Defining the Subdomains of Sustainable Development Enhancing Methodological Transparency in Indicator Formulation

The concept of sustainable development recognizes that life depends on the earth's biophysical support systems. The state of the planet and its ecosystems is at least in part but often almost wholly a consequence of past and present human activity, determined by the interplay of social, economic, and political factors. Any overall indicator of the state or trends in sustainable use of the planet must reflect this interplay of Earth systems and ecological dynamics with economics, politics, and social dynamics. To evolve, good indicators need two dialogues: one between the scholars of natural science and social science, to achieve an academic consensus on indicators and the method for their construction, and the other among the scholars, the users, and society. Neither of these dialogues is an everyday occurrence. This chapter reflects the first kind of dialogue, but the second type of dialogue will have to assume an increasingly important role if indicators for sustainable development are to gain prominence in everyday thinking. A single indicator of sustainable development (the SD index) would be a valuable communication tool and could capture the public imagination. However, it might obscure the central issue of sustainable development: learning to recognize and evaluate the existence of trade-offs between the achievement of high levels of human well-being while restoring and maintaining ecosystem integrity. Such a two-domain framework facilitates both the equal treatment of people and the environment and the analysis and communication of interactions between people and ecosystems. Further subdivision of the human side (into social and economic domains, for instance) would reduce the weight given to the environment from half to one third or, if an institutional domain is added, to a quarter (Figure 3.1). Methodologically, increasing the number of subdivisions complicates the rep-

Figure 3.1. The weight of the environment decreases as the number of human domains increases.

Figure 3.1. The weight of the environment decreases as the number of human domains increases.

resentation of causalities and feedback relationships between the domains and reduces our ability to develop accurate indicators of the interlinkages of domains. It also increases the difficulty of communicating the causes and directions of trends and hence of desirable pathways toward sustainable development.

In order to cope with the emphasis given to the role of the economy, still the main preoccupation of decision making, a division into three domains appears suitable. Such a threefold subdivision is really a methodological concession to political and societal adoption and use of indicators. Because indicators are usefully defined only in relation to their practical applicability for decision making, such concessions are inherent in their nature as decision-making instruments.

Adding a fourth, institutional domain would confer no advantage other than its current acceptance by the UN Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD). The more domains there are, the harder it is to portray human—ecosystem interactions clearly or to distinguish interactions that are real from those that are artifacts stemming from the design of the framework.

The contrasting economic, social, and environmental dimensions (domains) of sustainable development should not be oversimplified. They warrant a closer examination, best envisaged in terms of a hierarchy of indicators (Figure 3.2). The uppermost level of the hierarchy contains broad, widely held, but unavoidably normative concepts linked to the societal and cultural understanding of sustainable development (e.g., in terms of environmental, social, and economic capitals). Below these broad concepts, a limited number of headline issues that are widely, and beyond polity, agreed to be important may be understood as critical issues for human development for the coming decades. Each of these issues (e.g., climate change, biodiversity, or perception of well-being) is multidimensional (Atkinson et al. 2002) and synthesizes a complex range of processes and conditions, with an implicit value-laden and culturally influenced normative subdiscourse. Nevertheless, scientifically defensible aggregation frameworks for formulating indices or composite indicators at this level are possible. Within expert and policy-formulating communities, it should be possible to disaggregate the issues into their components, in a transparent and traceable fashion.

The individual component issues necessary to build the composite (headline)

Sustainable development




Headline issues (about 10)

Biodiversity Air quality

Water use arid quality

Land use


Resource use Climate change

Health and security Knowledge and education Perception of well being Institutional capacities

Material and energy flows and intensities Income distribution Economic growth Debt servicing

Component indicators (about 100)

Mean global temperature Tropospheric ozone N and S deposition River chemistry Area of forests Fish stock status etc.

Healthy fife expectancy Disability losses Crime rate

Participatory institutions School enrollment Literacy etc.

Gini coefficient

Losses to natural disasters

Waste Intensities etc.

Base data

Land cover etc.

Population etc.

Economic structure etc.

Figure 3.2. Hierarchy and scales, from sustainable development to base data.

indicators will change over time, as will the importance assigned to them (e.g., when they are weighted in aggregated indicators), as particular issues change in significance in public and government perception and as scientific knowledge and information increase. Many component issues are selected because they are directly affected by policy (e.g., protected areas). Several uncontroversial but essential data sets of variables, such as population density, land cover, and economic structure, form the base of the indicator hierarchy.

The emphasis on links between the three domains provides the opportunity to design and produce integrating indicators carrying more powerful and detailed messages about the understanding of progress in various elements of sustainable development. In methodological terms, this opportunity poses further challenges in terms of designing frameworks and models that allow different data sets from diverse origins (e.g., combining biodiversity data sets with data on rural development) to be integrated in meaningful and transparent ways that can be readily communicated. With the increase in the number of domains, the methodological strength and communicative capacity of the frameworks (e.g., driving force, pressure, state, impact, and response [DPSIR] frameworks) developed to link the domains coherently and comprehensively will increase in importance. Although links between some issues built on adequate methodological and scientific foundations (e.g., energy—economy decoupling) are being widely used, many links, particularly between the environment and society, need much more work. Much research on these issues is needed to turn sustainable development indicators into decision-making tools that will help to identify alternative ways to promote sustainable development.

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