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

Feb 20, 2011

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 and policy professor at Michigan State University, took steps to indentify a universal framework to evaluate 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:

  • Mathis Wackernagel, creator of the Ecological Footprint concept
  • Jay Emerson and Marc Levy, principal investigators of the Index
  • Kirk Hamilton, leads the World Banks' approach known as Genuine Savings
  • Charles Seaford, creator of the Happy Planet Index
  • Marina Fischer-Kowalski, lead proponent of National Material Flow Accounting
"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."

Explore further: Solar energy-driven process could revolutionize oil sands tailings reclamation

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Internet emerges as social research tool

Feb 14, 2009

For the past two decades, the Internet has been used by many as an easy-to-use tool that enables the spread of information globally. Increasingly, the Web is moving beyond its use as an electronic "Yellow Pages" and online ...

Rain gardens touted as pollution removers

Jan 26, 2006

University of Connecticut scientists say properly designed "rain gardens" can trap and retain up to 99 percent of common pollutants in urban storm runoff.

Recommended for you

Big changes in the Sargasso Sea

9 hours ago

Over one thousand miles wide and three thousand miles long, the Sargasso Sea occupies almost two thirds of the North Atlantic Ocean. Within the sea, circling ocean currents accumulate mats of Sargassum seawee ...

Water-quality trading can reduce river pollution

9 hours ago

Allowing polluters to buy, sell or trade water-quality credits could significantly reduce pollution in river basins and estuaries faster and at lower cost than requiring the facilities to meet compliance costs on their own, ...

Managing land into the future

13 hours ago

Food production is the backbone of New Zealand's economy—and a computer modelling programme designed by a Victoria University of Wellington academic is helping ensure that farming practices here and overseas ...

User comments : 4

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Feb 20, 2011
'Sustainability' has not yet even reached the level of a proper falsifiable hypothesis. If it ain't falsifiable then it ain't science but supernatural and not measurable.
not rated yet Feb 21, 2011
What is the source of funding for the "American Association for the Advancement of Science" ?
Paranoia Demands that one ask!
Too many 'Agendas' and too many attempts to 'skew' results of ?studies? in order to meet faulted 'criteria' for achieving a particular 'desired-result'!
While in Tucson, as a boy of 10, I recall hearing the news of 'Flying Saucers' having 'Crashed' in New Mexico!
The subsequent dis-information, and the myriad 'explanations' have only 'muddied the waters', of "We The Peoples'" RIGHT TO KNOW THE TRUTH! No one person, group, entity, Has The Power to supercede the Right of "We The People" to Know The Truth, that be enabled to make our own decision(s), as to best how to proceed with our 'perceived' existence . . .
"Too Horrific!, for the masses, 'The Great Unwashed' to learn/ comprehend, Does Not Wash, for those who posit such 'non-sense', have withstood their 'Witness' to 'Unusual Events'!
Lies destroy Trust!

Roy J Stewart,
Phoenix AZ
not rated yet Feb 21, 2011
"Lies destroy Trust!"
What is the source of funding for the "American Association for the Advancement of Science" ?
Source of Funding is Key to Credibility of this or any 'Group' conveying 'points-of-view'!

Roy J Stewart,
Phoenix AZ
(insufficient space in earlier Comment!)
1 / 5 (1) Feb 21, 2011
"human well-being"
How is this defined?