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The need for new metrics in sustainable development: how alternative frameworks are more fit for purpose.

Molly Young

Edited by Evan Burgess

 

Introduction

 

This article begins with a simple premise: our current frameworks for sustainable development are no longer fit for purpose. As economist Kate Raworth describes in her landmark text, Doughnut Economics:

 

‘For over 70 years economics has been fixated on GDP, or national output, as its primary measure of progress. That fixation has been used to justify extreme inequalities of income and wealth coupled with unprecedented destruction of the living world. For the twenty-first century a far bigger goal is needed: meeting the human rights of every person within the means of our life-giving planet.’[1]

 

Moving away from GDP growth as a primary measure of progress entails a number of difficulties, however. More subjective indicators of well-being, such as health, community, democratic participation or equity, are harder to quantify numerically.[2] As Romina Boarini et al. discuss, ‘it is not possible to say if well-being is being enhanced or reduced unless all indicators are expressed in a common metric’.[3] Alternative measures must attempt to aggregate numerous social indicators, from health and equity to sense of belonging in a wider community.[4]

Various economists have attempted this task. An entire field of ‘wellbeing economics’ (based on Amartya Sen’s ‘capabilities approach’) has emerged to organise political economy around human values and desires.[5] Likewise, frameworks that attempt to reimagine environmental value beyond financial value disrupt inclinations to characterise ecosystems and their inhabitants as mere resources. Arthur Cecil Pigou, for instance, discusses the ways in which pollution ‘inflicts a heavy uncharged loss on the community’ and how forests’ ‘beneficial effect on climate often extends beyond the borders of the estates owned by the person responsible for the forest’.[6] In doing so, he points to spiritual, emotional and social benefits of nature that cannot be measured by GDP.

            As Sam Fankhauser and Nicholas Stern outline, the ethics discourse in economics has often neglected ‘wider philosophical, ethical, and religious perspectives’[7]. It therefore seems appropriate here to discuss alternative indicators of development within a more literary framework that considers existential questions alongside pragmatic methods of measuring progress. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry for the Future is a cli-fi novel that combines speculative fiction with factual climate science and economics.[8] In one chapter, he outlines alternative indexes for measuring the well-being of people and planet, lamenting our inability to ‘think in anything but economic terms’ (p. 75). They include the following:

 

·       Genuine Progress Indicator

·       UN’s Human development index, which ‘combines life expectancy, education levels, and gross national income per capita’

·       UN’s Inclusive wealth report

·       Happy planet index (New Economic Forum): self-reported well-being, life expectancy, inequality of outcomes, divided by ecological footprint

·       Food sustainability index

·       Ecological footprint (Global Footprint Network)

·       Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness (33 metrics to measure the titular quality in quantitative terms)

 

This article is less interested in evaluating the above indexes or suggesting that any given one should supplant traditional economics outright, than in presenting alternative means of measuring development that privilege happiness, equality and ecological responsibility over GDP and economic growth for its own sake. It is worth reiterating Robinson’s call to ‘take this whole question [of sustainable development] back out of the realm of quantification, to the realm of the human and the social’ (p. 76). He dares us to ‘ask what it all means, what it’s all for. To consider the axioms we are agreeing to live by. To acknowledge the reality of other people, and of the planet itself’ (p. 76). 

 

Sustainable Development for People and Planet

Current development indexes based on GDP growth demonstrate a reductionist view of nature as a resource and suggest a need to reimagine not only our ideas of progress, but our relationship with the earth. Continuing the literary turn, Robin W. Kimmerer’s seminal work, Braiding Sweetgrass, offers a framework for thinking beyond extractivism.[9] She discusses the phenomenon of ‘compensatory growth’, where grasses and other plants ‘compensate for loss of foliage by quickly growing more’ (p. 164). Initially, she contextualises this process with a more familiar scene of grazing buffalo, whose saliva ‘stimulates grass growth’ and whose excrement acts as ‘fertilizer’ (p. 164). It is easy for readers to envisage a natural cycle of reciprocity in which land and animal depend on one another to succeed. So long as their relationship remains ‘balanced’, that is, since ‘[f]ree-range buffalo graze and move on’; they do not overgraze. It may seem jarring, then, when Kimmerer describes how ‘sweetgrass has apparently become dependent on humans to create the “disturbance” that stimulates its compensatory growth’ though harvest (p. 164). She inserts humans into the same cyclical relationship with land we may typically associate with other animal life, so far removed are many of us in the Imperial Core from ‘natural’ cyclicity or the act of harvesting. Kimmerer’s example presents a way for thinking about our wellbeing as entangled with that of the nonhuman world. She indirectly confronts what many see as a primary driver of the ecological crisis: a Cartesian dualism that divides the world in two, makes nature distinct from society.[10] As Jason Hickel says, 

