Making 'dirty' nations look clean? The nation state and the problem of selecting and weighting indices as tools for measuring progress towards sustainability
Morse, S. and Fraser, E. D. G. (2005) Making 'dirty' nations look clean? The nation state and the problem of selecting and weighting indices as tools for measuring progress towards sustainability. Geoforum, 36 (5). pp. 625-640. ISSN 0016-7185
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To link to this article DOI: 10.1016/j.geoforum.2004.10.005
Pressing global environmental problems highlight the need to develop tools to measure progress towards "sustainability." However, some argue that any such attempt inevitably reflects the views of those creating such tools and only produce highly contested notions of "reality." To explore this tension, we critically assesses the Environmental Sustainability Index (ESI), a well-publicized product of the World Economic Forum that is designed to measure 'sustainability' by ranking nations on league tables based on extensive databases of environmental indicators. By recreating this index, and then using statistical tools (principal components analysis) to test relations between various components of the index, we challenge ways in which countries are ranked in the ESI. Based on this analysis, we suggest (1) that the approach taken to aggregate, interpret and present the ESI creates a misleading impression that Western countries are more sustainable than the developing world; (2) that unaccounted methodological biases allowed the authors of the ESI to over-generalize the relative 'sustainability' of different countries; and, (3) that this has resulted in simplistic conclusions on the relation between economic growth and environmental sustainability. This criticism should not be interpreted as a call for the abandonment of efforts to create standardized comparable data. Instead, this paper proposes that indicator selection and data collection should draw on a range of voices, including local stakeholders as well as international experts. We also propose that aggregating data into final league ranking tables is too prone to error and creates the illusion of absolute and categorical interpretations. (c) 2004 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
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