Our Budget: Ways of Measuring Our Impact

Sustainable well-being = well-being ÷ the resources it takes to achieve that well-being. This section focuses on ways of measuring different aspects of this denominator. In other words, how do we measure our impact on the planet and each other?  The goal is to understand ways of measuring/quantifying the equitable budget our lifestyles must work within. The point of assessing and monitoring denominator-related resource use and impact is to provide feedback at the community/village level to guide lifestyles that maximize well-being. The new field of Ecological Economics (or Sustainability Economics) is a treasure trove of relevant ideas (accessible through organizations like the International Society of Ecological Economics, their recommended reading list, and their journal, Ecological Economics, available at UW-Madison here). In addition, the Convention on Biological Diversity hosts a searchable database of scientific assessments relevant to sustainability. Groups like the Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment (SCOPE) focus on the interface between assessment and monitoring, on the one hand, and decision-making, on the other.

What is the sustainable and equitable budget within which we must achieve our well-being? Implicit here is the goal of preserving a planet desirable to human beings and the lifestyles we enjoy, which

Source: Rockstrom et al (2009)
Source: Rockstrom et al (2009)

depend on the relatively stable environmental and climatic characteristics of the Holocene epoch (as we transition to the Anthropocene epoch which started with the Industrial Revolution) that allowed civilization (agriculture and complex societies) to develop (see Fig 1).

Just using Ecological Footprint and Money as our measures, we might phrase this question more specifically: What kind of well-being is possible from a lifestyle that uses one planet’s worth of resources (from an EF point of view), an income of $40,000 per year for a family of four, with wealth of $126,655 for that same family? That is a key question that various aspects of our project tries to answer, gradually creating a vision of a lifestyle that maximizes sustainable well-being (aka, one planet thriving).

Measures should be easy enough to use that communities and use them dynamically to provide feedback for improving their own SWB. As a starting point, the measurement of the following seems intuitive: time (ATUS-type approach), equity/social justice, sunlight energy (EMERGY accounting), and materials. Ideally, we would be able to determine the amount of well-being achieved per unit of time, injustice, exergy, and material use. These reviews of candidate measures are helpful (Gasparatos & Scolobig, 2012; Buytaert, Muys, et. al, 2011) with the figure categorizing relevant measures and summarized below.

source: Gasparatos & Scolobig (2012)
source: Gasparatos & Scolobig (2012)

To help keep in mind the goal of measuring the 4 principles of a sustainable lifestyle, the principle associated with each measuring method is in brackets next to each:

  1. The TEEB approach values ecosystem services (see below)
  2. 9 Planetary Boundaries (see below)
  3. Ecological Footprint (see below) [Principle # 2 & 3]
  4. Income and Wealth (see this post) [Principle #4]
  5. Material Flow Analysis (see below) [Principle #1]
  6. Exergy: energy available to be used. While energy is neither created nor destroyed, entropy is involved. We take energy from a higher to lower state when we use it. Exergy includes entropy in its calculation.

Choosing which measures to use, and in what combination, is an important issue to consider. Table 2 below illustrates one way to consider types of measures and their utilities. Our desire is to set a minimum acceptable sustainability goal along with the ability to gauge progress toward that goal (“Assessment for Sustainability”) which suggests MCA techniques are the only approach for the current project (see Table 3, Gasparatos & Scolobig, 2012) but have the advantage of also allowing for “objectives-led” assessments which are also of interest. It is also likely that measures which focus on biophysical assessments are also tolerated better than neoclassical monetary assessments for the population we’re interested in measuring, people interested in sustainability (e.g., ecovillage members). The MCA approach, which aims to value ecosystem services, is used by The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) study (details below).

Gasparatos & Scolobig (2012), p. 5
Gasparatos & Scolobig (2012), p. 5

The TEEB approach

The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) study’s overview of different methods of assessing ecosystem services is useful (see Fig 1 below) and their approach is summarized in their report, Mainstreaming the Economics of Nature: A synthesis of the approach, conclusions and recommendations of TEEB with case studies available via an interactive map.