 

‘For most of human history, people recognized a fundamental interdependence between humans and the rest of the living world. They refused any strict separation between the two. As a result, most civilizations placed cultural and ethical constraints on the exploitation of living ecosystems’.[11]

 

Kimmerer brings back this ‘interdependence’ by showing how human and nonhuman nature can flourish symbiotically. Her teachings can be traced throughout the book, as guiding principles for engaging with nonhuman environments: to enter a pact of reciprocity, practice gratitude, never take more than half and only take what is given. More explicit implications for policy are also evident, like in her discussion of indigenous land management practices where traditional basket makers observe an abundance of adolescent black ash trees in areas where the bark is still harvested, compared to areas where ‘underharvesting’ prevents the species from flourishing (pp. 148-49). She shows that careful, respectful resource management not only helps ecosystems thrive but can benefit humans socially and economically, as they cultivate abundance rather than exploit or neglect the natural environment until depletion.

Ultimately, thinking about sustainable development becomes less arduous when ecological wellbeing is intertwined with our own. As this part will outline below, there are numerous initiatives that would be mutually beneficial for people and planet. They help to reframe ‘sustainable development’ as a transition towards happier, healthier human and extrahuman communities, rather than a footnote in the drive towards never ending growth. Here, this article will refer to the UK context. Given the distinct lack of British indigenous populations, comparable landscapes or groups and different scale, the association with Kimmerer becomes somewhat problematic. By no means should UK policy attempt to outright reproduce indigenous land management practices or philosophies without respect for their contextual specificity. If taken solely as a framework for thinking through human and extra-human interdependence however, the lessons of Braiding Sweetgrass are a useful starting point for reimagining ecological wellbeing as intrinsic to human development.

Numerous environmental initiatives and movements have been proposed and developed that would advance human wellbeing by some metric, be it through improved air quality and associated health benefits, reduced energy costs, or increased democratic and community involvement. Some policies have received popular approval, passing through Citizens’ Assemblies in a form that could be implemented through top-down government legislation. For example, the 2020 Citizens’ Assembly in Scotland voted to restore peatlands and native woodlands at higher levels than planned by the Scottish Government (Land Use); make public transport cheaper or free by focusing government subsidies into nationalised public/private partnerships (Public Transport); develop an ‘ambitious plan’ across Scotland to retrofit all existing homes by 2030 (Retrofit Homes); and reform community land ownership, encouraging local communities to manage underused, unproductive and/or unoccupied land (Communities).[12] These reforms, among the many others proposed within the full Climate Assembly Report, take ambitious steps to meet climate targets while enriching communities, restoring natural landscapes and lowering transport and energy costs. The very process of conducting a Citizens’ Assembly also develops democracy, as citizens are invited to play an active role in their transition towards sustainability. Bottom-up initiatives also exist, often promoted by environmental activist groups. In the UK, for example, a network of ‘Transition Towns’ has emerged in an effort to achieve ‘a low-carbon, socially just future with resilient communities, more active participation in society, and caring culture’.[13] To this end, these community-led groups may ‘set up renewable energy projects, re-localise food systems, and create community and green spaces’, among other projects.[14] Meanwhile, New Zealand has seen a rise in those involved in ‘Timebanking’, a practice where time becomes currency as groups of people exchange skills, goods and resources for time-credits.[15] In both instances, local communities forge connections and alternative modes of living under capitalism, moving away from high-consumption lifestyles towards skills-based exchange and autonomy.

