Measure What You Treasure
Updated: Jul 27
What should count as progress in redressing an unsustainable economy and an unstable environment? It is often said that we cannot manage what we do not measure. However, the true measure of prosperity cannot simply be expressed in one economic indicator, despite our stubborn belief that Gross National Product is such a proxy. In a speech almost half a century ago, U.S. senator Robert Kennedy’s words still ring true today on why Gross National Product falls short:
"[Our GNP] counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armoured cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities… Yet the GNP does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans. If this is true here at home, so it is true elsewhere in world."
In contrast, Bhutan’s supplementary yardstick to Gross National Product is based on indicators that look beyond economics to an “aggregate final optimal value which we call happiness”. Even though their Gross National Happiness index has raised interest internationally, it is difficult to persuade countries to look beyond development conclusions driven by production, expenditure and income. Yet as Dasho Karma Ura, President of the Centre for GNH Research, comments, “Life is not sequential like this. You don’t say that I want to become rich first and happy later.”
There is no reason why a more equitable, post-carbon society would not be safer, cleaner, more technologically advanced and more prosperous. Indicators that are grounded in this reality will measure what makes worthwhile life possible, and be a blend of place and of people, reflecting the grain of the environment around us and the impact of our civic actions.
There are local priorities specific to the places where we live that cannot be ignored, as they help maintain a functioning society and build its resilience. For example, utilities are essential services and may be a local priority: in one location, this could mean the provision of adequate electricity or water supply; in a different place, the provision of universal broadband connectivity. Another local priority may be to improve healthcare for a growing population or social care for an ageing one. Whereas place-based priorities focus on immediate pressure points, the collective effort needed for us to lead sustainable lives is the stuff of epochal shifts. We need both.
Lasting prosperity encompasses our individual and collective wellbeing as well as that of the environment. How this materialises depends on us, on how much we care about where our energy comes from and how much stuff we waste; whether we reconnect with nature and whether we reconnect nature with our urban environment; if we feel a shared sense of identity and belonging with those around us and if we behave accordingly.
If our future depends on these behaviours, we need indicators that measure welfare in a different light. Gross Domestic Product is the language best understood by business leaders and policymakers currently, but it is a bridge and not the destination. It does not embody the imperatives we face or convey any sense of transformation. Instead, the measure of our future prosperity is framed in terms of human potential, our capacity to thrive and people-led progress. This is where the real treasure lies.