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What You Measure Is What You Desire

SUSTAINABILITY FORUM on What Individuals Can Do

By Eric Zencey | September 23, 2011

CREDIT: Dana Robinson (CC).

As I see it, there is no one magic bullet, no one single thing that everyone MUST do immediately. And yet action must be taken and taken right now. It's a problem.

I think of this problem in terms of Archimedean levers, and places in the system that are fulcrum points: places where a bit of concentrated effort can have an amplified effect. What those fulcrum points are for each of us depends on where we are, what our skills and strengths are, and which levers of power and influence we can get our hands on.

That said, we still face choices. I think that one of the strongest, most powerful leverage points is changing the basic indicators we use to measure progress and well-being. We have to start counting the costs of climate change and other ecological degradation as costs when we sum up our economic accounts.

This is accomplished in any number of alternative indicators, such as the Genuine Progress Indicator that is gaining increasing use. (See the version implemented in Maryland.)

From business comes the truism, "You get what you measure," and for years we've been using GDP, a measure of the commotion of money in the economy, as the value we seek to maximize. So, no surprise: We have an economy in which the money goes around faster and faster in bigger and bigger amounts, but the average quality of life doesn't improve or even declines.

It has become abundantly clear that increasing the commotion of money no longer necessarily improves our standard of living. We need to maximize not GDP but the economy's sustainable delivered well-being. Before we can maximize it, we need to measure it.

One of the strongest leverage points is changing the basic indicators we use to measure progress and well-being.

This is a strategic change, and once it's implemented it will make the battle over climate change, and every other particular struggle over ecological degradation, much easier to win. The effort to implement a new indicator may not appear to be immediately productive, but it is absolutely necessary.

Foresters have a saying that applies here: The best time to develop a better indicator, like the best time to plant a tree, is 20 years ago; but the second best time is right now.

So, my counsel: Inform yourself about alternative indicators like the GPI and Gross National Happiness. Join the movement. Contact local and state and federal officials to educate them about the need for a better indicator, one that counts all costs and all benefits of economic activity, instead of counting just the dollars that change hands.

Talk to your neighbors and friends and get them aboard. Work to demand, develop, and implement quality of life surveys in your community, surveys that take account of the benefits that come from a stable climate and other ecosystem services. Work to get the results of these surveys used by policy makers.

When we begin to measure what matters instead of the commotion of money, we will have taken a strong firm step toward a sustainable, livable world.


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