The Conceptual Challenge

In Chapter 10 Arthur Dahl challenges the scientific community to develop sustainabil-ity indicators that "measure the functional system processes that best represent its capacity to continue far into the future." According to Dahl, these indicators should "reflect the whole and not just the parts." Indicators should highlight problems rather than symptoms. We agree with Dahl's perception that existing sustainability indicators do not reflect the whole: "Increasingly comprehensive data sets of indicators covering the state of and trends in economic, social, and environmental factors relevant to sustainability . . . do not capture the interactions between factors and the broader dynamics of the system that are critical to sustainability." In our contribution, we present a concept for an indicator for the sustainability of systems that is designed to address Dahl's challenge.

We define an indicator, following Rotmans and de Vries (1997), as "a characteristic of the status and dynamic behaviour of the system concerned. Or equivalently: an indicator is a one-dimensional systems description, which may consist of a single variable or a set of variables." The characteristic of the system that we are most interested in is its ability to sustain itself in the long run in a desired state or on a desired trajectory. A system with that ability is sustainable.

In order to evaluate the sustainability of a system, we would optimally take into account time, scale, and domain. A measure of sustainability should represent changes in the system that are relevant in the long term of 25 to 50 years. It should reflect developments within the system and trade-offs to systems on other scale levels. It should cover the economic, ecological, and social aspects of sustainability.

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