Usefulness of Indicators for Sustainability

Submitted by Arthur Dahl on 8. February 2011 - 0:28
Dahl, Arthur Lyon

Papers presented at the 6th Annual Conference of the International Environment Forum
A series of parallel events at the World Summit on Sustainable Development
Johannesburg, South Africa, 27 August-3 September 2002

Usefulness of Indicators for Sustainability

Arthur Lyon Dahl
United Nations Environment Programme
Geneva, Switzerland

Presented at the Dialogue on Indicators for Sustainability
Forum on Science, Technology and Innovation for Sustainable Development
27 August 2002


The International Environment Forum decided to organize this dialogue session in collaboration with the Stakeholder Forum to follow on from the keynote address by Professor Moldan on Indicators in the main session organized by the International Council for Science in the WSSD Science Forum. It is intended to provide an opportunity to consider where we should go from here with indicator development and application. What are the next steps we should take, and what new or renewed partnerships will be needed? How do we fill the gaps in present indicator sets, as well as implement what we already have? What do we need to do to realize the potential of indicators as tools for achieving sustainable development?

We have been fortunate to assemble here a panel of leading experts on indicators at the local and national levels and on integration across levels, on indicators of processes, and on tools for their presentation. The short time available to each panelist will only allow each to give some highlights of the challenges ahead, as a basis for stimulating a broader dialogue with everyone present.

Usefulness of Indicators for Sustainability

The title of this presentation refers to indicators FOR sustainability, not OF sustainability, as the latter implies that we know what sustainability is when we do not. It is often easier to measure unsustainability, those negative processes or states that threaten our future, rather than to define sustainability itself.

Work on indicators of sustainable development really started after the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, to implement the recommendations in Agenda 21. We started by assembling available environmental statistics, basically numbers, which we organized by the economic, social and environmental pillars of sustainability, and according to a pressure, state, response framework. The Commission on Sustainable development added a category for driving forces, and another for the institutional dimension of responses. However decision-makers wanted something simple, an "index" of sustainable development equivalent to GNP. The issue was then how to integrate all these statistics into one measure, and how to present the results in a way that was easily understood. A Consultative Group on Sustainable Development Indicators was established, a kind of international think tank on indicators, including three members on this panel: Professor Moldan, Jochen Jesinghaus and myself. One product of that work was the "Dashboard of Sustainability", a simple way to present complex indicator sets so that their overall impact can be both grasped and analyzed. This will be demonstrated shortly.

Perhaps the most essential thing we have learned is that sustainable development is not a goal but a dynamic process, rather like life itself. We may find it difficult to define life, but we know when we have it, and also generally when something loses it and dies. It is the same for sustainability.

Two Challenges for Useful Indicators

In the short time available, I want to highlight two challenges that must be resolved to make indicators useful for achieving sustainability.

First, we need to find ways to capture the dynamics of sustainability with indicators. How do we incorporate the "future generations perspective"? How do we measure where are we going with development, and how fast? Can we use indicators to define trends, and to signal if we have turned from a negative to positive direction? We need something like vector indicators, that incorporate a speed and direction. We need to be able to measure the resilience in society, which is itself a very dynamic characteristic.

The second challenge is to capture the concept of "development" more fully. Development is not just economic, measured in terms of material wealth. It needs to include the full dimensions of society, including those that are social, cultural, intellectual/scientific, ethical and spiritual. Indicators need to measure sustainability in each of these dimensions. Their development or maintenance, and their transmission from generation to generation, are vital to the sustainability of society.

This will make it possible to include the ethical dimension of sustainable development, which is finally being recognized as fundamental to the stability and survival of society. Until now we have not really been able to reflect that essential aspect of sustainable development which is justice for this generation and for future generations.

We also need to go beyond the perspective of Western material culture. which may presently be dominant but probably only reflects the views and values of a minority of the human race. How do we design indicators to express the full diversity of human perspectives? Present indicator sets give very different results depending on the assumptions underlying them, the way they were selected for inclusion, and the weightings given to them. We need to find ways to make these underlying value judgments and biases more transparent.

Again, development cannot be defined only as a particular state of the society or community, but must be reflected in the processes at work, and the essential characteristics of the whole system. What indicators can we use for this?

We also need not only local and national indicators, but also global indicators of the state of the biosphere that are able to measure our cumulative impact on the planetary life-support system.

We hope that this panel will highlight some of the critical issues and look forward to the dialogue to follow. Perhaps this will help to start some continuing processes, just as the Rio Earth Summit and Chapter 40 of Agenda 21 started both the indicator programme of the Commission on Sustainable Development and the project on indicators of sustainability under the Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment (SCOPE).

Last updated 19 September 2002