By Donella Meadows
–May 20, 1993–
Last June an unlikely bunch of people got together in Seattle — a Boeing executive, an Episcopal priest, a city councilman, citizen activists for everything from the environment to minority rights, a high school teacher, a union representative, a local television personality, and about 100 more. They called themselves the Sustainable Seattle Civic Panel. Sustainability for their city was what they wanted, but the first question they had to answer was: What the heck does “sustainable” mean?
They came up with a vague but noble-sounding definition. Sustainability, they said, is “long-term cultural, economic, and environmental health and vitality, with emphasis on long-term.” Since they couldn’t decide which was most important, cultural, economic, or environmental health and vitality, they put them in alphabetical order.
But really, practically, in concrete terms, how does anyone know whether Seattle or any other place is sustainable, or whether it is getting more or less so?
The Panel set out to answer that question by drawing up a list of indicators — things that could be measured and reported regularly, along with the Dow-Jones average and the wind-chill factor, to help the citizens of Seattle keep tabs on their own “long term health and vitality.”
It was an interesting challenge. Think about it for a minute. What would you REALLY like to know to keep track of what YOU think is important about the place where you live?
The Civic Panel went at the job by subdividing into 10 topic areas — economy, education, health, environment, and so forth. Each group brainstormed a long, lively list of possible indicators. Then they tried to winnow each list down to five, so that altogether the 10 topic areas would produce 50 indicators.
They couldn’t do that. They couldn’t get down to 50. It seems that people care about a LOT of things in their community. The citizens of Sustainable Seattle began to see how unsatisfying a single measure such as GNP is. After combining suggestions from some 200 people, who collectively donated over 2500 hours of volunteer time, the Civic Panel finally settled on 99 indicators. The list includes:
– renewable and nonrenewable energy consumption per person,
– gallons of water used per person,
– tons of solid waste generated and recycled per person,
– hours of work at the median wage required to support basic needs,
– percent of employment concentrated in the top ten employers,
– wild salmon runs in local streams,
– overall air quality,
– acres of wetlands remaining,
– total county population and growth rate,
– average travel time from selected starting points to selected destinations,
– percent of infants born with low birth weight,
– percent of the population that gardens,
– percent of the population voting in primary elections.
Last December the panel presented its list of indicators to the public in the form of a dramatic reading. “We had to do that,” says Richard Conlin, one of the Panel’s facilitators. “Just reading a straight list of 99 indicators would have been too dry.” So eight volunteers interspersed the list with stories, quotes, and poems. The technology indicators began with a quote from Fred Hoyle: “Technology is like strong liquor. A little won’t do you much harm, but too much is apt to drive every sensible idea out of your head. So far as technology is concerned, it is my opinion that our modern society is dead drunk.” The indicator on the average savings rate per household was embellished by Will Rogers: “Too many people spend money they haven’t earned, to buy things they don’t want, to impress people they don’t like.”
The indicators a society chooses to report to itself about itself are surprisingly powerful. They reflect collective values and inform collective decisions. A nation that keeps a watchful eye on its salmon runs or the safety of its streets makes different choices than does a nation that is only paying attention to its GNP. The idea of citizens choosing their own indicators is something new under the sun — something intensely democratic.
There’s more to do, of course, than just make a list of indicators. Sustainable Seattle, which is making itself up as it goes along, is working now at finding and publicizing actual numbers for as many indicators as possible and getting city institutions to measure and report them on a regular basis.
Then comes the job of making the indicators MOVE in the directions people want them to go. The citizens of Sustainable Seattle are planning programs on how to operate sustainable homes and businesses. They envision sustainability extension agents to work with individuals and enterprises and sustainability awards to encourage good examples. They’re developing check-off lists to evaluate how government policies affect Seattle’s “long term health and vitality” — sustainability impact statements, if you will.
The total budget for this enterprise so far has been $20,000, contributed by local foundations, businesses, and individuals. The money has been used for printing, postage, copying, room rentals, refreshments, and a small office at the MetroCenter YMCA.
It looks like the sort of thing any community could do.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1993