Marc Levy: Indexing Sustainability

Integrating data for clearer vision.

by / November 20, 2003
Marc Levy is associate director for science applications at the Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN), which was established in 1989 as an independent nongovernmental organization (NGO) providing information to help scientists, decision-makers and the general public better understand the changing relationship between human beings and the environment.

In 1998, CIESIN became a center within Columbia University's Earth Institute. From its offices at Columbia's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory campus in Palisades, N.Y., CIESIN continues to focus on applying advanced information technologies to pressing interdisciplinary data, information and research problems related to human interactions in the environment. CIESIN was one of the first organizations involved in developing and providing interactive data access and mapping tools via the Internet. Given the great diversity of scientific data and information resources now available, CIESIN continues to implement innovative approaches to data identification, access, visualization and analysis across distributed data systems.

Q: Perhaps the best place to start is talking a little about CIESIN itself.

A: CIESIN's main mission is to promote better understanding of interaction between humans and their environment. We have a strong emphasis on information and data systems that strengthen the empirical foundation of our understanding and ability to make decisions about the way humans and the environment interact. We have a strong emphasis on GIS. We work a lot with spatial data, and in general, try to put things in a spatial context.

Some of the most prominent work we've done on sustainability centers around our work with environmental sustainability. Even though that was an effort to compare countries, I think experience is relevant to a lot of your readers. The impetus for the work was to see if all the talk about sustainable development could be made more concrete by assembling and publishing an actual quantitative index of environmental sustainability -- one that would compare countries in a more or less robust, empirical fashion.

The work was sponsored by the World Economic Forum, which has an annual meeting where dignitaries, heads of state, industry leaders and members of the press get together. So that forum got the work lots of attention, and we have put out three consecutive years of sustainability index.

Q: What did you discover as a result of this work?

A: We found out two things, speaking generally. First, there was a strong demand for a better quantitative metric to make sustainability more tangible and more concretely understandable. Second, the data available to make this kind of comparison was not as good as people would like.

It is a bit of a mixed message. On one hand, people welcomed the assembly of a collection of databases that could put numbers on what was otherwise a pretty vague subject. On the other hand, it illuminated how deficient we were at collecting data that would make firm conclusions about how close we are to achieving sustainability. Or in which particular areas we are the most far off.

Q: Essentially you are trying to answer for governments and world leaders, "How big of a situation is sustainability?"

A: Yes, I think it's easy for politicians or anybody to get away with fairly empty rhetoric if there is no alternative information source that lets people compare rhetoric to reality. The idea of publishing databases and indexes is meant to empower people across all sectors of society, so they can be more focused and real about this. Many different sectors use our index -- governments, international agencies, NGOs, think tanks and so on. What all these have in common is they want to zero in on what's really happening. They want to move beyond simply talking about things to understanding what's happening.

I have been following the sustainability debate at the state and local levels, and I see the same sort of dynamic. The demand to chart sustainable trajectories of development at the state, local and region levels is increasing. As it increases, the demand for better understanding of what's really happening is also going up. Over time, it is inevitable that someone is going to step in at all these different levels and find a way to measure sustainable development, so people can make better assessments and decisions. Currently I think the ability to do that is fairly patchy and hardly adequate, but the trend seems to be moving in that direction. A lot of this has a strong spatial dynamic, which is the kind of thing we are relatively attuned to. State and local agencies are dramatically increasing their collection of spatial data. Because a lot of wildlife habitats, pollution and waterway preservation -- all these things have strong spatial components to them -- the increased use of geographic information is going to help make it easier for people to get a better sense of what's really going on.

Q: So this is really an issue concerning the use of technology -- specifically collecting data and compiling it in useful formats. Technology's key role in this new age is giving us a better handle on situations -- a better view of what's going on and helping set priorities for handling situations.

A: Exactly. Whether it is an issue like urban sprawl, or the spread of West Nile or Lyme disease, or loss of habitat for migratory birds. All these things get a lot easier to understand when the technology is more accessible and the information is more prevalent.

Q: So after three years of compiling the international index, what have you discovered? What has come to light as a result of doing this? How did your perspective change?

