Tag Archives: GDP

Measuring sustainability across scales

By Joseph J. Bailey (@josephjbailey), University of Nottingham, UK.

Sustainability, meeting present demands without degrading environments in such a way that we jeopardise their ability to meet the needs of future generations, has been a topic of interest for a great many years as the world’s environments are converted and degraded like never before. Here, I briefly discuss an article in Area, on quantifying global sustainability, alongside a recent sustainability assessment of the world’s fifty ‘most prominent cities’.

The recently-published ARCADIS Sustainable Cities Index has attracted much attention in global and national media outlets (e.g. National Geographic, The Telegraph, The Guardian, Gulf Times, and the Australian and US media). In the list of fifty, European cities performed well (the top three being Frankfurt, London, and Copenhagen; Manchester and Birmingham were in the top 20), with the relatively new metropolises of Asia-Pacific (not including Seoul, Hong Kong and Singapore, which did rather well), the Middle-East and Central and South America lagging far behind. The USA’s cities generally fell in the middle of the list. This index combined three sub-indices of ‘sustainability’: social (‘people’), environmental (‘planet’), and economic (‘profit’). Cities’ positions sometimes changed quite a lot between these sub-indices.

Alexandra Park, London Borough of Haringey. Source: unedited from flickr; author: Ewan Munro. Click on the photograph to see the original.

Alexandra Park, London Borough of Haringey. Source: unedited from flickr (original). Author credit: Ewan Munro.

Elsewhere, in Area, Phillips (2015) recently described a “quantitative approach to … global ecological sustainability”, identifying the importance of population density at this national scale. The ten least ‘ecologically sustainable’ countries in this study had very high population densities (these are: the UK, Italy, Belgium, Trinidad & Tobago, Japan, India, Lebanon, Israel, Netherlands, and Singapore). Of these ten that are considered as ‘economically developed’ countries, the combination of high population density, high standard of living, and high GDP are thought to have caused negative environmental impacts that affect people in the present and will affect people into the future. The ‘economically developing’ countries in the list are highlighted as being so because of socio-economic (India) and environmental (Trinidad & Tobago) reasons, and a combination of environment and political instability (Lebanon and Israel).

We therefore see some cross-scale spatial mismatches between these independent studies, whereby countries with purportedly sustainable cities (top 20) have been ranked amongst the least sustainable countries (e.g. UK [London, Manchester, Birmingham], Belgium [Brussels], Netherlands [Amsterdam, Rotterdam], and Singapore). This highlights the importance of spatial scale in sustainability science, and translating this through to planning and management. Indeed, very different approaches will be required between city authorities and national governments to ensure sustainability.

Both of the focal publications in this blog post strive to advance our understanding of ‘sustainability’ by quantifying this concept and its many components, from environmental and ecological, to social and economic. Both studies are global in scope, but the approach, data, and scales of analysis differ, with one focussing on fifty cities and the other on countries. The results, in combination, demonstrate the complexities of sustainability science, especially those regarding geographic scale. They show that quantifying and understanding sustainability across all spatial scales (towns > cities > landscapes > regions > countries > globally) is vital for future planning, targeting of resources, and understanding what we need to do not only for the people of today, but also for the people of the near and distant future.

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books_icon Phillips, J. (2015). A quantitative approach to determine and evaluate the indicated level and nature of global ecological sustainability. Area, Early View. DOI: 10.1111/area.12174.

60-world2 ARCADIS (2015). Sustainability Cities Index. Available at: http://www.sustainablecitiesindex.com/.

Rule by Nudge: Geographies of Libertarian Paternalism

By Martin Mahony

Much of the debate in the recent US election – when it hasn’t been explicitly focused on GDP and unemployment numbers – has concerned the role of the federal government in the lives of individual citizens. The debate is often cast in terms of ‘big government versus small government’, and the tensions within and between these positions were brought to light in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Presidential candidate Mitt Romney was forced to retreat from previous comments he had made about reducing the role of the federal government in disaster relief, as plaudits rolled in for the performance of the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the hours and days following Hurricane Sandy’s landfall on the East Coast.

In the UK, conservative politicians are more likely to acknowledge the moral and social worth of a centrally-administered welfare system than their US counterparts. However, the debate becomes much more complex when it moves away from questions of taxation and finance and into the everyday realm of people’s behaviour and exercise of choice. Traditionally, conservative thinkers have seen the free-market as the best framework within which citizens can make decisions which add-up to a desirable and democratically legitimate outcome.

However, in light of realizations that human beings aren’t the ‘rational economic actors’ assumed by economic models, a new way of thinking has emerged. ‘Libertarian paternalism’ has come to occupy a central place in the current Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government’s thinking. In a new commentary piece in The Geographical Journal, Mark Whitehead and colleagues argue that David Cameron’s embracing of this philosophy (popularized by Thaler and Sunstein in their book Nudge) is as significant as Margaret Thatcher’s embracing of the free-market neoliberalism of Hayek.

In a blog post on the BBC website, documentary-maker Adam Curtis paints a picture of how behavioural psychology and behavioural economics have come together with emerging cognitive sciences of decision-making to constitute a new tool by which the (British) state seeks to govern its citizens. The idea of ‘nudging’ is that desirable behaviours can be promoted by subtly changing the ‘choice architecture’ within which people make decisions. For example, placing fruit in prominent positions in school canteens is thought to increase fruit consumption, but in a way which doesn’t force anyone to eat the fruit – the power to choose is, ostensibly, still in the hands of the child.

Whitehead et al.’s paper suggests that this philosophy is having a profound effect on the relationship between UK citizens and the state. It is also altering the spatial environments in which we live through the incorporation of ‘nudging’ into everything from urban planning policies to kitchen design. In the past, geographers have made profound contributions to the study of the ethical and political consequences of neoliberal thought. The ascent of libertarian paternalism now offers new challenges and opportunities for geographers as the spatial relationships between the rulers and the ruled are transformed by the rise of the nudge.

 Mitt Romney disaster relief position faces scrutinyThe Huffington Post, 31st October 2012

 From pigeon to Superman and back againBBC – Adam Curtis Blog, 21st October 2012

Mark Whitehead et al., 2012, Geography, libertarian paternalism and neuro-politics in the UK, The Geographical Journal 178 302-307