promoted as the only way forward. It also raises the question of whether the continued degradation of the environment will soon reap reductions in social progress itself?

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