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How Can Sustainable Development Be Measured?
Emily Gertz, 26 Oct 07

In September The journal Ecological Economics published has in its pipeline a paper on "Measuring sustainable development — Nation by nation." The researchers came up with a way to normalize and measure the progress of sustainable development, no matter where it was taking place:

[W]e use the UN Human Development Index (HDI) as an indicator of development and the Ecological Footprint as an indicator of human demand on the biosphere. We argue that an HDI of no less than 0.8 and a per capita Ecological Footprint less than the globally available biocapacity per person represent minimum requirements for sustainable development that is globally replicable.

The Ecological Footprint, in case it's slipped your mind, is an index created in the early 1990's (in part by Mathis Wackernagel, one of this paper's authors), that quantifies the area of land required to support the total lifecycle needs of a person (or a nation) at a given point in technological development: the food s/he eats, goods s/he uses, the waste s/he produces.

The potential of a standard global measure of the success of sustainable development is an intriguing proposition, especially if and as more nations get serious about cutting the impacts of development on biodiversity and the climate; it has the potential to render transparent a lot of complex development schemes, and to bring hard and fast meaning to squishy terminology like, well, "sustainable development."

The research team's findings are not upbeat: the only nation that seems to be on a successful path towards a low- or no-oil future is Cuba. From an article in New Scientist (hopefully quoted accurately on Indymedia Ireland):

By looking at each country’s historical trajectory, a clear pattern emerges. People everywhere have a better lifestyle, but their footprint is growing at a rate proportional to their wealth. Developed countries in particular have done very little to reduce their impact. Only one nation, Cuba, is developing sustainably, and probably not for long (Ecological Economics, DOI: 10.1016/j.ecolecon.2007.08.017). “Cubans have high life expectancy and literacy, and were forced into a smaller footprint because of the oil embargo,” says Wackernagel. “But they are now economically more successful, and will tend to use more resources.”

Critics point out that EF calculations do not take into account issues such as pollution from certain toxic chemicals, and place too much reliance on others, such as carbon footprints, which may be alleviated by the invention of new technologies. Even so, “it’s a broad indicator of the direction things are moving, and it’s an excellent tool for communicating to the public and decision makers,” says Jan Vernon, who reviewed the validity of EF for the UK government.

The study, therefore, carries a credible message: we have all moved away from sustainability, and the world has entered ecological overshoot. “We have not taken sustainable development seriously,” Wackernagel concludes.

It's certainly good to have a baseline measure of sustainable development success or failure. But don't rejoice too much about Cuba, because Cubans got to this particular position from a position of incredible suffering, not through a stable, managed transition. When state sponsor the Soviet Union fell, the majority of Cuba's oil imports and quite a lot of food supply vanished. It was grow crops fossil-fuel free or starve. Quoting an article that looked at Cuba's "post-oil" society in the Peak Oil issue of Permaculture Activist, Spring 2006, Bruce Sterling took no prisoners as he dissected the realities of Cuba's sustainable state in his most recent Viridian Note:

This need to bring agriculture into the city began with the fall of the Soviet Union and the loss of more than 50 percent of Cuba's oil imports, much of its food and 85 percent of its trade economy. (((This is a risk one takes when one gets all chummy with petrocratic states. They turn the fuel tap off? Man, you're toast == just like a Californian in the Enron glory days.)))

Transportation halted, people went hungry and the average Cuban lost 30 pounds. (((I didn't believe this assertion at first. I mean, try to imagine the law-and-order problems in an American suburb where the average American == the average! == lost thirty pounds of body weight from lack of groceries. And average Americans have got thirty pounds to lose, easy.)))


"Cuba has a lot to show the world in how to deal with energy adversity." (((That part, I'm buying. Cuba shows all kinds of stuff, most of it about as attractive as watching your grandma drop thirty pounds from hunger.)))

Scarce petroleum supplies have not only transformed Cuba's agriculture. The nation has also moved toward small-scale renewable energy and developed an energy- saving mass transit system, while maintaining its government-provided health care system whose preventive, locally-based approach to medicine conserves scarce resources.
(((Closely study how this paragraph of perky eco-geek-speak paraphrases the stark reality that Cuba went broke and the people went desperately hungry. If an eco-calamity makes you lose thirty pounds, you'll be hearing a lot of this.)))

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I wouldn't call their loss of oil an "eco-calamity". They dealt with it well, just as San Diego dealt with the fires better than New Orleans (little loss of life in San Diego).

Just because something is uber-challenging does not make it a calamity: Compare how Cuba dealt with this to how New Orleans/ US federal goverment dealt with Katrina.

Posted by: creekside on 26 Oct 07

Bruce's closing prediction is true, it seems, if a little ahead of our own forced weight loss.

Posted by: Emily Gertz on 26 Oct 07

The point is what they have done to prepare for a future that doesn't rely on massive fossil fuel inputs, and the answer is: A LOT.

They are also probably the only small poor country in the world to be making serious contributions to biotechnology, particulary in the area of "appropriate technology" type research into medical and agricultural problems endemic to the majority world.

Yeah, I also think the beauracracy and arbitray nature of decisions taken by authority in Cuba sucks...

SO... why didn't you mention the fact that that poor little island (where many people lived lives of virtual slavery under parasitic US-backed plantation owners) has been UNDER SIEGE by the world's most powerful country for 50 YEARS?

If you don't like people going hungry then the first step is to end the embargbo against Cuba which, in addition to being totally immoral, also strengthens the power of centralized government.

Posted by: Christian on 28 Oct 07



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