Thursday, July 5, 2012

Trash Sustainability indicators

I was in a rather bad mood the other night and wrote something to a group of people, of which I am a member, about "A best practice reference document that addresses organic principles and practices in the broader context of global human society and its sustainability" Read more on

In the work to develop the document there is the idea to develop indicators for sustainability. I wrote the following:

The more I think about it the more I question the need for indicators in that SOAAN document.

As a project manager I work a lot with indicators. I think they work reasonably well as a tool for simple projects (like organise a conference in Lusaka, set up an information centre). Already in more complex project settings they are of much less value for project management. For reporting on development they are ok, but not for GUIDING development.

In general, I don't think most farmer are interested in complex set of indicators, They might be it in a benchmarking exercise with farmers in their own area, but benchmarking against a global standard is not so interesting - and also not really relevant. I have worked in all continents of the world in almost 100 countries and while some things are strikingly similar allover the place - many things are very different, and what is relevant in one place is of little relevance in another.

For me it is hard to understand all this energy that is put into indicators, indexes, metrics. The producers don't care. The market place doesn't care. LCA is a prime example of this. It is all interesting for researchers, but it is totally irrelevant in real life. No consumer base their shopping decision on LCA, no companies design their products based on LCA (well perhaps some have tried but they are probably bankrupt by now). And in the end the selection and weighing of indicators is purely subjective. What they do is to transform subjective values into seemingly objective measures....

NO successful entrepreneurs or innovator works based on systematic indicators (they do mostly have their own homespun indicators/rules of the thumb) or things like that. They hardly make business plans or have a budget. WHY are we so obsessed with this?


I know that some of the reason is that people feel some kind of need to PROVE that organic is BEST or MORE SUSTAINABLE than other things. But why are we so obsessed with that? Industrial farming or GMO don't spread because they argue that they are more sustainable, alternatives also don't succeed or fail depending on how they score in idealistic measurements, and governments CERTAINLY don't chose sides based on a set of indicators. It is a very small group of people that keep this discussion alive.

In society in general, we have accepted that even if we respect science and scientists they are not necessarily the best managers of development. Instead we let incompetent democratically elected politicians decide. A technocratic world of social engineering is not what people WANT.

And as much as I am critical of laissez-faire liberalism, it certainly has a point in objecting to too much central control and planning. In the same way I object to the idea that our clever group should sit and develop all those nice indicators.

Make a good document, let indicators be developed site specific, for different purposes, with different sets, by those who think they need them - don't try to enforce them globally. A guidance document for how to make indicators could also be an output - and when I think about it, that should be the starting point even if you want the document should have it....


One of the members of the group sent the link to this very interesting presentation by Frederick Kaufman.

1 comment:

  1. I had a great time watching your video and it has a lot of informative points regarding sustainability. I am impressed with your insight. Keep posting and Thank you.