A Fundamental Measure for Progress

Article excerpt

The question of the degree of sustainability in our lives now and in the future is a difficult one to answer, since as yet, we have no way of actually measuring it. That problem is now being nailed down by a new, internationally significant three-year project being jointly run in Australia and Sweden.

'Measuring and Modelling Sustainable Development in Australia', led by Dr Brian Walker with support from CSIRO's Social and Economic Integration Emerging Science Initiative, has its roots in some 17 years of evolutionary thought on sustainable development.

Following the World Commission on Environment and Development's defining 1987 report (1) outlining sustainable development, Australia adopted the National Strategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development (2) in 1992 to guide sustainability decisions and action by government, industry, business and the community. Since then, however, no single framework of measure for sustainable development has been conceived to determine whether or not our decisions and actions have achieved their objectives. Walker's team's project has set out to provide that measurement.

Project Manager, Dr Leonie Pearson, says 'Often, conventional macroeconomic measures such as Gross Domestic Product of Gross National Product are used in association with other indicators and reports on environmental issues, such as the State of the Environment Report, to make sustainable development-related decisions and assessments. But these methods don't allow us to evaluate the trade-offs between human, natural and manufactured resources that occur in our everyday lives, such as choosing between investing in wetland rehabilitation or building a new bridge of road.'

Recent work by the World Bank (see figure at right), for example, has shown that Australia has a wealth of human resources (such as skills and education), manufactured assets (infrastructure, buildings, roads) and natural resources (minerals, forests, protected areas). However, Pearson says this measure of wealth does not include critical aspects of human and natural capital such as ecosystem services--not found in the market place. Because the resources are measured separately, trade-offs between them can't be identified.

Pearson points out that an 'inclusive approach', based on all the resources in a region, needs to be developed to help countries ascertain their stale of sustainability.

The inclusive approach

The CSIRO project team--made up of ecologists and economists--aims to develop a pilot framework for measuring and modelling 'inclusive wealth' (as the basis for assessing sustainable development in Australia), using a regional case study in the Goulburn Broken Catchment (northern Victoria).

'Inclusive wealth' is a formulation developed by the Beijer International Institute for Ecological Economics. (3) It is the sum of all resources or 'capital assets'--natural capital, human capital and manufactured capital--weighted by their social value or contribution to human wellbeing.

The three-year project aims to place a value on these capital assets using market and non-market prices, and group them together to form measures of human, natural and manufactured capital. A model will then be developed to look at the change in the capitals' quantities and values over time.

'If an area has developed sustainably, then, the value of inclusive wealth should stay the same of increase over time,' Pearson says.

A regional beginning

In the first 12 months of the project, Pearson's team has identified seven important goods and services--or 'flows to human wellbeing'--provided by the Goulburn Broken Catchment: recreation, nature conservation, dairy production and processing, horticulture and processing, cropping and grazing, forestry, and life services. The human, natural and manufactured capital that make up each of these flows must now be determined so that values can be assigned to each flow. …