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Chapter 8 - Measuring Sustainability

Overview

For this Chapter, the course will shift to methods of measuring sustainability. Students will explore sustainability indicators and how to choose, integrate, and weight those indicators. We will examine thresholds and carrying capacities in environmental, economic, and social contexts. Methods and metrics for monitoring progress in achieving sustainability goals and benchmarks will be examined. Case studies will illustrate successes and failures.

 

Chapter Parts

 
Chapter 8 - Measuring Sustainability, Part 1 | Principles of Sustainability | University of Idaho

Chapter 8 - Measuring Sustainability

Part 1 - Indicators of Sustainability

Indicators are a practical approach towards measuring sustainability development. While there are challenges in designing, deploying, and interpreting indicators in some areas, for example monetary valuation of some natural attributes and resources, the use of indicators is a valuable way to measure sustainability. Selecting indicators that are truly effective in representing dynamic and complex systems is a continuing challenge. The quality and number of indicators, their usefulness in a policy and development context, and their effectiveness to communicate risk or need for change in a clear manner are practical challenges for implementing indicators to measure sustainability. Indicators are valuable decision support tools as human society moves forward to balance social, economic, and natural capital in an arena of increasing population and degradation of the environment.

There is agreement by the UN, the EC, the IMF, the OECD, the World Bank, and the US National Academies of Sciences that some categories of natural capital should be defined as critical and thus not be allowed to fall below a minimum level. These include, “a reasonably stable and predictable climate; air that is safe to breath; high quality water in sufficient quantities; and intact natural landscapes suitable for supporting a diversity of plant and animal life.” The concordance of agreement tells us that an objective, defensible, and practical system of indicators and measurement is a highly needed decision support tool, with regional, national, and international application.

Using indicators to inform, warn, and stimulate change in processes and behaviors have achieved prominence in the field of applied sustainable development. There are substantial discussions and developments on best approaches and best practices, the number and complexity of indicators, data availability, integration and weighting, as well as the best methods for implementing an indicated change response.

There is no doubt our competing values and the diversity of stakeholders can make change difficult, even in the face of indicators of great harm to the environment or to people. We can hope that more informed and adequately warned, we as a community can make good decisions and change the world, for the better, even if only in a small way.

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Keywords

  • indicator
  • qualitative indicator
  • quantitative indicator
  • warning indicator
  • state indicator
  • temporal indicator
  • indicator linkages
  • indicator integration
  • indicator indices
  • indicator weighting
  • multipliers
  • direct effect
  • indirect effect
  • induced effect
  • framework for indicators
  • thresholds

Suggested Reading

  1. Environment Department, The World Bank. Indicators of Environment and Sustainable Development: Theories and Practical Experience (2002)
  2. United Nations Division for Sustainable Development. Sustainable Development Indicators: Proposals for the Way Forward (2005)

 

(Photo credit: UN Photo/Martine Perret)

 
Chapter 8 - Measuring Sustainability, Part 2 | Principles of Sustainability | University of Idaho

Chapter 8 - Measuring Sustainability

Part 2 - Environmental, Economic, and Social Carrying Capacity

NASA Earthrise photo of Earthe from the moonOn Earth, without change, we face a future of certainty. That certainty will be that eventually, in the human time scale, we will deplete or irreversibly damage, many of the resources we have come to use for our very survival. Our knowledge of this eventuality should inspire the human spirit. As this challenge comes before us, it should inspire us to change, as only change can bring us back into the balance we so desperately need. We need to measure and modify, to build a more sustainable future. The risk of inaction is great.

Shortly before his death in 1965, Adlai Stevenson, the US ambassador to the United Nations, said in his last speech: "We travel together, passengers on a little spaceship, dependent on its vulnerable reserves of air and soil; all committed for our safety to its security and peace; preserved from annihilation only by the care, the work, and, I will say, the love we give our fragile craft. We cannot maintain it half-fortunate, half-miserable, half-confident, half-despairing, half-slave to the ancient enemies of man, half-free in a liberation of resources undreamed of until this day. No craft, no crew, can travel safely with such vast contradictions. On their resolution depends the survival of us all."

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Keywords

Suggested Reading

  1. Sustaining Human Carrying Capacity: A tool for regional sustainability assessment Ecological EconomicsVolume 69, Issue 3January 2010Pages 459-468 M.L.M. Graymore, Neil G. Sipe, Roy E. Rickson

  2. Carrying Capacity Reconsidered: from Malthus' population theory to cultural carrying capacity Ecological Economics, Volume 31, Issue 3, December 1999,  Pages 395-408. Irmi Seidl, Clem A Tisdell

 

(Photo credit: NASA, 1968)

 
Chapter 8 - Measuring Sustainability, Part 3 | Principles of Sustainability | University of Idaho

Chapter 8 - Measuring Sustainability

Part 3 - Sustainability: Strategies for Monitoring Progress

The complexities of measuring sustainability developments are countered by the usefulness of the information and positive results that can be achieved. We value what we measure. Measuring adds to the valuing of our concerns and an understanding of where our energies for a more sustainable future should be placed. Development of a reliable system of markers and indicators of sustainability has shown the ability to improve quality of life and quality of the environment. To effect change, we have to know what to change, and by how much. We have to be able to better understand the complex systems that dominate nature and societies, and these markers can help in that understanding.

Measuring allows for accommodation of scale. Worldwide problems are aggregations of individual and community behaviors, that have become globalized in their practice and impacts. Measuring provides a mirror of ourselves, and in that refection we can often see the opportunity for a better path — one that takes a foothold in the future while we live in the present. We do have choices, as individuals, as communities, as nations. We need to be smart in the choices we make, and measuring our world can only make us smarter.

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Keywords

  • sustainability
  • measuring sustainability
  • indicators
  • target value
  • quantitative indicators
  • administrative indicators
  • thresholds
  • outcomes
  • failure analysis

     

Suggested Reading

  1. United Nations. The Millennium Development Goals Report, 2011

 

(Photo credit: UN Photo)

 
Chapter 8 - Measuring Sustainability, Part 4 | Principles of Sustainability | University of Idaho

Chapter 8 - Measuring Sustainability

Part 4 - Case Studies in Measuring Sustainability

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Chapter 8 - Measuring Sustainability, Part 5 | Principles of Sustainability | University of Idaho

Chapter 8 - Measuring Sustainability

Part 5 - NEXT TEXT

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Chapter 3 - The Culture of Waste, Part 6 | Principles of Sustainability | University of Idaho

Chapter 8 - Measuring Sustainability

Part 6 - NEXT TEXT

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