Indicators serve several different purposes:
Measure progress - Do I have enough money to buy the bike? Do I have enough
course credits to graduate? If we keep consuming resources at this rate will there be any left in
the year 2030?
Explain sustainability - The process of describing indicators helps diverse members
of a community reach consensus on what sustainability means. Indicators help put sustainability
in concrete terms that demonstrate a new way to measure progress. Concepts like a person's
ecological footprint help people understand how their everyday actions relate to issues that
seem beyond the reach of a single individual.
Educate - The process of describing indicators helps to educate the community. As
a nation we have been tremendously successful over the last 25 years at addressing the easily
fixed sources of pollution. Pollution from industry has gone down and the quality of our air
and water has improved. However, increasingly the environmental issues that we face are
due to our collective individual actions. Air and water pollution is in large part due to
non-point sources such as fertilizer, pesticides, and emissions from cars. It was easy to point
to a large polluter and say, "Clean it up." We now need to point to ourselves as individuals
and as society and say, "Change how we do things."
Show linkages - Infant mortality--the number of children that do not live past
their first year--is frequently used as an indicator of early childhood health. However,
a better indicator might be the number of infants being born to unwed women under the age
of 18 who have not finished high school. These babies are more likely to have had no
prenatal care, have low birth weight, and live in poverty. Poverty is linked to crime,
poor health, and poor education, which reduce the chances that future generations can
become self-supporting members of the community. The more people understand the links,
the more solutions can be developed that address the full range of problems.
Motivate - Indicators can help us use our competitive spirit to our advantage. The
Toxic Release Inventory (usually referred to as the T-R-I) is great example of this. In
1987, manufacturing facilities in the U.S. were first required to report the amount of
pollution they were releasing into the environment. No one had ever looked at it before,
and everyone was shocked when the numbers came out: 3.5 billion pounds were released in
1988. By 1994, emissions had been reduced to 2 billion pounds.
Focus action on the issues - Indicators can help focus people's actions and make
sure that people know where to put their efforts. What can I do to help? How many people
have an electric meter in their house or apartment? Where is it? In the basement? How
many people ever go and look at how much energy they are using? In the Netherlands, a
recent building regulation required that new houses be built with the electricity meter in
the front hall instead of in the basement. The article I read said that energy use in
those houses was 1/3 less than what was expected. Just knowing what a measurement is can
have an effect.