A: What jumped out at me was there was no set of countries doing a great job across all different dimensions of environmental sustainability we tried to measure. Some countries were doing better than others in one set of issues, but they would be deficient in another set of issues. So everyone really has tremendous room for improvement. Also, it means overly simplistic efforts to boil these complex issues down can also be potentially dangerous, because they can mask the variation taking place at a slightly more complex level.

In our overall index, many of the Scandinavian countries were at the top of that list. However, if you zero in on their consumption of natural resources, you find they are one of the worst. So it would be a mistake to simply assume since they are highest on this aggregation across all the measures, they don't have anything to worry about. It just means you have to dig one level deeper to look for potential red flags. Everyone has red flags in one place or another.

Many of the resource-rich, very low-consumption countries -- such as many countries in Central Africa -- had very high or good scores on the health of their natural ecosystem. If all you cared about was preserving trees and rivers and wildlife, those countries would look pretty good. But they are doing a horrible job at meeting the short-term environmental needs of their human population. Sanitation is poor. The air quality is poor. The basic food security is poor. When you bring those things in, they look really bad. We are definitely not in a sort of contest where there is a clear winner because everyone is doing badly at something. It is clear you need to look hard across a lot of different dimensions to figure out strengths and weaknesses.

Q: One thing that seems to be coming up more and more is the interconnection between different sustainability issues. In other words, you can't really address one issue without also addressing some or all of the others. You can't necessarily tackle environmental issues if you are not also tackling economic sustainability, for example.

A: I think that is true, although it has to be tempered a bit because the biggest deficiency in available data is lack of consistent measurements over time. Our understanding of the dynamic of these interactions is fairly primitive. We've got a reasonably good cross-section, so we know how different countries are balancing trade-offs among economics and human needs, and the environment in the present. But we don't know terribly well if it makes sense for countries to leave one dimension to catch up later, or if they end up having a harder time balancing these needs if they don't pay attention to balancing them to begin with.

One big debate in policy circles is whether it makes sense for poor countries to neglect the environment on purpose at the beginning, and start devoting more attention to it when they are a little wealthier. Or whether that puts them at a permanent disadvantage because they waste some of the natural resources that could be a useful foundation for economic growth later. These are still big questions that, in principle, cannot be answered without reference to evidence. But it is hard to come up with convincing evidence that fits across the board, because we haven't been measuring these things consistently over time.

Q: So there is no clear consensus of what the strategy really should be to handle situations in different regions?

A: The anecdotal evidence is that, by and large, these trade-offs loom largest at a local level, and the choices made by an individual community are where these things come to a head. At the country level, a lot of these average out and so kind of get washed out. As a result, you miss the real tension between the trade-offs, because one part of the country may be doing it one way and another part doing it another way. So when you look at the national average, you don't really get a sense of what's going on. A highland village in some Central American area at the fringe of agriculture and forest is making a stark choice between saving the trees and growing more crops. The choice they make is going to have an effect on their livelihood, the lives of the people downstream from them and wildlife in the area. At that level things come into focus. That is why the future of this business is strongly at the local and regional levels, and there are some examples of people trying to respond to that creatively. My guess is this is where a lot of the action is going to be.

Q: So the role of a global index is to help set overall priorities. That way, local and regional areas can better understand what is happening in the nation and across the planet as a whole. They can see how they are contributing, or not, to the overall situation.

A: That is a good way of putting it. If you look at how we track financial issues -- that is a potential analogy. At the global level, groups like the International Monetary Fund track the solvency of national governments and try to identify problem cases early so intervention can be made. That kind of global decision is managed with global information.

Then you have similar assessments going on at all different scales. National treasuries are doing the same kind of exercise at a national level. Governors' offices and mayors' offices are looking at these things all the way down to the shop floor of an individual firm or on a family level.
of society, so they can be more focused and real about this. Many different sectors use our index -- governments, international agencies, NGOs, think tanks and so on. What all these have in common is they want to zero in on what's really happening. They want to move beyond simply talking about things to understanding what's happening.

