Beyond GDP? and Interdisciplinary Approaches

This post looks at two recurring themes that came up at Green Week – the inadequacy of the GDP paradigm, and the importance of interdisciplinary approaches in addressing resource and environmental concerns.

Green Week attendees mingle and discuss the issue of resource efficiency. Image cc. Rachel Tansey

Beyond GDP?

Jo Leinen, Chair of the European Parliament’s Committee on Environment, Public Health & Food Safety (ENVI Committee), was one of several speakers at Green Week who brought up the inadequacy of the “GDP” paradigm (Gross Domestic Product – the measure of country’s aggregate economic wealth) as a measurement of progress and development, because it ignores resource consumption and ecological issues.

Mercedes Bresso, President of the Committee of the Regions elaborated further about the need to challenge values, like GDP, against wider definitions, like well-being. Yet, alternative indicators need to be ‘sexy’ enough to be taken on board by the general population, as well as being reliable and measured by values that can be compared.

Michael Warhurst, resources campaigner at Friends of the Earth, argued for four new  product lifecycle indicators:

  • carbon footprint;
  • water footprint;
  • land footprint, and;
  • mineral/material footprint.

These indicators would incorporate the entire life-cycle of a product, across its whole supply chain, i.e. the entire resource footprint regardless of where a product is made or consumed. In our globalised economy, this is critical, as many developed countries “import” resources and pollution, embodied in products. For example, Warhurst said, the UK imports half of its carbon footprint.

However, Warhurst cautioned against monetising and combining these indicators with GDP to get one total number, because that number would tell you very little. Warhurst used an analogy with trying to come up with a number which represents all the characteristics of all the people in that large conference room. Suppose he came up with numeric values which represent where each person is from, what they do, how many children they have, what their taste in film is like, etc. Then, he adds all these values up, to get one big, magic, number – lets say it is 86. Well, what does that number tell you? Almost nothing. Not everything can or should be quantified monetarily. The resulting numbers will not necessarily mean anything, just as values for different things are not necessarily directly comparable. If you add all the values together you lose the significance of what is good, bad, and what can or cannot be compromised. Money can compromises, money can be flexible, whereas land, water, minerals and the atmosphere cannot make a political compromise – in their absolute and relative quantities nor in their quality.

Despite the sense of Warhurst’s argument, the OECD’s chief economist, Pier Carlo Padoan, in the closing session of the conference, said that we need to keep “good old GDP”. We just need extra indicators to put alongside GDP. And we need to express them in the same language – GDP is monetary, so new indicators must be monetary too. Evidently, there is still a long way to go to get truly beyond GDP.

Interdisciplinary Approaches

Throughout the week, there was a repeated emphasis on the need for an integrated, interdisciplinary approach. Charlie Hargroves, from Adelaide University’s Natural Edge Project, talked about how a systems approach is needed, because it is our whole systems which need to move faster than ever before, in new directions. All kinds of sectors influence all sorts of different areas, and we need to understand how they interact, given the numerous complex feedbacks. The need for capacity-building and education was highlighted, enabling, for example, engineering degrees to be taught with due consideration for resource efficiency. And, of course, pioneering engineering projects, like waste-mining – using our waste streams as a resource, and extracting valuable materials from material waste –  won’t work without the right policy frameworks.

Despite its merits, we are yet to live up to this kind of interdisciplinary approach. This was illustrated by the conspicuous absence of any representative from DG Agriculture or DG Energy on most panels at the conference. A resource efficiency revolution is only conceivable if there is a constructive dialogue with all sectors and actors – including the agricultural and energy sectors. A recent UN report tells us that 1/3 of all food is wasted. In rich countries, it is thrown away; in poor countries, due to lack of infrastructure and logistics (storage, transport, refrigeration etc), it becomes spoiled. Clearly, food, agriculture and landuse are key areas for a transformation to resource inefficiency. As, of course, is energy. Energy is the linchpin of our economies and its use is the main contributor to climate change.

One challenge that would certainly benefit from an interdisciplinary approach is that of communicating the big picture, about climate, science and resources. At one session in the conference it was argued that earth observation satellites have a key role to play in both capturing and disseminating the big picture.

Every 3 seconds, an area of tropical forest the size of the Stade de France is destroyed. Image cc. Rachel Tansey (created out of images cc. Thomas Faivre-Duboz and cc. Nanoworld)

Alan Belward of the Joint Research Centre, gave an example that global environment monitoring has enabled scientists to discover: every 3 seconds, an area the size of the Stade de France of tropical forest is being destroyed (this is net deforestation, which already accounts for forest regrowth/ plantation). This stark fact certainly communicates the scale and problem of deforestation, especially given that deforestation accounts for 20% of all climate emissions.


About Rachel Tansey

Rachel was a QCEA Programme Assistant on Sustainable Energy Security between November 2010 and November 2011.

One comment

  1. Pingback: De-coupling and the Rebound Effect | qceablog

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