Today’s blog is the latest in a series from Richard Jurin who, before his retirement, ran the Environmental Studies programme at the University of Northern Colorado, launching a degree in Sustainability Studies.  His academic interests are environmental worldviews and understanding barriers to sustainability.  As ever, with our blogs, Richard’s views are not necessarily shared by NAEE.

If you want to change the world, you have to change the metaphor” Joseph Campbell.

As I continue to help others understand the barriers that I perceive prevent the majority of us from living sustainably, I have to consider one of the most egregious factors we all recognize, yet feel powerless to change.  What we use as a measure of success is what we focus on – it determines all our beliefs and actions.  Our hyper-consumer lifestyle uses money as the prime measure for success and hence it is central in driving what we think we want.  For all its control and manipulation, money is just a tool of convenience, and yet it is a tool that sadly controls most aspects of our lives.  Most of our policies and aspirations are driven by what we think money can buy or do for us.  Our global economic focus has become our socio-cultural focus in most places around the world.  But, what do we really want, and what ought we be measuring if our intention is to measure something that is meaningful to us?  

We hear about the stock market and its daily metrics as a measure of whether the global economy is doing well, or otherwise.  We work at jobs that increasingly are becoming more stressful as the need to create profits for the system and to manage diminishing earning takes center stage in our lives.  Yet, despite the many cliches and platitudes about money being unable to give us what we really need, we still focus on it regardless.  What we want and need can be summed up as a good quality of life (QOL).  What we measure, however, is a standard of living (SOL).  And while economists conflate the two, they are very different.  

SOL is the degree of wealth and material comfort available to a person or community.  As such metrics to measure it are relatively simple – the more money, the more SOL.  Yet, the contradiction of stressed-out developed countries in comparison to the less-developed countries is not addressed by economists focused on money and its movement.  (Economics – the branch of knowledge concerned with the production, consumption, and transfer of monetary wealth.)  Indeed, to economists, SOL and Gross Domestic Product (GDP) are almost synonymous terms.  A good SOL is good, but a better QOL is preferable!  If a QQL includes a good SOL, so much the better, as long as the SOL has all the attributes that create a good QOL.   

Philosopher and early economist, Adam Smith, talked about QOL and wealth as more amorphous aspects such as well-being and happiness.  But classical economists struggled to find ways to actually measure these desired attributes of living.  In essence, QOL is more difficult to measure, which may explain why we don’t try.  When economists found physics equations that could be adapted to their needs, they started using money and finance as preferable parameters to measure, ignoring QOL factors and also anything like externalities (costs not captured in the metrics).        

When I have talked about using metrics to measure QOL and get away from GDP (or GNP) I am told that it cannot be done.  Well not in the current system we all hate but readily accept.  When I bring up the Country of Bhutan’s efforts to measure QOL (Gross Domestic Happiness – GDH), I usually get sniggers and chuckles.  But reading Bhutan’s efforts explains QOL measures that can work and make sense as to showing us what we truly value in our lives.  Excluding a complete global economic collapse there is little hope that industrialized countries would follow Bhutan’s efforts to measure something so useful.  It must begin at the grass-roots community level where people can see the QOL factors playing our in real time. 


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