Understanding the environment: Problems with the way we think
Understanding the environment: Problems with the way we think

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Understanding the environment: Problems with the way we think

Reading 3.6: Indicators

How you function in the world depends on the validity of the models you create: models of your surroundings; models of your actions; models of past events; and models of future predictions. In order to check whether your models are serving a useful purpose, you need to gather information about the systems you are modelling and evaluate this information against your models. The term 'indicator' is used to describe the kind of information you need to validate your models. Many of the 'facts' cited in Readings, 3.2, 3.3 and 3.5, could be considered indicators of the health of various systems such as families and Earth as a whole.

For mechanical systems, the task of identifying indicators for system performance is relatively simple. Take for example a car. On a car's dashboard, an information system presents all the key indicators of car performance – speed, engine revolutions per minute, fuel level, engine temperature – and various icons which light up if certain vital car components malfunction.

We have significantly more difficulties in identifying indicators for the performance of living systems, such as organisms and societies. For most living systems, it is virtually impossible to have a comprehensive understanding of how the whole system works and behaves, and its consequent state. In an ideal world you would monitor all structures and processes within a living system (a bit like an engineer would design and evaluate every single aspect of a car), and then go on to identify key structures and processes which determine the viability of the system. These would then become indicators of system performance. This is simply not possible with living systems. There are far too many structures and processes to monitor, and these change and adapt with changing environmental conditions. In many cases, we are forced to significantly simplify our understanding of living systems – in other words, our models of these living systems do not reflect their actual complexity.

An example of a simplified set of indicators developed to check the viability of an extremely complex living system is the sequence of basic tests a doctor does the moment you walk into his or her surgery with a serious illness. They check your temperature, breathing, pulse and weight-to-height ratio. This will give the doctor immediate information on your viability. Further checks are then required to identify the cause of your ill-health, according to a series of models they have, attributing symptoms to diseases.

Therefore, an indicator identifies a measurable structure, such as weight, or a process, such as heartbeat, that can be used to describe the relative status of a particular aspect of a living system. An indicator is used to simplify, record, analyse and communicate the status of a particular aspect of a living system by depicting issues in less complex terms or in a single meaningful message. For example, body temperature of 40 °C equals life-threatening viral or bacterial infection.

No single indicator can give a complete picture of a situation – they only ever give partial information – and so indicators are more accurately defined as partial indicators. In some cases it is possible to amalgamate a range of indicators into a single index. Take, for example, the yearly monitoring which is carried out on the health of the economies of individual nations. Data is collected to compile a single index of economic health: the gross domestic product (GDP). The GDP of a nation is calculated by compiling all the financial transactions that have taken place within the nation's borders for a yearly time period. A 'healthy economy' is considered to be one which registers a growth in GDP (Figure 3.4). But does the GDP model actually reflect the healthy performance of a nation (which is what most politicians use the GDP index for)? It is interesting to note that increasing medical expenses for failing health, increasing restoration expenses for environmental pollution and increasing policing/prison expenses for failing sectors of society boost growth in the GDP!

Figure 3.4
Figure 3.4 The UK has registered a significant growth in GDP over the last few decades

An issue that has to be recognised when selecting indicators and compiling indices is scale, not only in terms of time and space, but also organisational. Most decision makers are mostly concerned with immediate issues within their particular locality and concerning certain sectors of society.

Other indices for the performance of living systems have been proposed. Examples include:

  • The Living Planet Index (see Figure 3.2 in Reading 3.3) which has been developed by WWF to assess the health of key populations of animal species worldwide, and therefore the living planet as a whole.
  • The Quality of Life Index (discussed in Reading 3.2) which has been developed by the Economist magazine research unit to assess the standard of living of nations and communities.
  • The Ecological Footprint which has been developed by Wackernagel and Rees (1996) to assess the sustainability of resource exploitation from individuals to nations (discussed in Reading 3.7).

It is therefore important to recognise that particular indicators and indices represent particular models of reality. Which one of the above indices would you consider as an indicator of the health of your nation?

So how can indicators be compiled? Indicators can be monitored in the short term, to give a snap shot of a situation or activity, or monitored in the long term to facilitate an understanding of changing conditions. Depending on the information needed, whether snap shot or change over time, it is essential that the appropriate indicators are selected. A good indicator alerts you to a problem before changes become irreversible and helps you recognise the areas to focus on in order to work on the problem. Hartmut Bossel (Bossel, 1999), a systems engineer, proposed a set of six areas, or 'orientators', from which indicators should be selected in order to assess the viability of any living system:

  1. Existence: which indicators provide information on the basic requirements of a system in order to survive?
  2. Effectiveness: which indicators provide information on the ability of a system to use limiting resources?
  3. Freedom of action: which indicators provide information on the ability of a system to cope with variations within its surroundings?
  4. Security: which indicators provide information on the ability of the system to withstand changes?
  5. Adaptability: which indicators provide information on the ability of the system to evolve?
  6. Coexistence: which indicators provide information on the ability of a system to survive and thrive amongst other competing and/or cooperating living systems?

He goes on to provide an example of possible indicators for the viability of a family:

  • existence: availability of shelter, clothing, food, water, sanitation, life expectancy;
  • effectiveness: work hours necessary for life support, efficiency of resource use;
  • freedom of action: income level, job opportunities, health, mobility;
  • security: safe neighbourhood, savings, insurance, social security scheme;
  • adaptability: education and training, flexibility, cultural norms;
  • coexistence: social skills, compatibility of language and culture.

What is interesting about systemic indicator frameworks, such as the ones proposed by Bossel, is the ability to cut across disciplinary boundaries. In the example above, the viability of a family includes environmental, economic, technological, social, political and psychological aspects. Situations also evolve over time; because many systems can change in unpredictable ways, so an indicator adopted in one time frame may not be appropriate in the future. Rigid reliance on a specific set of indicators risks the danger of misinforming decision makers as the situation changes around them. Measurements of sets of indicators can therefore help to reduce uncertainty, but do not eliminate it. It is therefore crucial to identify what model, or simplification of a situation, the indicators and indices represent. The most powerful use of indicators can be as learning tools to enable our models to better reflect reality.


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