It’s time to take a unified approach toward measuring sustainability

Map of per capita ecological footprint for cou...

World map of countries shaded according to their ecological footprint in 2006 (published on 25 November 2009 by the Global Footprint Network). It is measured by the amount of global hectares that are affected by humans per capita of the country. Lighter shades denote countries with a lower ecological footprint per capita and darker shaded for countries with a higher ecological footprint per capita. The total ecological footprint (global hectares affected by humans) is measured as a total of six factors: cropland footprint, grazing footprint, forest footprint, fishing ground footprint, carbon footprint and built-up land.

EAST LANSING, Mich. — Ask any political leader if they are in favor of sustainability, and the pat answer is typically a resounding, “Yes.”

Evaluating its effectiveness, however, is a much trickier endeavor. Thomas Dietz, a sociology and environmental science and policy professor at Michigan State University, took steps to indentify a universal framework to evaluate sustainability at a national gathering of scientists Feb. 20.

Measuring progress and evaluating proposals require identifying indicators that are valid and reliable. The desire to have such protocols has been around for years, but establishing criteria for measurement is a recent development, Dietz said. During the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual conference in Washington, D.C., Dietz led a discussion of international experts to review recent advances and address the strengths and weaknesses of current practices.

“We found that there are many different methods around the globe that are running relatively independently of one another,” said Dietz, who organized the workshop with Eugene Rosa of Washington State University. “By bringing together the top researchers of leading sustainability measures, our goal is to establish a synthesis that will lead to common language and measurements to help the world evaluate whether sustainability efforts are succeeding or failing.”

The experts featured during the session were:

“By design, we were able to bring together researchers from many disciplines from around the world,” Dietz said. “We were really fortunate to get the leaders of the five most-prominent measures.”

The unifying theme of sustainability is human well-being, how it impacts the environment and the tradeoffs of the two. While some methods focus on economics, others place higher emphasis on the environment and some do both. Yet all are complementary and wrestling with the same overarching goals, Dietz added.

“Some of the concepts are new, and others have been around a while but are becoming more sophisticated and more widely accepted,” he said. “With solid data now available from most every country, which makes side-by-side comparisons easier, we felt it was the perfect time to bring everyone together to hopefully begin unifying our efforts on an international scale.”

Contact: Layne Cameron
Michigan State University

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One Response to It’s time to take a unified approach toward measuring sustainability

  1. Alan Burke says:

    From Carey King reporting on the AAAS conference in the “EnvironmentalResearchWeb” blog of the IOP:

    Herman Daly’s 10 policies for a steady state economy

    I just got back from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting that was held in Washington, D.C. There were many sessions on the issue of sustainability and how to measure and track sustainability. One particular session regarding the concept of different measurements of ‘progress’ that might accompany a “steady state economy” was particularly interesting. The speakers were (see here):

    Peter Raven, Missouri Botanical Garden
    Ward Chesworth, University of Guelph
    Robert Costanza, University of Vermont
    William Rees, University of British Columbia
    Eric Reitan, Oklahoma State University
    Herman Daly, University of Maryland

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