Taking the Measure of a Society

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?

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