Measuring Sustainability

An update on Sustainable Seattle's Indicators

One of the articles in It's About Time! (IC#37)
Originally published in Winter 1994 on page 8
Copyright (c)1994, 1996 by Context Institute

What do wild salmon runs, juvenile crime rates, and employment levels at the world’s largest airplane manufacturer have in common? As any good systems thinker knows, the answer is "everything."

More specifically, all three are indicators – measurements of the health of larger systems – and they are part of a report recently completed by Sustainable Seattle, a volunteer "civic forum" comprised of citizens from business, government, environmental groups, and many other sectors of the Seattle community.

The report, entitled 1993 Indicators of Sustainable Community examines 20 key trends over the past two decades to create a snapshot of the Seattle area’s "long-term cultural, economic, and environmental health and vitality" – which is how the group defines sustainability.

The product of nearly three years of work involving over 200 people, the indicators were designed to answer two questions: What would a sustainable Seattle look like? And how can we measure our progress toward that goal?

Using indicators to measure trends in larger systems is nothing new. Two familiar examples are the Dow Jones Industrial Average, in which 30 "blue chip" stocks indicate the health of the stock market as a whole, and the northern spotted owl, an "indicator species" that signals the health of old growth forest ecosystems.

But Sustainable Seattle, inspired by related efforts at measuring quality of life in Jacksonville and in Oregon, and by theorists like Hazel Henderson and Herman Daly, has taken the idea two steps further. First, it focuses on sustainability (as opposed to quality of life); and second, it examines the linkages between indicators and the systems they represent.

For example, wild salmon runs are an indicator of water quality and the health of riparian ecosystems (in addition to being intrinsically, symbolically, and economically valuable). Salmon are also affected by electrical power use and water consumption. Changes in the runs affects tourism and the seafood industry. Looking at linkages expands our understanding of the reason for a salmon run’s decline and the benefits of working to maintain it.

Salmon runs in the Seattle area are in sharp decline and in danger of extinction. That fact not only rings environmental and economic alarm bells; it could also reflect our cultural attitude toward living systems. Ultimately, what’s happening to Seattle’s salmon may not differ that much from what’s happening to Seattle’s children. Our next generation – the focus of several important indicators – are experiencing higher levels of childhood poverty, low birthweight, and juvenile crime. As Kentucky writer Wendell Berry notes, "There is an uncanny resemblance between our behavior toward each other and our behavior toward the Earth."

But not all of Sustainable Seattle’s first 20 indicators (out of a projected set of 40) bring bad news. The job market, for example, is not as dependent on the Boeing Company and other top-ten employers as it used to be. Over the past decade, jobs have been spreading among a more diverse set of enterprises, creating a more resilient economic base. And the hours of paid work at the average wage required to meet basic needs like rent, food, and clothing has remained remarkably stable.

Other indicators bring still more surprises. Air quality, which most citizens would guess has been declining, has actually improved by 65 percent over the decade. On the other hand, Seattle/King County residents are discarding ever increasing amounts of garbage, at rates that almost outstrip the growth in our famed recycling programs.

Overall, the indicators show Seattle to be a city moving away from sustainability. But measuring progress is, of course, not the same as making it. Sustainable Seattle is using the indicators to call attention to long-term trends, and volunteers are now designing an ambitious array of efforts to turn these trends in the right direction and encourage citizens and policy-makers to help make sustainability a reality.

"Things have their due measure," wrote the Roman poet Horace some 2,000 years ago. "There are ultimately fixed limits, beyond which, or short of which, something must be wrong." Horace lived in an imperial city that ignored those limits, leading to its decline and fall. We in Sustainable Seattle are working to ensure that our city stays healthy – indeed, keeps getting better – for a long, long time.

Sustainable Seattle was initiated by IN CONTEXT and Metro Center YMCA. Its 44-page report, 1993 Indicators of Sustainable Community, is available for $10 from Metrocenter YMCA, 909 4th Ave., Seattle, WA 98103.

Alan AtKisson, a co-founder of Sustainable Seattle, is former executive editor of IC and now a consultant focusing on innovation, sustainability, and cultural change. Write him at 546 N. 74th Street, Seattle, WA 98103.

Do NOT follow this link or you will be banned from the site!