Sustainability: How do we know when we've got there?

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By Laurence Mee, SAMS, Scottish Marine Institute, laurence.mee [at]

As Director of an independent marine institute, I have become used to having to balance the books. With the help of innovative and hard-working staff and a savvy Board and Council we have managed to do this well in the past five years without relying on ‘hand outs’. But I must admit, we all have to pedal harder and harder to keep up with the peloton and they are all doing the same. We have come to accept this as a ‘fact of life’ and encourage others to do the same. I have had my doubts about the sustainability of this lifestyle we have all adopted for some time and a recent paper that the economist Bob Costanza sent me has given me even more food for thought. The paper, titled Beyond GDP: Measuring and achieving global genuine progress is published in Ecological Economics by a team led by Ida Kubiszewski.

The idea behind it isn’t new. Most people will be familiar with the concept of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) because it is the ‘gold standard’ for measuring economic success and even a whiff of improvement in GDP is trumpeted as a major political achievement when Western economies are gasping for air. But few people (or indeed politicians) really know what GDP means, only that it is something to do with the rate of shovelling money through the economy. There is a misconception that GDP and welfare are always linked and this has been pointed out for some time by ecological economists such as Herman Daly in the USA. There are many aspects of the economy not considered by GDP such as the unpaid work of childcare. GDP also reflects activity harmful for welfare; wars and oil spill clean ups are good for GDP for example, growing your own vegetables isn’t. A number of alternative measures of welfare have been devised and indices derived, the most promising of which is the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) which, though not comprehensive, certainly overcomes many of the issues described above. Kubiszewski et al provide the most thorough compilation to date of all of these measures and derive some results that are worth reflecting on.

For a start, at a global level, GDP and GPI became decoupled sometime in the late 1970s. Of course, there are big variations between individual countries but the overall pattern is very clear. Around 1978, many people found themselves working harder and harder for less tangible welfare benefits. Perhaps this is a rather simplistic statement but it deserves further reflection; a number of indices suggest the same. A plot of GDP versus GPI shows the two indices decoupling at about $7000 US per capita annual income (a number that would be very hard to live on in the UK!). Clearly more work will be needed to interpret this finding; the authors suggest that ultimately richer countries may have to forego their pursuit of growth measured by GDP and look at GPI or some other measure of genuine progress. For those at the bottom of the ladder, GDP and GPI remain coupled, so encouraging growth in the poorest countries in the world certainly helps them on their way to ‘progress’, providing that the benefits of progress are distributed amongst the population. For most Western countries, ‘decoupling’ began in the late 1970s though it has taken decades for the effects to be seen so clearly.

How does this relate to the marine environment? Many of us enjoy working towards innovative ways of helping society live within the limits of what our planet’s systems can sustain: new technologies that are more cost efficient and effective; less wasteful ways of fishing; the challenge of producing non fossil fuel energy; aquaculture that has minimal environmental impact; ways to achieve more deeply embedded environmental ethics. The problem is that most of these developments require long-term investments and their impacts, though hugely significant, are long term. There is a real danger that investments in these innovations may begin to stall as short term ‘fixes’ are hustled to the top of the political agenda (e.g. fracking in, wave energy out) even though a carefully balanced mix of the long and short term will be necessary to safeguard future welfare. Some of the longer-term innovations might help us to live in a world with slow – or no – economic growth, an unthinkable or even heretic concept for many conventional economic advisors. And this is not just about finding clever ways to use all of the marine resources we can find; it is also about the balance between use and conservation and a less hubristic view of our own science…

Of course, it is equally easy to take a ‘hair shirt’ view of sustainability, perhaps hiding away from the real challenges of defining and pursuing ‘genuine progress’ at a global level. Or worse, the NIMBYism (not in my back yard) that simply exports the ugly aspects of production to distant places out of sight and mind. By reframing the political debate from ill-defined and much abused clichés such as ‘sustainable development’ or dare I say, ‘the ecosystem approach’, towards a deeper discussion of ‘genuine progress’ it is just possible that we can engage all sides of an increasingly polarised political arena and come up with some more meaningful options and indicators of societal progress. Current paradigms are seriously undermined by their lack of clear indicators of achievement needed to give them ‘teeth’ on the political agenda (how do we know we have reached sustainable development or achieved the ecosystem approach?). They are easily fobbed off as ‘green arm waving idealism’. The Genuine Progress Indicator, perhaps with some further development, could change that, providing there is a clear understanding that we cannot drive the societal train through the buffers of ecosystem limits.

This essay was originally published in Laurence Mee's Musings from the Crow's Nest blog on 10 September 2013.

Professor Laurence Mee is the director of SAMS (Scottish Association for Marine Science), leading a team of ~150 staff and 120 students passionate about marine science.

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