While highly ambitious and not at all representative of the many diverse environmental and social movements attempting to meet climate targets and improve general wellbeing, such initiatives build on a wider ethos of reciprocity and entanglement between humans, nonhumans and the ecosystems they each inhabit. Instead of economic growth, they focus on developing autonomy, resilience and a sense of belonging within overarching environmental aims, shifting the definition of sustainable development from an economic problem to a holistic framework of improved wellbeing for all. This ethos of interdependence and wellbeing presents an opportunity to define sustainable development according to social metrics while challenging notions of growth as progress.


 

References

‘About Timebanking’, Timebank Auckland, <https://timebankauckland.nz/about-timebanking/> [accessed 10 December 2023]

Boarini, Romina, Åsa Johansson and Marco Mira d’Ercole, ‘Alternative Measures of Well-being’, Statistics Brief, OECD, 11 (2006), <https://www-oecd-org.ezp.lib.cam.ac.uk/els/soc/36967254.pdf> [accessed 10 December 2023]

Dalziel, Paul, Caroline Saunders and Joe Saunders, Wellbeing Economics: The Capabilities Approach to Prosperity (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), eBook, < https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-93194-4> [accessed 10 December 2023]

Fankhauser, Sam and Nicholas Stern, ‘Climate Change, Development, Poverty, and Economics’, in The State of Economics, the State of the World, ed. by Kaushik Basu, David Rosenblatt, Claudia Sepúlveda (2020), pp. 295-320

Kimmerer, Robin W., Braiding Sweetgrass (London: Penguin, 2013)

Levantesi, Stella, ‘Jason Hickel on the Cult of Degrowth’, Il Manifesto, 20 April 2021, <https://global.ilmanifesto.it/jason-hickel-on-the-cult-of-growth/> [accessed 10 December 2023]

Pigou, Arthur Cecil, The Economics of Welfare (London: Macmillan, 1920)

Raworth, Kate, Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist (London: Random House Business Books, 2017)

Robinson, Kim Stanley, The Ministry for the Future (London: Orbit, 2020)

Scotland’s Climate Assembly, ‘Full Report’, National Records of Scotland, 23 June 2021, <https://webarchive.nrscotland.gov.uk/20220321133037/https://www.climateassembly.scot/full-report> [accessed 10 December 2023]

Transition Network, <https://transitionnetwork.org/about-the-movement/who-is-involved/> [accessed 10 December 2023]


[1] Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist (London: Random House Business Books, 2017), p. 16.

[2] Romina Boarini, Åsa Johansson and Marco Mira d’Ercole, ‘Alternative Measures of Well-being’, Statistics Brief, OECD, 11 (2006), p. 1, <https://www-oecd-org.ezp.lib.cam.ac.uk/els/soc/36967254.pdf> [accessed 10 December 2023].

[3] Ibid, p. 1.

[4] Ibid, p. 5.

[5] Paul Dalziel, Caroline Saunders and Joe Saunders, Wellbeing Economics: The Capabilities Approach to Prosperity (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), p. 8.

[6] The Economics of Welfare (London: Macmillan, 1920), as cited in Fankhauser, p. 299.

[7] ‘Climate Change, Development, Poverty, and Economics’, in The State of Economics, the State of the World, ed. by Kaushik Basu, David Rosenblatt, Claudia Sepúlveda (2020), pp. 295-320 (p. 309).

[8] The Ministry for the Future (London: Orbit, 2020).

[9] Braiding Sweetgrass, (London: Penguin, 2013). 

[10] Stella Levantesi, ‘Jason Hickel on the Cult of Degrowth’, Il Manifesto, 20 April 2021, <https://global.ilmanifesto.it/jason-hickel-on-the-cult-of-growth/> [accessed 10 December 2023].

[11] Ibid.

[12] Scotland’s Climate Assembly, ‘Full Report’, National Records of Scotland, 23 June 2021, <https://webarchive.nrscotland.gov.uk/20220321133037/https://www.climateassembly.scot/full-report> [accessed 10 December 2023].

[13] Transition Network, ‘Who is Involved?’ (2023), <https://transitionnetwork.org/about-the-movement/who-is-involved/> [accessed 10 December 2023].

[14] Ibid, ‘What is Transition?’.

[15]‘About Timebanking’, Timebank Auckland, <https://timebankauckland.nz/about-timebanking/> [accessed 10 December 2023].

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