‘Sustainability’ has become a pervasive part of social and business discourse. However getting down to specifics on sustainability is a much debated issue.
This is of particular relevance for climate change. In particular, how can we speak of, or imagine ‘sustainability’, given the underlying conflict that emerges between the pursuit of ‘economic progress’ defined in terms of the production and consumption of goods and services, and the ever escalating production of greenhouse gas emissions.
Recently, well-known Harvard management ‘guru’ Professor Michael Porter has launched a new initiative the Social Progress Imperative which includes a cross-national Social Progress Index. Presented as a user-friendly interactive website, the index provides a comparative breakdown of key components of social progress such as basic human needs, health and well-being, and social opportunity. According to a recent article in The Guardian, Professor Porter is keen to incorporate the SPI into broader government and corporate thinking as part of his broader focus on ‘creating shared value‘ (CSV).
While there are no great surprises here in what the SPI reveals, it is a very useful resource in teasing out national comparisons of social, economic and environmental performance. Importantly, it underlines a key dynamic of modern industrial and economic development – that is the disconnect between economic modernisation and environmental degradation (increasing greenhouse gas emissions, declining biodiversity, species extinction, ocean acidification, chemical pollution). As The Guardian article noted:
Wealth, for example, is no friend of planetary boundaries. Nearly all rich countries perform poorly on ecosystem sustainability – especially large countries with abundant natural resources like Australia (46th), Canada (47th), and the United States (48th).
For instance, the SPI includes measures for ‘ecological footprint for consumption’, ‘CO2 emissions per capita’, ‘energy use per $1000 GDP’, and ‘water withdrawals per capita’. Activating these options on the SPI website does not present a pretty picture of the environmental costs of the developed economies’ on-going addiction to ‘affluenza‘.