Silver Donald Cameron

Posts Tagged ‘Genuine Progress Index’

Voting for Clarity and Sanity

Wednesday, May 20th, 2009

May 17, 2009
The biggest single advance that Nova Scotians could gain from this election might be the adoption of the Genuine Progress Index as the province’s core measure of success.

In theory, this should be simple. The GPI ( is all about our progress towards a society which cares for people and the environment — and in 2007, the province adopted the Environmental Goals and Sustainable Prosperity Act, a deeply sane piece of legislation entirely in tune with the GPI. The EGSPA commits the province to fully integrate environmental sustainability and economic prosperity. Its two primary goals are to ensure that Nova Scotia has one of the cleanest and most sustainable environments in the world by 2020, and also that the province’s economic performance is equal to or above the Canadian average by 2020.

Bravo. And that Act grew out of the 2006 Opportunities for Sustainable Prosperity development strategy, which recognized — as does the GPI — that the our future well-being depends on the way we steward five forms of capital: financial capital, social capital, environmental capital, built capital and human capital.

All this happy talk is endorsed by all three political parties. As Ron Colman, Executive Director of GPI Atlantic, likes to say, these ideas represent consensus values.

“No politician argues in favour of more pollution, more poverty, more family breakdown, more obesity,” Colman says. “Rodney MacDonald doesn’t stand up and say, ‘Vote for me and I promise you the air quality will be worse.’ Darrell Dexter doesn’t say, ‘Vote for me and crime will be worse.’ We all know that certain things are good and others are bad, and we pretty much agree on what those things are.”

So what’s the problem?

The problem is the addiction of politicians to the notion of ”economic growth,” which is code for a rising Gross Domestic Product — even though the Gross Domestic Product ignores the things that the EGSPA says we care about.

Electrical engineers use a measure called the signal-to-noise ratio, which compares the level of a desired signal –speech, for instance — to the level of background noise. If it’s hard to make sense of the speech because of the static, the signal-to-noise ratio is poor.

The GPI filters out the static, and makes sense of the conversation. The GDP simply measures economic noise.

Anything that makes money change hands increases GDP. If we declared war on New Brunswick, or made divorce mandatory, or encouraged terrorist attacks in Malagash and Antigonish, all of that would make the economy “grow” again. .

Silly? Sure. But primitive tools like the GDP prevent us from measuring our progress towards the goals we all agree on, and thus prevent us from developing intelligent policies in a timely way. Using the GDP for policy purposes is like getting on the scales to measure your collar size. You’ll get a number, certainly, but the number won’t be useful.

For example, the GDP took the constantly-rising levels of groundfish catches in the 1980s to mean that the fishery was doing fine — just before it collapsed. The GPI would have asked whether we were leaving enough fish in the sea as natural capital to sustain such catches. Quite clearly, we were not.

Today, the GDP reports that farm cash receipts have grown. So farmers are doing well? No: GPI Atlantic reports that the cost of farming has grown even more. Nova Scotia farmers are losing money, farms are vanishing, and our food supply is increasingly insecure. That’s the signal, but it’s lost in the noise of the GDP, so it’s inaudible to the public and the politicians.

GPI studies reveal that unemployment generates crime, stress and family breakdown. Please applaud Stanfield’s in Truro and Composites Atlantic in Lunenburg, who are meeting this recession by reducing working hours rather than laying off workers. That prevents a great deal of human misery — all of which would have registered as positive for the GDP.

During this election, an informal alliance of environmental and other non-government groups will be pushing all the parties to adopt the GPI as Nova Scotia’s yardstick for progress. The initiative deserves everyone’s support. When the candidate tells you she’s going to get the economy growing, ask her how she’ll measure success. If she doesn’t know the answer, tell her. These are our leaders. Make them follow us.

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The Three Principles of Sustainability

Sunday, April 19th, 2009

April 19, 2009

“Yis, yis, yis,” nodded the Irishman, as he watched the complicated machine clattering away. “I see it works in practice — but does it work in theory?”

For now, our economy works in practice — but it doesn’t work in theory, because it is not sustainable. A sustainable society provides “Enough For All, Forever,” to quote the most succinct definition I’ve heard. To reach sustainability, we have to learn three principles that fundamentally challenge the way we’ve always done things.

First principle: it isn’t counted, it doesn’t count. You can’t manage what you don’t measure.

If you’re on a diet, you weigh yourself. If you’re cooking a roast, you monitor its temperature. If you’re seeking fuel economy, you measure your gas mileage. But we don’t calculate the costs of smokestack emissions and greenhouse gasses, and incorporate them in the price of the products. We don’t measure food miles — the distance that our food travels to reach us. If we factored the environmental costs of shipping into the price of the food, local farmers would be fully competitive with agribusinesses in California or Chile. We don’t tot up the value of volunteer work, or of household work. We don’t measure what we’ve lost when a forest is clear-cut — the aesthetic loss, the soil erosion, the stream turbidity, the loss of habitat, the forest’s ability to capture carbon.

All of that literally counts for nothing. And because we don’t measure properly, we can’t calculate our losses. So we act as though there were no losses, which means we are living in an imaginary world.

We do calculate the Gross Domestic Product, and our politicians unfailingly use it as a measure of progress. Alas, the GDP doesn’t measure progress; it merely measures activity. As the great economist Kenneth Boulding noted, it only tells us that people are busy. Using the GDP for policy purposes is stupid and damaging

Second principle: Ownership is an illusion.

The caribou doesn’t own the land that it occupies. The monkey doesn’t own the jungle. And we don’t own the land or its resources either. We just get to use them for a painfully short time.