I have been following the sustainability debate at the state and local levels, and I see the same sort of dynamic. The demand to chart sustainable trajectories of development at the state, local and region levels is increasing. As it increases, the demand for better understanding of what's really happening is also going up. Over time, it is inevitable that someone is going to step in at all these different levels and find a way to measure sustainable development, so people can make better assessments and decisions. Currently I think the ability to do that is fairly patchy and hardly adequate, but the trend seems to be moving in that direction. A lot of this has a strong spatial dynamic, which is the kind of thing we are relatively attuned to. State and local agencies are dramatically increasing their collection of spatial data. Because a lot of wildlife habitats, pollution and waterway preservation -- all these things have strong spatial components to them -- the increased use of geographic information is going to help make it easier for people to get a better sense of what's really going on.

Q: So this is really an issue concerning the use of technology -- specifically collecting data and compiling it in useful formats. Technology's key role in this new age is giving us a better handle on situations -- a better view of what's going on and helping set priorities for handling situations.

A: Exactly. Whether it is an issue like urban sprawl, or the spread of West Nile or Lyme disease, or loss of habitat for migratory birds. All these things get a lot easier to understand when the technology is more accessible and the information is more prevalent.

Q: So after three years of compiling the international index, what have you discovered? What has come to light as a result of doing this? How did your perspective change?

A: What jumped out at me was there was no set of countries doing a great job across all different dimensions of environmental sustainability we tried to measure. Some countries were doing better than others in one set of issues, but they would be deficient in another set of issues. So everyone really has tremendous room for improvement. Also, it means overly simplistic efforts to boil these complex issues down can also be potentially dangerous, because they can mask the variation taking place at a slightly more complex level.

In our overall index, many of the Scandinavian countries were at the top of that list. However, if you zero in on their consumption of natural resources, you find they are one of the worst. So it would be a mistake to simply assume since they are highest on this aggregation across all the measures, they don't have anything to worry about. It just means you have to dig one level deeper to look for potential red flags. Everyone has red flags in one place or another.

Many of the resource-rich, very low-consumption countries -- such as many countries in Central Africa -- had very high or good scores on the health of their natural ecosystem. If all you cared about was preserving trees and rivers and wildlife, those countries would look pretty good. But they are doing a horrible job at meeting the short-term environmental needs of their human population. Sanitation is poor. The air quality is poor. The basic food security is poor. When you bring those things in, they look really bad. We are definitely not in a sort of contest where there is a clear winner because everyone is doing badly at something. It is clear you need to look hard across a lot of different dimensions to figure out strengths and weaknesses.

Q: One thing that seems to be coming up more and more is the interconnection between different sustainability issues. In other words, you can't really address one issue without also addressing some or all of the others. You can't necessarily tackle environmental issues if you are not also tackling economic sustainability, for example.

A: I think that is true, although it has to be tempered a bit because the biggest deficiency in available data is lack of consistent measurements over time. Our understanding of the dynamic of these interactions is fairly primitive. We've got a reasonably good cross-section, so we know how different countries are balancing trade-offs among economics and human needs, and the environment in the present. But we don't know terribly well if it makes sense for countries to leave one dimension to catch up later, or if they end up having a harder time balancing these needs if they don't pay attention to balancing them to begin with.

One big debate in policy circles is whether it makes sense for poor countries to neglect the environment on purpose at the beginning, and start devoting more attention to it when they are a little wealthier. Or whether that puts them at a permanent disadvantage because they waste some of the natural resources that could be a useful foundation for economic growth later. These are still big questions that, in principle, cannot be answered without reference to evidence. But it is hard to come up with convincing evidence that fits across the board, because we haven't been measuring these things consistently over time.

Q: So there is no clear consensus of what the strategy really should be to handle situations in different regions?

A: The anecdotal evidence is that, by and large, these trade-offs loom largest at a local level, and the choices made by an individual community are where these things come to a head. At the country level, a lot of these average out and so kind of get washed out. As a result, you miss the real tension between the trade-offs, because one part of the country may be doing it one way and another part doing it another way. So when you look at the national average, you don't really get a sense of what's going on. A highland village in some Central American area at the fringe of agriculture and forest is making a stark choice between saving the trees and growing more crops. The choice they make is going to have an effect on their livelihood, the lives of the people downstream from them and wildlife in the area. At that level things come into focus. That is why the future of this business is strongly at the local and regional levels, and there are some examples of people trying to respond to that creatively. My guess is this is where a lot of the action is going to be.

