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What is a Genuine Progress Indicator?

Marc Lefkowitz  |  09/23/13 @ 9:00am  |  Posted in Zero waste

Four years ago, GreenCityBlueLake helped to lead several initiatives to measure Northeast Ohio’s progress toward greater sustainability. GCBL conducted the first detailed inventory of the region’s carbon emissions (which has now informed the City of Cleveland's Climate Action Plan). And we also supported the region's first Genuine Progress Indicator, which was developed by ecological economists Rumi Shammin and Ken Bagstad.

A Genuine Progress Indicator offers a more complete set of metrics about a place's quality of life than simplistic measures of growth, such as GDP. For example, it deducts the costs pollution from the spending on highways.

Shammin and Bagstad found that the region’s GPI has been declining. And their study raised the point that the region’s economic development leadership should use an indicator like the GPI to provide a more complete picture of economic performance.

The GPI could also be adopted by regional sustainability initiatives like VibrantNEO, as it creates a "dashboard" of indicators for sustainability.

GCBL’s director David Beach made the case for its adoption back in 2009 by casting the issue in a geologic time frame. We are just starting to see the retreat of the glacier of industrialism, he said. We're at the dawn of a new era requiring new thinking and new measures of success.

The next era<br />Cleveland was formed by industry, but the city is now aspiring to be a green city on a blue lake. A Genuine Progress Indicator <br />The GPI includes a broader range of indicators of a region, state or country's health and prosperity.

After the glacier

There is an exhibit in The Cleveland Museum of Natural History about the migration of prehistoric peoples across the Bering Strait into North America more than 12,000 years ago. It includes an artist’s depiction of a group of fur-clad hunters at the foot of an immense ice sheet, part of the glaciers that covered much of the continent.

When looking at the drawing, one can imagine what it might have been like to live during a period of retreating glaciers. It was a time of change. Land that had been under a mile of ice was exposed. The land was raw at first, but, as the climate warmed, plants moved north to colonize the barren ground. Everything had to find a new place, a new ecological niche. The people had to adapt, too. Generation by generation, they had to find new ways of living, new ways of interacting with the land.

It is possible that today is a similar time of change. Across the Great Lakes a vast glacier of heavy industry has covered the landscape for more than 100 years. It shaped the land, the economy, and the culture. It influenced the way people used resources, consumed energy, and sought to dominate nature.

In recent years, however, this industrial glacier has begun to retreat. As the old factories have shut down, cities throughout Northeast Ohio have been left with vacant land, abandoned buildings, and unemployed people. The transition has been wrenching. Cities have struggled to find a new identity, a new reason for being. Indeed, it's been hard to be confident that a better future is possible.

There are signs, though, that cities like Cleveland are about to find their new story. It’s a story emerging from many directions — from thousands of people who are seeking a new way to live. They are asking, what kind of place is this? What can we do here? What kind of city can we become? They have begun to see new possibilities in the landscape — clean industries, a beautiful lakefront, regeneration of the Cuyahoga River valley, a green city of revitalized neighborhoods, a countryside of protected farmland and natural areas, regional collaboration and strategies to reduce concentrated poverty, wind turbines on Lake Erie, greenways, bikeways, healthy local food, and countless other visions rooted in the unique potential of this place.

Many of these people are organized loosely under the banner of “sustainability.” They are seeking solutions that have multiple benefits, integrating people, planet and profit. They want to transcend the ideological barriers that have divided business and environmentalists and work together to develop ecological technologies that can help to restore the Earth. And they want to think long-term about designing a society that will protect the best of nature for future generations.

Every day, this movement for sustainability gains momentum and grows more mainstream. Right before our eyes, the future is being invented. It’s an exciting time!

Note: Thanks to Toronto architect Ken Greenberg for originating the metaphor of the glacier of industrialism.

A new measure of progress (originally published in 2009)

What is progress, and how do we measure it?

For many years, the standard measure of economic progress has been the Gross Domestic Product, or GDP. We’ve been told that as long as GDP is rising, we’re doing great as a society. But there are a lot of problems with GDP. It focuses on the present, not future impacts like what happens if we fill in all of our wetlands or pollute the skies. And it focuses narrowly on economic output and consumption, as if the more we consume the better off we are.

So a new generation of ecological economists has been developing alternative measures of social well-being. One is the Genuine Progress Indicator, or GPI, which combines performance on 26 variables — economic, social and environmental — to give a more well-rounded view of our quality of life (see below). All of these variables are converted to dollars, so you can add them together.

For the first time, two researchers, Rumi Shammin from Oberlin College and Ken Bagstad from the University of Vermont, have crunched the GPI data for Northeast Ohio. During the years 1990-2005, the GPI of the seven-county region declined 1%, even though those were relatively good years for economic growth. The GPI of the City of Cleveland declined 7% during that time.

The GreenCityBlueLake Institute plans to work with Shammin and Bagstad to maintain this set of data in the future. We hope it can be a useful way to track the region’s progress — and promote development that is sustainable.

For a detailed description of the study, see this presentation.

Source: Bagstad, K.J. and M.R. Shammin. The Genuine Progress Indicator as a measure of regional economic welfare: A case study for Northeast Ohio. Manuscript in preparation for Ecological Economics.

More on alternative economic indicators: Redefining Progress

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