In her recent, brilliant (as usual) video, “The Story of Solutions,” Annie Leonard admonishes that we should stop relentlessly working toward MORE and start emphasizing BETTER.
Trouble is, how do we locate BETTER? How do we know if we’re moving toward or away from that goal? How do we get the feedback we need, in a way that will be convincing to people across the ideological spectrum? In other words, how do we measure our progress in ways that allow for useful comparison? Here’s what Donella Meadows had to say on the subject:
Pay attention to what is important, not just what is quantifiable.
Our culture, obsessed with numbers, has given us the idea that what we can measure is more important than what we can’t measure. You can look around and make up your own mind about whether quantity or quality is the outstanding characteristic of the world in which you live.
If something is ugly, say so. If it is tacky, inappropriate, out of proportion, unsustainable, morally degrading, ecologically impoverishing, or humanly demeaning, don’t let it pass. Don’t be stopped by the “if you can’t define it and measure it, I don’t have to pay attention to it” ploy. No one can precisely define or measure justice, democracy, security, freedom, truth, or love. No one can precisely define or measure any value. But if no one speaks up for them, if systems aren’t designed to produce them, if we don’t speak about them and point toward their presence or absence, they will cease to exist. [from D. Meadows, “Dancing with Systems” 2002]
And yet, I’m a science nerd. I ♥ numbers. Can we get numbers, even with fuzzy definitions, just to give us some way to compare over time or across cultures? If natural selection works by amplifying positive deviance, and we seek to emulate this most successful biological process, then we need a way to recognize those bright spots on the fitness landscape, so that we can foster them and encourage their replication. We need feedback to know if we’re moving toward our goal of BETTER. And, to quote Meadows again:
If the goal is defined badly, if it doesn’t measure what it’s supposed to measure, if it doesn’t reflect the real welfare of the system, then the system cannot possibly produce a desired result. Systems, like the three wishes in the traditional fairy tale, have a terrible tendency to produce exactly and only what you ask them to produce. (Thinking in Systems: A Primer, p. 138)
There are several indices out there that purport to measure something about our well-being and progress. I’ve written before about the idea of Gross National Happiness. I’ve been investigating other available measures in relation to my current project to promote Education for Sustainability in the sixteen countries that represent half the world.
What is it that could be BETTER in this vast and complex system? I’d venture almost everything in the nested sets of human economic, social and environmental interactions.
These interdependent and interpenetrating systems interact in complex ways (go ahead, say that three times fast). As discussed previously, economic aspects of these systems tend to be the first ones measured, because money is by its very nature quite amenable to counting. There have also been some interesting attempts to measure global environmental health, and even to express environmental health in economic terms. And there are some widespread attempts to measure things like social well-being, especially in terms of freedom. No such index is without controversy; all have limitations in terms of data validity, not to mention the challenges associated with trying to quantify important qualitative values (basically attempting to scrute the inscrutable). Nonetheless, they are a place to start, so I’ve started there with my attempts to compare the current status of my sixteen countries. Below are my tabulated results, with color coding to help our primate optics detect patterns more readily. Click the link or image for the Excel spreadsheet.
First up, the oh-so-quantifiable economic measures. The classic and deeply problematic way of representing the economic status of a country is its Gross Domestic Product (GDP). To even begin to be a useful basis of comparison, this must be expressed in some kind of per capita way (otherwise, the fact that China’s GDP is so much bigger than Brunei’s is almost entirely attributable to the fact that there are over 3000 Chinese citizens for every single Brunei citizen). But as we move into the relationship between economic and social factors, another glaring discrepancy becomes obvious: the distribution of the wealth represented in the GDP is far from equitable. Just how far is indicated by another index: GINI, utilized by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). A higher GINI coefficient indicates a more dramatic difference between the few rich and the many poor in each nation (Wikipedia is a good starting place for not only the definition and calculations, but also the limitations and controversies). Also, GDP and GINI notoriously neglect certain aspects of what are usually considered important goals in economic development (e.g. health, education). So UNDP factors those into another measure, the Human Development Index, which can then be further adjusted for inequality, to give some sense of progress (or lack thereof) toward the Millennium Development Goals.
The above economic indices are also, of course, measures of social relationships in some sense. The following data and rankings move more explicitly into the social and political realm. (One could argue that HDI more properly belongs in this set.) I’ve included a quick-and-dirty summary description of each country’s political system (thanks Google), and some indices related to freedom, as a shorthand for some of the crucial social systems at the national level. Sadly, Gross National Happiness has not yet been measured for most countries. There are lots of other things I could include here (dominant religions, years since independence from colonial powers, etc.); feel free to suggest other useful comparisons in the comments.
These are ratings that are more specifically connected to the human impact on the rest of the biosphere. As they are in the realm usually investigated by the natural sciences (e.g. population biology, forestry and ecology), they are again more quantitative. One particularly interesting rating is the Happy Planet Index, an attempt to measure the environmental efficiency of human well-being.