What is an indicator?
A way to measure, indicate, point out or point to with more or less exactness;
Something that is a sign, symptom or index of;
Something used to show visually the condition of a system.

Talking Points
  • Measure progress
  • Show direction
  • Very common, well-undertood concept

An indicator is really just a long way of saying "how much" or "how many" or "to what extent" or "what size." Indicators are ways to measure. Measuring isn't new. We all measure all the time. In fact, we start doing it at an early age--who got the biggest piece of cake, who can run the fastest, who caught the most fish--the examples are endless.

There is nothing wrong with measuring and comparing. How many people have set themselves a goal for something that they really wanted to do? Perhaps as a child you saved money to buy a bicycle; later on you wanted to buy a car. The amount of money in your piggy bank or bank account was the indicator. The cost of the bike or car was the goal. How many people here have ever counted the number of course credits they needed to graduate? How many people watch the highway signs showing the number of miles left to wherever you are going?

We all set goals and use indicators to measure our progress towards those goals. The problem with measurement is that sometimes we forget what the goal is and just worry about the indicators. The measurement becomes more meaningful than the goal and we start to define ourselves in terms of what we measure, not what we want to be.

For example, how many teachers have ever heard a student ask, "What do I need to do to really learn the material in this course and apply it to my life?"

And how many teachers have ever heard a student ask, "What do I need to do to get an A?"

This is an example of the measurement becoming the goal. What is really more important? That the student understand and be able to apply the material or that the student be assigned a letter grade of A? When the student focuses on the letter grade instead of learning, the measurement has become more important that the goal. As a society we also have goals and measurements, and in many cases the measurement has become more important than the goal. Or the measurement hides what is really important about some part of our lives.

(This next section should be tailored to match the audience.)

I'm going to ask some questions about things that you might measure. I want you to raise your hand if you measure what I mention. I won't ask you for the measurement, I just want to know if you know the measurement. For example, if I ask you if you know how much you weigh, I am not going to then ask you to tell everyone your weight. I only want to know if you know the measurement. I am also not interested in precision. This isn't a quiz. You don't have to know your weight to the gram or exactly what it is this morning after you had that extra pastry.

How many people know:
  • How much money they make (hourly or yearly)
  • How much they save (hourly or yearly)
  • How many hours they need to work to pay for their basic needs?
What is really important? How much money you earn or whether it is enough to pay for your needs? A student graduating from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1948 got a very good job which paid $275/month. However, he only had to pay $70/month in rent. It's not how much money you spend that is important, it is how much you need to support yourself that counts.

How many people know:
  • What the unemployment rate is?
  • What the real unemployment rate is (includes people who have given up looking for work or who have been out of work for too long to be counted)
  • What the real employment rate is (number of people who have jobs appropriate to their skill level that allow them to pay for their basic needs)?
It is not a question of how many jobs there are, it's a question of how many good jobs there are relative to the number of people who need or want jobs.

How many people know:
  • How many dollars a week they spend on groceries?
  • How many pounds of trash they generate each week?
  • How much it costs to fill up the gas tank in their car?
  • How many gallons of gas it takes to fill up the tank in their car?
  • How many pounds of pollution that tank of gas generates?
  • How many pounds of pollution are generated making that gasoline?
We tend to pay attention to the monetary measures of what we do without thinking about the ecological consequences of what we do.

How many people know:
  • Which store has the best prices?
  • Which store has the most locally produced goods?
  • Which store generates the most local jobs per local dollar spent?
We also don't think about the social or health consequences of our actions.

If you buy something that is less expensive because it was made by the forced labor of children in less developed countries are you responsible for their quality of life?

If you buy food that was grown in another country where DDT and other pesticides are still allowed, are you responsible for the effect on migrating birds or for the effect of pesticide residues on your family's health?

Most traditional indicators are based on dollars--the amount of money that we spend on something. However, what is most important is what we get for the money we spend.

How many people know:
  • What their shoe size is?
  • What their ecological footprint is?
Your shoe size is how much space your foot takes up. Your ecological footprint is how much space you take up when you consider everything that is necessary to support your needs. Imagine a glass dome over the this area. How big would the dome have to be to include enough resources to support all the people living in the dome indefinitely? If it was too small they would quickly run out of oxygen. Making it a little bigger and the oxygen would hold up but they would run out of water. Imagine how big it would have to be to support food and raw material needs for the whole population of the U.S.

(It is very useful, prior to the workshop, for the facilitator to find out the land area and population of the area in which he or she is presenting this training and calculate the acres/person available.)

Our ecological footprint depends upon the lifestyle we lead. The average U.S. citizen's ecological footprint is 13 acres. We have the largest ecological footprint in the world. Ecological footprints are one measure of sustainability. If everyone in the world consumed resources at the rate that we do, we would need two more earths to support everyone. The world population is projected to double in the next 30 years. Then we will need six planet earths to support us. Measuring our ecological footprint tells us that the earth can't sustain this rate of consumption over the long run.

(Mathis Wackernagel and William Rees wrote a book call "Our Ecological Footprint" that explains how to calculate the footprint. Wackernagel's web site is: http://www.earthday.net/footprint/index.asp. There is also a very good web site on ecological footprints by Dick Richardson, a professor at the University of Texas in Austin. He has included calculating ecological footprints in courses that he teaches.

The ICLEI also has an excellent web site that allows you to estimate your own ecological footprint based on your eating, driving, and household characteristics. The URL is http://www.iclei.org/iclei/coldfus/ecofootq.htm.)

It is not just a question of living better than everyone else. One American consumes as much energy as 295 Ethiopians and as much water as 30 Nigerians. Clearly most people would say that Americans have a better lifestyle than the average Ethiopian or Nigerian. However, we also use much more than other countries with lifestyles similar to the U.S. For example, energy use per person in the U.S. is double that of the United Kingdom and Sweden, almost three times that of Switzerland and Japan. We use three times as much water per person as people in Denmark and five times as much as people in the Netherlands. (Energy and water use information from World Resources 1992-93.)

Are our lives twice as good as the lives of people in England or five times better than the lives of the Dutch? Are water and energy use really good measures of standard or living? Or just a measure of a wasteful style of living? What happens if everyone in the world were as wasteful as we are?

This is what sustainability is all about--are we living in a way that will allow our children and grandchildren to have healthy, enjoyable lives 25 or 50 years in the future? And not just the grandchildren of the people in this room, in this city, state or country, but the grandchildren of all the people around the world.
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Copyright © 1998 Maureen Hart. All rights reserved.