Q: So the role of a global index is to help set overall priorities. That way, local and regional areas can better understand what is happening in the nation and across the planet as a whole. They can see how they are contributing, or not, to the overall situation.

A: That is a good way of putting it. If you look at how we track financial issues -- that is a potential analogy. At the global level, groups like the International Monetary Fund track the solvency of national governments and try to identify problem cases early so intervention can be made. That kind of global decision is managed with global information.

Then you have similar assessments going on at all different scales. National treasuries are doing the same kind of exercise at a national level. Governors' offices and mayors' offices are looking at these things all the way down to the shop floor of an individual firm or on a family level.

Ideally these decisions are made with information on the appropriate scale, and these things are kind of nested, so hopefully they are consistent with each other and we're able to respond to the changing understanding in an appropriate way.

I think we are far from that on the environment side with all these little ad hoc decisions being made with weak reference to the data. These different scales are poorly connected. A city planner might be making some open-space decision, paying little attention to the state strategy for land conservation, and with probably zero connection to global strategies for preserving habitat, topsoil, individual tree species or the like.

Q: Due to lack of data, any attempt to promote better environmental care runs into loads of misinformation. The problem is not just lack of understanding, but also how the door is opened to more misinformation or bad science, which further complicates the issue. It is more complicated to figure out how serious a problem is and what direction to push, particularly if this involves some sacrifice or expense.

A: It's a double-edged sword because political leaders often are subject to controversy, protests or pressure if information becomes public on a certain thing. If, for instance, people realize there is a hot spot of some type of cancer in a particular part of a state, then the state health agency is under a lot of pressure to explain and respond to it. As a result, there are some ways more information is a nuisance to a decision-maker or leader.

Over the long term, I think people realize better information makes it easier to make good management decisions, and be more accountable to the public. With better information, the public can get a sense of how well you are doing objectively, and this allows you to plan more effectively without being battered by the whims of some political fad or random news events.

Q: Yet for political leaders, it seems the climate is definitely changing -- more people are concerned about sustainable development. Environmental concerns are no longer really a grassroots movement, and politicians need better data, and need it going to citizens or it will get messy. I'm speculating here, but also I'm throwing something out that might make the case for more information being put together at a local or region level.

A: Well again, that depends on the way information is used. It has two sides. It also has the potential to cloud issues. People get overwhelmed with information, and that can be paralyzing. On the other hand, when it can be harnessed effectively and sharpened in a way that can support clear decisions, it can be powerful. We are living in an era of exploding information streams. If the information is not managed effectively, it has the potential of overwhelming and paralyzing.

Q: So from a state or local government perspective, would it make sense for them to start collecting and compiling their own sustainability index? Is that the direction they really should be going?

A: There are two pathways already started that ought to interest state and local decision-makers. The earliest is using measurement for sustainability dynamics as a tool for better planning. If you look at hot spot issues that get state and local politics revved up, a lot of them have to do with debates over what kind of future people want to have, or what kind of homes people want to leave their children or grandchildren. These come up in issues like urban sprawl or open space or clean water and clean air.

It is almost impossible to undertake coherent planning of how to respond to the preferences people have about these issues in the absence of a firm information
base. If you don't even know how fast you are losing habitat or what sort of pressures are making it disappear fastest, you are going to get completely overtaken by events and lose the ability to plan. Or people are confused about how they want to handle trade-offs between jobs and growth, or open space and habitats, or clean water and air, or a friendly environment for industry. Then you are not going to make anybody happy, because you don't have any clear sense of how the public wants to handle trade-offs.

Q: Or you can't even define the trade-offs empirically, so these can be discussed publicly.

A: That's why there are some local-level efforts to put numbers on these things. One of the earliest examples was Sustainable Seattle, which goes back more than 10 years. They articulated issues that mattered to them, measured the current trend, and engaged in town-meeting-style debates or discussions about what combination of measures they want to end up with. It is not a perfect, automatic process. But it definitely helps firm up the collective understanding of what people think they agree on and how they are going to measure progress. I think more and more communities are looking at those sorts of techniques and tools to do a better job at planning.

