• Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.


Teaching Sustainability in the 21st Century - #5

Our students need to grok what widely reported numbers mean, and what they don't.

August 8, 2013

It's a commonplace in management of both people and projects that "you should be careful what you measure, because that's what's going to improve."  I learned the truth of that statement in a succession of business settings, but it applies equally in the social realm, which means it can be applied (tacitly, and sometimes tactically) in the practice of politics.

Most of the undergrads (and a large share of the grad students, and all too many faculty) with whom I interact seem never have been exposed to the idea that people tend to respond to simple (often over-simple, sometimes intentionally over-simple) numbers which purport to represent complex realities.  Consider the attention paid to headlines about some public opinion poll.  Or unemployment rates.  Or the Dow Jones Industrial Average.  It's not just the fact that some central value (average, median) is often presented with no discussion of variance.  More often, it's the fact that the metric itself was designed to be incomplete and is used almost synecdochically without most of the audience being aware of that fact.

Perhaps the case of mismeasurement (or, at least, misrepresentation of measurement) that causes folks the most difficulty in understanding sustainability is the Gross Domestic Product.  In the common consciousness with which students arrive at Greenback, GDP is seen as the measurement of the economy.  GDP growth (to the extent that arriving students are aware of it) is seen as synonymous with national economic health.  Of more concern to me is that national economic health is seen as almost synonymous with the health of the nation in general, so that GDP (and the growth thereof) is regarded as if it were a measure of national wellbeing.

In all honesty, it's not the fault of the Bureau of Economic Analysis that so many people put so much weight on a single number.  The Bureau's attempts to do an accounting of US national income is a noble one, and generally well executed.  But if our graduates are going to be able grasp sustainability as more than a concept, they're going to have to be able to get past the almost mystical importance the national media places on metrics like GDP.  The good news is that tearing down those mystical perceptions shouldn't be terribly difficult.  The bad news, of course, is that (at least to date) most colleges and universities haven't been doing it.

For economics majors, it's important to present a detailed understanding of what GDP measures, why the way it's calculated was recently adjusted, how it differs from its predecessor (Gross National Product), and how it fits into the broad practice of national income accounting.  But for the majority of students, that discussion isn't important.  (Yay!!)

For most students, it's more important that they understand that GDP is only an economic indicator, that it's only one economic indicator, that it's not necessarily the most important economic indicator (even at the scale of national economy), and that other indicators (especially when taken collectively) can do a far better job of representing the health of a society.  Or a nation.

In order that our students be well-positioned to understand the practicalities of sustainability, it's not necessary that they become expert in calculating any one index which purports to represent any complex reality.  The current discourse around sustainability incorporates many such indices, all of them incomplete, most of them constantly evolving.  What we need to find a way to teach our students is that any metric is incomplete, all metrics are approximations, every metric highlights some aspects of its purported subject and puts less emphasis on others.  The teaching opportunity that GDP presents inheres in the fact that it's so obviously not a measure of societal well-being, and that so many other, better, less-well-publicized metrics already exist.

A truly useful undergraduate seminar could easily be taught around any selection of these (and other) alternatives to GDP (compared and contrasted, of course, to GDP itself):

  • The government of China, a few years ago, instituted an effort to measure "Green GDP", intended to offset measures of monetary wealth created with estimates of the environmental harm caused in the creation of that wealth.
  • The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) publishes a multi-dimensional Better Life Index, which rates its member countries across eleven broad categories, and lets its users assign category weighting factors which correspond to their individual priority schemas.
  • The Genuine Progress Indicator, a respected index which combines measurements of economic, environmental and social well-being, is already being used in Maryland as a useful yardstick for evaluating the impacts of policy and regulatory options.
  • Gross National Happiness, a term coined by the King of Bhutan, is synthesized from 33 separate variables addressing everything from psychological wellbeing and education to living standards and time use.  GNH offers an interesting alternative to GDP in that it not only incorporates more than the economy, it also measures that economy more on its outcomes than on its activity level.
  • The Happy Planet Index balances perceived wellbeing and public health in 151 countries with the average per capita ecological footprints of those countries' citizens. 
  • The World Bank regularly publishes the Gini Coefficients of its member nations, indicating the (un)evenness of distribution of wealth within each country.  (Distribution of wealth is a key element in any practical effort to attain sustainability.  More on that in a future post.)
  • Crowd-sourcing website Numbeo.com puts out a constantly updating Quality of Life Index which incorporates seven categories of experience for 67 countries (currently).

There are, of course, others.

To my mind, the key is not to sell students on one synthetic metric as opposed to another.  The key outcome is to get students to understand what indices and other similar metrics really are, the fact that they include and exclude, what they mean and don't mean, and how they're best used and ignored.  Along the way, useful questions will almost necessarily be asked:

  • What is wealth, really?
  • What is progress, and why?
  • What is happiness to each individual?
  • What is quality of life?
  • What's important, and what's not?

No metric will ever come close to answering any of those questions at more than the broad-brush level.  And no seminar will (nor should ever hope to) resolve those issues, even for a single student.  But grappling with the issues, raising the questions, looking at the trade-offs and assessing what still isn't being addressed seems likely to be a useful learning experience on the road from passive consumption of premasticated data to informed understanding of what sustainability likely entails.



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