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Taking the Measure of a Society

 Posted by Green Economy on September 21, 2009
Sep 212009
How big? Does is matter?

Trees grow tall. But their growth--or loss--is not reflected in GDP.

We tend to measure what’s important to us, so it’s encouraging to see the growing interest in metrics for building sustainable economies.

Last week, a fresh report was released calling for new measures of societal wellbeing to supplement the old standard, GDP. The report’s overarching thrust has been aired before: that we should be counting oil spills and other environmental degradation as losses on national balance sheets, not boons to the economy, while registering unpaid childcare or volunteer work as gains. (See Chapter 2 of Worldwatch’s State of the World 2008 for a discussion of all kinds of measuring sticks for greening economies.)

But what’s exciting is that this week’s report was commissioned by French President Nicolas Sarkozy and promoted by two Nobel Laureates in economics, Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen. Add France to the list of countries that are giving serious attention to “greening” their national accounts.

The report’s release came as I attended the World Resources Forum in Switzerland, where measurement for sustainability was the participants’ stock in trade. Many analysts track the tonnage of materials flows—wood, metals, minerals, and other inputs to economic activity—as a proxy for environmental impact. Their measurements produce some sobering statistics: per capita consumption of materials stands at about 20 tons per year, while a sustainable level, they believe, would be about 6 tons annually.

Conference discussions made clear that measurement facilitates strategies to “decouple” economic growth from growth in resource use. For example, Japan’s “Fundamental Law for Establishing a Sound Material-Cycle Society” is designed to increase resource productivity (the amount of materials used to produce a yen’s worth of output) by 60 percent, increase recycling by 40–50 percent, and reduce waste landfills and incinerators by 60 percent, all by 2015. According to an article last year in the Journal of Industrial Ecology [subscription required], Japan is well on its way to meeting these targets. Resource productivity had increased by 25 percent, the share of materials recycled had increased by 22 percent, and final waste disposal was down 44 percent between 2000 and 2015.

Despite the Japanese accomplishment, some conference attendees expressed skepticism that techno-political measures will bring Japan to sustainable levels of materials use. They believe that changes in lifestyle are needed that will help people find happiness at simpler levels of consumption. How about some robust, reliable, and policy-relevant measurements for that?

  6 Responses to “Taking the Measure of a Society”

  1. You are absolutely right and so are the conference delegates when you and they say:
    “They [the conference delegates]believe that changes in lifestyle are needed that will help people find happiness at simpler levels of consumption. How about some robust, reliable, and policy-relevant measurements for that?”
    We also need to focus on the “Profit and Loss statement” to progressively monitor progress in the change of human behaviour towards sustainability not just the “Balance sheet” at the end of the report period. All the present crises are caused by unsustainable bad human habits (behaviours)

  2. Hi, aesome post. I just found your website and I’m already a fan. =D

  3. There is just one, huge problem with this whole approach of reducing per capita consumption. Per capita consumption and per capita employment are inextricably linked. Reducing per capita consumption is a recipe for soaring unemployment.

    I should introduce myself. I am the author of a book titled “Five Short Blasts: A New Economic Theory Exposes The Fatal Flaw in Globalization and Its Consequences for America.” To make a long story short, my theory is that, as population density rises beyond some optimum level, per capita consumption of products begins to decline out of the need to conserve space. People who live in crowded conditions simply don’t have enough space to use and store many products. This declining per capita consumption, in the face of rising productivity (per capita output, which always rises), inevitably yields rising unemployment and poverty.

    This theory has huge implications for population management. Our policies that encourage high rates of population growth are rooted in the belief of economists that population growth is a good thing, fueling economic growth. Through most of human history, the interests of the common good and business (corporations) were both well-served by continuing population growth. For the common good, we needed more workers to man our factories, producing the goods needed for a high standard of living. This population growth translated into sales volume growth for corporations. Both were happy.

    But, once an optimum population density is breached, their interests diverge. It is in the best interest of the common good to stabilize the population, avoiding an erosion of our quality of life through high unemployment and poverty. However, it is still in the interest of corporations to fuel population growth because, even though per capita consumption goes into decline, total consumption still increases. We now find ourselves in the position of having corporations and economists influencing public policy in a direction that is not in the best interest of the common good.

    The U.N. ranks the U.S. with eight third world countries – India, Pakistan, Nigeria, Democratic Republic of Congo, Bangladesh, Uganda, Ethiopia and China – as accounting for fully half of the world’s population growth by 2050.

    If you’re interested in learning more about this important new economic theory, I invite you to visit either of my web sites at OpenWindowPublishingCo.com or PeteMurphy.wordpress.com where you can read the preface, join in my blog discussion and, of course, purchase the book if you like. (It’s also available at Amazon.com.)

    Pete Murphy
    Author, “Five Short Blasts”

  4. Hello, I found your weblog in a new directory of blogs. I dont know how your blog came up. Your blog looks great. Have a good day.

  5. actually excellent web site, extremely recommend it and i will bookmark and come back. keep up the excellent work.

  6. Yikes this really takes me back, i’ve been wondering about this subject for a while.

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