That’s the view taken by traditional cultures. The land was, literally, common property, belonging to everyone and no one. That’s the aboriginal view, and the Highland view. “A man with two cows,” says the Gaelic proverb, “is a man with too much.” Use what you need, and no more. And don’t own what you don’t need.

In many cases we want the services that a product can provide rather than the product itself. I want convenient, affordable transportation, but that doesn’t mean I need to own a car. If Ford rented me a car and had to cover all its maintenance and recycle it when I was done with it, Ford would be motivated to make it inexpensive and durable. Thomas Edison originally sold electric illumination rather than electricity, so he was motivated to produce electricity cheaply and efficiently. When he switched over to selling electricity rather than light, he was motivated to encourage waste and inefficiency, which increased electricity sales.

We need services, not things. We need to be sheltered, fed, transported, equipped for work. The idea of ownership — on which our economic system is based — is saturated with incentives to waste.

Third principle: If it is to be, it is up to me.

Our whole economic system is designed to convert resources into waste, with a brief interlude as consumer products. Do not expect companies that sell steel, oil or lumber to develop a sudden enthusiasm for conserving resources. Do not expect Wal-Mart to express great misgivings about the economic system which has served it so well. These companies will change — and are changing now — but only because you and I are changing.

Whenever I speak to industry groups, I hear the same thing in my briefing sessions. “We have to go green because we’re under pressure on all sides from our customers, our employees, our shareholders.” That’s us, folks. In our roles as voters, citizens, consumers and advocates, we’re forcing the changes.

These three principles may not take us all the way to sustainability, but they are steadily taking us closer. Your efforts may never be counted — but never believe they don’t count.

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What Nova Scotians Know

Sunday, March 2nd, 2008

One of the greatest intellectual skills is the ability to ask good questions – which is a prerequisite for discovering good answers. Nobody asks better questions than GPIAtlantic.

The Faithful Reader already knows my admiration for this little research organization from St. Margaret’s Bay, which has done so much to help us think more intelligently about the world and the frantic social flux we live in. GPI, you’ll recall, stands for “Genuine Progress Index,” as opposed to “Gross Domestic Product,” which has become our conventional – but unsatisfactory — indicator of progress.

The GDP is only about money. Increased sales of cars and cannelloni make the GDP go up, yes – but so do crime, disease and disasters. When Hurricane Juan strikes, the GDP counts all the costs of clean-up as economic growth, and thus as “progress. The GPI, by contrast, counts things which are destructive and harmful as negatives and deducts them from our overall well-being. Sounds like common sense? Yes, exactly.

In the past decade, GPIAtlantic has issued more than 80 reports about Nova Scotian society on topics as diverse as the social costs of obesity and tobacco use, the unrecognized cash value of volunteerism and unpaid housework, the destructive irrationality of our treatment of forests and fisheries. Each report is a piece of the Genuine Progress Index of Nova Scotia. When the index is complete, we will have an unique description of Nova Scotia’s quality of life, and a solid set of benchmarks against which to measure future progress or decline.

GPIAtlantic’s most recent report, just issued, is entitled How Educated Are Nova Scotians? Education Indicators for the Nova Scotia Genuine Progress Index. Predictably, the study reviewed such data as test scores, literacy, student debt and research financing. It came up with some interesting findings – for example, that the increasing reliance of schools on fund-raising is slowly creating a two-tiered educational system, where schools in wealthy neighbourhoods are much better equipped than schools in poorer districts.

The study reported that Nova Scotian university students graduate with a very heavy debt load, and that they work longer hours during the academic term than they ever have. It also revealed, rather shockingly, that although Nova Scotians today have more schooling than ever before, they are no more literate than they were a generation ago.

The usual report on education would have ended there, basing its findings on the assumption that “education” means “what the educational system does.” Instead, the GPI report turned the process on its head, asking not, “What do students learn?” but “What do Nova Scotians know – no matter where or how they learned it?”

So the GPIAtlantic study considered modes of learning which lie beyond the formal educational system. “Life-long learning” is the intellectual progress that continues throughout the individual’s lifetime. Life-wide learning is the education that takes place in informal settings like the home, the workplace, and the community, and through advertising and the media.

The end result of life-long and life-wide learning is a wide range of “literacies.” The GPIAtlantic team therefore attempted to assess Nova Scotians’ command not only of languages and numbers, but also their understanding of science, ecology, health, nutrition, civics, arts, culture, statistics, indigenous knowledge, and the media. We don’t have much data on the general level of public understanding, but GPI executive director Ronald Colman notes that high levels of literacy in these matters should be revealed in wise collective choices and intelligent public policies.

Alas, the report found little evidence that Nova Scotians are particularly literate in most of these areas, and in some – civics and politics, for example – younger people are actually less literate than their parents and grandparents, although they have much more schooling.

As is so often the case, the research was badly hampered by a lack of information.

“We don’t know how literate our people are on all those dimensions, and we don’t know whether their literacy levels in these and other knowledge areas are improving or not,” said Dr. Colman. So GPIAtlantic Statistics Canada to begin administering a Canadian Knowledge Survey, which would provide an evolving picture of population knowledge and wisdom – clearly an essential step.

For me, however, the report’s greatest contribution is its deep insight into the purposes of education. Learning starts with data, but it soon progresses to information and then to knowledge – and its final destination is wisdom. Understanding – otherwise known as literacy – is the factor that connects all four levels.

Without a broad spectrum of literacies, there is no possibility of attaining wisdom. And without wisdom, there is no possibility of creating a truly humane society and a sustainable way of life. In its deepest and broadest sense, that’s really what education is all about – and by reminding Nova Scotians of that fact, a report like How Educated are Nova Scotians does us a signal public service.

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