The Environment in Anthropology: A Reader in Ecology, Culture, and Sustainable Living

By Nora Haenn; Richard R. Wilk | Go to book overview

Chapter Eighteen
Measuring up to Sustainability

Alan Fricker

Over the past two decades interest has grown in developing indicators to measure sustainability. Sustainability is presently seen as a delicate balance between the economic, environmental and social health of a community, nation and, of course, the Earth. Measures of sustainability at present tend to be an amalgam of economic, environmental and social indicators. Economic indicators have been used to measure the state of the economy for much of this century. Social indicators are largely a post-WWII phenomenon and environmental indicators are more recent still. Interest in developing these indicators largely began when their respective theatres became stressed and where the purpose was to monitor performance and to indicate if any ameliorating action was required. Whereas economists have no difficulty deriving objective and quantitative indicators (their relevance is another matter), sociologists had and still have great difficulty in deriving indicators, because of intangible quality of life issues. Environmental scientists have less difficulty when limiting themselves to abundance of single species rather than biodiversity and ecological integrity.

Sustainability, however, is more than just the interconnectedness of the economy, society and the environment. Important though these are, they are largely only the external manifestations of sustainability. The internal, fundamental, and existential dimensions are neglected. Sustainability, therefore, may be something more grand and noble, a dynamic, a state of collective grace, a facet of Gaia, even of Spirit. Rather than ask how we can measure sustainability, it may be more appropriate to ask how we measure up to sustainability.


The Concept of Sustainability

Sustainability, at least as a concept, has permeated most spheres of life, not solely because it is a political requirement but because it clearly resonates with something deep within us, even though we have a poor understanding of what it is. The concept first emerged in the early 1970s but it exploded onto the global arena in 1987 with the Brundtland Report,1 in which sustainable development is defined as development that

Reprinted from Futures 30, no. 4 (1998). Used by permission from Elsevier Science.

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