Gaps in Knowledge and Research Needs

The major challenge is how to integrate indicators of many types across sectors to give an overall evaluation of sustainability. Improved data sets will be an essential prerequisite, but new integrated or linkage indicators are also needed. Just as the GDP measures the flow of money through an economy and thus gives an integrated measure of economic activity, new indicators are needed to measure such features as the flow of natural resources for human use as related to their rate of renewal, the changing balance in various forms of natural capital, the stability of social institutions and networks such as the family, the community and local associations, the vulnerability and resilience of the society, the flow of information, the links between different social entities and environmental processes, and other factors that are critical to sustainability.

Research is needed to explore new approaches to indicators using satellite remote sensing and other observing technologies. These techniques can overcome data gaps by providing uniform planetary coverage and regular time series. For assessments of global sustainability, observing systems should be able to generate indicators of the state of the biosphere, land use trends, the balance between human impacts and natural processes, the status of natural resources, and the extent of poverty in human communities. The Integrated Global Observing Strategy Partnership ( and the intergovernmental Group on Earth Observations ( provide mechanisms to plan and coordinate such efforts.

Another research priority is to find indicators able to capture the less tangible dimensions of human society for integrated assessments. Indicators are needed for the effectiveness of governance, the adequacy of legislation, the flowering of arts and culture, access to science and technology, and other important dimensions of development. The sustainability of a society also depends to a great extent on the strength of its ethics, norms, values, and spirituality (IEF 2002). Although it may be difficult to find direct indicators of these aspects, there may be surrogate measures that can be used to assess their importance and evolution over time (Baha'i International Community 1998). Until these fundamental but intangible dimensions of society have adequate indicators, they will be invisible for assessment purposes.

Another missing dimension in present sustainability measures is the sustainability of societies themselves from generation to generation. A community or society is sustainable only if it transmits its knowledge, experience, science, culture, wisdom, and values from old people to younger ones before they are lost. Education is a key part of this process, but families, communities, religious and cultural organizations, and the media are also important. With rapid social change, traditional forms of transmission may be disrupted, and significant parts of a society's heritage may be lost before their importance is appreciated. Similarly, new media and information technologies may have both positive and negative impacts on the transmission of knowledge and values. These open a society to the world but often convey values, lifestyles, behavior patterns, and desires for consumption at odds with both the local culture and the needs of sustain-ability, driving social change in directions with unanticipated consequences. Indicators therefore are needed that capture the effectiveness with which intergenerational information transfer is taking place and the directions in which it is pushing social and cultural evolution.

It may be helpful in identifying indicators of sustainability for society as a whole to undertake a historical analysis of the factors causing the unsustainability and collapse of past civilizations. There may be interactions between social, environmental, political, and cultural factors, or sequences of destabilizing processes, that will stand out better in such retrospective analyses than in any attempt to detect them today. Such analyses could provide a long-term perspective on critical dimensions of the sustainability of civilizations that is lacking in our own society. Indicators could then be developed to follow these dimensions in our own time.

Integrated assessments represent the most difficult challenge for indicators of sus-tainability because of their need to capture and integrate all aspects of the assessment. Some progress is being made in this direction (Gadrey and Jany-Catrice 2003), but there is still a long way to go before indicators can fully support the integrative aspect of these assessments.

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