The second way these things are going to become more relevant is considerably more recent, but it is easy to imagine how it will get more important over time. This involves using measurement of sustainability issues as a way of improving the accountability and transparency of what amounts to solvency of government. A local government has to make budgetary decisions, and some of those decisions are going to affect environmental long-term sustainability. It is going to be easier for people minding the budget to invest in sustainability if they can be assured of the return on investment.

These things need to be measured in a way close to the standards of accountability. Perhaps they are trying to raise capital, attract industry, or are convincing homeowners not to move away. If they can issue a report that has been audited -- that shows they restored so many hectares of wetlands or invested in forest conservation, or made the air cleaner, the soil healthier and everyone can agree on it as a true accounting -- they are going to be better off. The need to measure these things is going to make it easier for people to start protecting them.

If you can't measure these things well, the difference between a town that tries hard to invest in protecting its environment and a town that doesn't will be less apparent to people. It will be harder to sustain those ongoing investments. It may be much like the way towns are required to keep fairly strict criteria in documenting their investment in major public infrastructure like roads, sewers, schools and so on. More and more people are thinking that if we could bring some of that same mentality to investing in environmental preservation, the same kind of benefits will accrue.

Q: A side product of that, it seems to me, would be that people would accept the trade-offs more. Or at least government leaders would have something solid on which to sell trade-offs to the public.

A: In some cases, the public might decide to invest less in the environment. But in either case, it would be based on a more consensual, empirical understanding of what the consequences and trade-offs are.

Q: One hopes most people will be farsighted enough to start accepting that we need to make trade-offs if we are going to approach real sustainability.

A: It's not going to be easy. I don't know if you've followed any of
the news around the release of the Environmental Protection Agency's State of the Environment Report. It is the first real national state of the environmental report the EPA has ever put out. That it took them 30 years to get one tells you something about how hard it is. Then when they finally released it, there was this huge controversy over how the climate change issue was handled. That shows how information can get politicized easily. But I think it did finally come out because it was so obvious putting out basic data on the state of the environment was necessary. It couldn't be put off any longer. I would imagine that over time, pressure to do similar things at the state and local level will build.

Q: So part of the barrier is how you measure these various things. You brought that up in terms of the international index. I assume that becomes the key issue again at the local or region level.

A: That's right. Talented people can always come up with a way to measure something that suits their own interest. That's not a secret. So you need to find effective ways to measure things that serve the public good. There are two different approaches, and I think a mix of them is what we need.

One is the kind of "ivory tower" model where you try to understand the substance of the issues as clearly as you can and come up with measurement strategies that most faithfully reflect the science. The other approach is the more pluralistic or competitive approach where there are maybe a dozen different ways of measuring these kinds of issues. Maybe we should just tolerate some experimentation and let think tanks, government offices, universities, NGOs and industry groups put forth their own view about how these things ought to be measured, then debate the issues in public and let the scientific literature look them over. Then let the decision-making process essentially settle on the way that is most suited to the public as a whole. These things are still complicated enough that a mixture of those two strategies probably makes sense. You can't have too much discord or you get nowhere. But my guess on a lot of these issues is there will inevitably be a fair amount of experimentation as people try to figure out what is really going on and what are the best ways to respond.

Q: Do you have a strategy to roll out some sort of measurement approach to different areas, ensuring, as much as possible, these measurements can be combined and interrelated?

A: There is a strategy but not any money, so they are more like ideas. But there are a few different directions that have to be pursued. The most fundamental is we need to invest a vastly larger amount of money into just basic measure. The fact is some of these things aren't that complicated to measure. We just aren't doing it. Simple things like where the distribution of water is globally. Where are streams being diverted? Where are they bottled up in reservoirs? Where are they drying up because the upstream use is so high, and so on? That is a very important dynamic to sustainability at any scale. Everybody needs water. The investment in just basic water measurement systems that started out at a cynical level in the first place has been going down steadily. The global data archive on freshwater resources is almost empty of data because all these different measurement networks have run out of money. We need to dramatically increase basic measurement of things we already know matter -- such as water quantity and quality and so on.

