Sustainability: what is it and how sustainable are countries around the world

Posted: March 4, 2009 in environment, society

Encyclopedia of Earth published an in-depth article on a new sustainability index that attempts to determine the different degrees to which countries meet its criteria – in other words: how sustainable are countries around the world?

When the lead authors of the index, Geurt van de Kerk and Arthur R. Manuel,were looking for a suitable yardstick to measure the level of sustainability of a country they couldn’t find any suitable instrument that met their needs. They defined the main shortcomings as a limited definition of sustainability, a lack of transparency or high complexity and an absence of regular updates. Consequently they developed a new index – the Sustainable Society Index (SSI), which integrates the most important aspects of sustainability and quality of life of a national society in a simple and transparent way.

I am not an expert of sustainability, but both their sustainability definition and their SSI categories and indicators seem to make a lot of sense. Using the well-known and worldwide respected definition of the Brundtland Commission as a starting point, van de Kerk and Manuel define a sustainable society as a society

  • that meets the needs of the present generation,
  • that does not compromise the ability of future generations to meet their own needs,
  • in which each human being has the opportunity to develop itself in freedom, within a well-balanced society and in harmony with its surroundings.

It first came as a bit of a surprise to me that they didn’t include the economy in their definition of sustainability, but on second thoughts I think that their argument that the economy of a country, rather than being a condition for sustainability, has to be developed within the limits set by sustainability sounds convincing. Another note of reflection: the SSI is very anthropocentric; I’d be curious to know whether and how much other indexes take a different, more inclusive approach.

The SSI consists of only 22 indicators, grouped into 5 categories as the following table shows:

I Personal Development

1 Healthy Life
2 Sufficient Food
3 Sufficient to Drink
4 Safe Sanitation
5 Education Opportunities
6 Gender Equality

II Healthy Environment

7 Air Quality
8 Surface Water Quality
9 Land Quality

III Well-balanced Society

10 Good Governance
11 Employment
12 Population Growth
13 Income Distribution
14 Public Debt

IV Sustainable Use of Resources

15 Waste Recycling
16 Use of Renewable Water Resources
17 Consumption of Renewable Energy

V Sustainable World

18 Forest Area
19 Preservation of Biodiversity
20 Emission of Greenhouse Gases
21 Ecological Footprint
22 International Cooperation

Using data from public sources, the SSI was initially developed for 150 countries and published in 2006. In 2008 the first of two-yearly updates was published with results for 151 countries for which the SSI could be calculated. The resulting SSI scores on a scale of 0 to 10 allow a quick comparison between countries as is shown on a world map. The underlying data, some of which are included in the article, allow in-depth analysis of the differences between countries. Two-yearly updates enable to follow developments over time. Although the time lap is relatively short, the results of the SSI-2006 and SSI-2008 seem to indicate a slight improvement in the worldwide average score.

The article outlines the development of the SSI and the calculation methodology and gives the main results. It also summarises the need for further research and development of the SSI.

For those interested which countries fare best 😉 : Sweden, Switzerland, Norway, Finland, Austria, Iceland, Vietnam, Georgia, New Zealand and Latvia comprise the first ten countries in this order; Australia ranks 64 out of 151 countries.

Click here to read more about the SSI and its application.

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