TEEB Synthesis Report (2010), p. 9
TEEB Synthesis Report (2010), p. 9


Safe Operating Zones: 9 Planetary Boundaries

This approach, described in an article by Rockstrom et al (2009), can be construed as one way of defining the budget for our lifestyles. They identify 9 planetary boundaries within which humanity can safely operate without causing global changes likely to end the desirable characteristics of the Holocene epoch (see above). These boundaries are purposefully set at some distance away from dangerous thresholds, in part because there is uncertainty around each threshold. These boundaries, and the thresholds they protect us from breaching, are interdependent, such that transgressions of one can cause changes in others, with tipping points reached beyond which a desirable stable state (Holocene characteristics) can abruptly and non-linearly transform into a new and undesirable stable state. There are quantifications for 7 of these boundaries (#1, #4, & #7 have already been transgressed, with limits being approached for #2, #4, #5, #6):

(1) Climate change (CO2 concentration in the atmosphere <350 ppm and/or a maximum change of +1 W m-2 in radiative forcing);

(2) Ocean acidification (mean surface seawater saturation state with respect to aragonite ? 80% of pre-industrial levels);

(3) Stratospheric ozone (<5% reduction in O3 concentration from pre-industrial level of 290 Dobson Units);

(4) Biogeochemical nitrogen (N) cycle (limit industrial and agricultural fixation of N2 to 35 Tg N yr-1) and phosphorus (P) cycle (annual P inflow to oceans not to exceed 10 times the natural background weathering of P);

(5) Global freshwater use (<4000 km3 yr-1 of consumptive use of runoff resources);

(6) Land system change (<15% of the ice-free land surface under cropland); and

(7) The rate at which biological diversity is lost (annual rate of <10 extinctions per million species).

Two other planetary boundaries they were not able to quantify, include

(8) Chemical pollution and

(9) Atmospheric aerosol loading


Ecological Footprint = bioproductive land

Clearly, we have to achieve our well-being using only one planet worth of resources. Thus, if we could divide all planetary resources by the world population, we could roughly estimate the number of resources we can ethically use to achieve well-being. The most articulate way of doing this to date GFN_USFootprintGraphhas been the Ecological Footprint (EF) which estimates ecological footprint (70% of it is carbon; for the lifetime carbon footprint of your car, including not only its use but also its manufacture, visit carboncounter.com) in terms of acres (and planets-worth) of resources used for a particular lifestyle. Indeed, the sustainable well-being index, which is the focus of this entire site, is operationalized as well-being / EF. You can take a quiz here to estimate your current footprint, but the average American lifestyle uses 4.05 planets worth of resources, well above the biocapacity of Earth. There are also measures that look at Water-Footprint, as illustrated in the following graph.WaterFootprintByCountryGraph

Material Flow Analysis

For the first time, the Sustainable Europe Research Institute (SERI) time has done the research to produce a global measure of how many tons of materials we humans are extracting from the Earth. In 2005, we extracted about 67 billion metric tons of materials (an increase of 45% since 1980), with about 132,000 pounds of materials per person in the U.S. in the year 2000 (362 pounds per day per person; see True Wealth by Juliet Schor, loc 630-645 for these summaries). Note the largest category is Coal and oil. Note, further, that measuring the tons of these materials extracted does not explicitly measure CO2 released in their burning, just as tons of Metal Ore extraction does not address the toxic effects of some of these metals. Furthermore, increases in efficiency and technology have not been fast enough to offset the even faster increase in acquisition, the latter being a result of what Juliet Schor calls the “materiality paradox”, which says that as consumers buy goods more for their ephemeral symbolic meaning their use of materials increases (e.g., I own Brand X shoes b/c they make me look cool right now; I will throw them away and buy Brand Y shoes in a month b/c those are the ones that will then make me look cool).






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