Then there are some things we need to figure out how to measure --
things we are still sorting out. A good example of that is land-cover change. We know how humans are transforming the landscape makes a big difference. Over time, people either come to love or hate what has happened to their landscape, and that is an important part of good sustainability planning. But we have failed at coming up with a way to measure in a way that we can put consensual, quantitative metrics to.

Q: In transforming land use, people might have turned it into farmland or parks, for instance. So it may still be green, but it isn't the natural vegetation.

A: Right. There are changes you can make to a landscape where at one level it looks like it is still relatively wild. But maybe you have done selective foresting, and the make-up of trees is entirely different. That has affected the wildlife, and maybe it has affected soil erosion or other things. If you just drive by on the highway, it looks just the same. Then there are other things like you say. Perhaps you've transformed the landscape dramatically, but in ways that are compatible with a healthy environment and that people find consistent with a pleasant place to live. Maybe some agricultural conversions are like that.

On the other hand, some farming processes can be unpleasant and are bad to the environment. We need to sort these issues out in a way we can measure nonideologically. That is going to require some more debate and experimentation, and then once we figure it out, we will need some investment to actually measure it.

Q: Do these really need to operate under the U.N. with some U.N. funding, or with rich countries just chipping in? What is the most realistic solution to the funding problem?

A: The third strand I was going to mention is these measurement activities have to be sensitive to differences in scale -- so you are not forced to measure something that is entirely inappropriate to the decision-making context, and so the efforts are synergistic.

If you are measuring water quality in some small-scale watershed for some municipal decision-making, it is important those results feed into higher-level assessments, so the best data are always used at the most effective scale. But what we see now -- it is shocking how badly we handle this. We lose a lot of information when we move up from the small scale to the global scale.

At the global scale for a lot of issues, we are working with bad, low-quality data even though better quality data exists. It just hasn't made its way up the chain.

This is a cross-scale issue -- however we finance this, it is inevitably going to come from a fairly diverse stream of funders. I think it is hard to get any one level of decision-making authority to contribute everything that is needed, because they are not going to gain direct benefit from it. Some benefits might go to local decision-makers, or they may go to some private-sector concerns.

We are going to have to experiment with ways to finance these things through a portfolio approach, where a U.N. agency may contribute part; local officials may contribute something else; then maybe some industry groups will pay for something else. Overall, we have to get creative because there are no deep pockets anywhere in a position to simply write checks to pay for it all.

Q: We need the funding and developing mechanisms, so the right information is collected -- first at a local level, then integrated into higher levels to provide a clearer big picture?

A: Yes. That is basically the way the financial information world works. People collect information, either
because it suits their interests or they are required to by some regulatory provision. Some information activities are financed essentially through taxes, and others are contributed by people who provide the information, but don't get funded to do it. It all kind of fits together because there is tight coordination.

Q: For someone in state and local government, if they wanted to lobby in their own spheres, what would be the practical things they could do?

A: We've noticed lots of opportunity to dramatically improve understanding of these sustainability dynamics through data integration. A simple act like putting together census data -- where people live -- with, say, species inventories of where animals and plants we care about are located, can shed a lot of light on where the pressure points are. If you start doing similar things with air pollution, disease rates, transportation infrastructure and so on, you can start opening up your ability to look at pressures and trends.

So these can be fairly affordable things to do because the real value comes from taking data already being collected, and making them compatible with each other and accessible to people who have an interest in trying to integrate them. There is a lot of activity at the state and local levels in working with spatial data integration issues and open architecture for databases to facilitate those kinds of things.

Q: So there is a definite role for people involved with technology at the state or local level. In some ways, the techies can take the lead in this.

A: Yes, definitely. They can perform a valuable function simply by going after the low-hanging fruit, looking at data already being collected and getting a quick sense of how all these things fit together. Then you could start doing the harder stuff of figuring out what you need to start measuring that you are not already, and figuring out ways to get that work done. There is already a lot of information not getting analyzed or integrated, and if it were, it would go a long way on shedding light on some of these things.
Blake Harris Editor