Relevance to Sustainable Development

As the state of the art in integrating indicators progresses, synthetic indices combining many indicators will become increasingly relevant as the basis for assessing and communicating sustainability. At present, the assembly of increasingly comprehensive data sets of indicators covering the state of and trends in economic, social, and environmental factors relevant to sustainability provides a first approximation of where we are and where we are going. However, these data sets do not capture the interactions between factors and the broader dynamics of the system that are critical to sustainability.

One important issue is the distinction between development, as commonly understood, and sustainability. Development often is equated with growth, whether in wealth and economic activity, infrastructure, or institutions. However, where growth has pushed a society beyond sustainable limits, long-term sustainability may entail a reduction in certain economic activities, technologies, or resource uses and a simplification in lifestyles (Meadows et al. 1992). This entails a broader vision of human development that may combine higher levels of social integration, culture, science, and the arts with a more moderate approach to the material side of life. Care must be taken to select indi cators of sustainability that capture all the dimensions of a rich and rewarding human society contributing to social and human sustainability, not just the material aspects of sustainability on this planet.

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