Think Local, Act Global
Many of us think in broad gestures and grand schemes, especially when it comes to the environment. “Think local and act global,” they say. Measuring sustainability on an international scale is a task that requires placing what seems almost unmeasurable into neat columns and categories. Exactly how do you measure a concept like sustainability? Sustainability is a dynamic concept that evolves over time. It is a concept that has no beginning and no endpoint. This is the biggest challenge when measuring environmental factors
The Environmental Sustainability Index (ESI)
Luckily, we have statisticians. Those mathematical magicians who fill the spaces in-between our thoughts. Where we see only questions, statisticians see only numbers. Together, we might someday make a grand pair. A group of people did measure and rank countries based on statistical models and predefined structures in a system that is called The Environmental Sustainability Index (ESI). The ESI came about when the Yale University Centre for Environmental Law and Policy collaborated with Columbia University’s Centre for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN), and the World Economic Forum. Who better suited
for this task then lawyers and academics? The very existence of these groups depends on categorizing, labeling and defending vague concepts. The same group is currently working on an updated pilot ranking system called the Environmental Performance Index (EPI).
The Top 7 Countries
Here are the top 7 environmentally sustainable countries, based on their 2005 ESI scores:
Postage Stamp Usefulness
The ESI considers the likelihood that a country will be able to preserve its valuable environmental resources effectively over a period of many years. It incorporates 21 elements of sustainability including natural resources, pollution levels, environmental management efforts, contributions to global protection, and the ability to improve environmental performance. With the ESI we can benchmark and track issues and the environmental performance of countries. Having this information compiled should make for a useful tool, shouldn’t it? As humorist Josh Billings once said, “consider the postage stamp: its usefulness consists in the ability to stick to one thing till it gets there.” Personally, I haven’t figured out a really good use for ranking environmental performance yet (apart from writing articles ranking environmental performance, of course).
The ESI seems to indicate that environmental protectionism doesn’t hurt a countries competitiveness. Top ranked countries are just as competitive as major economic powers ranked lower on the list. Perhaps there is a lesson here in this jumble of numbers then. Economic competitiveness and environmental protectioncancoexist.
The top scorers in the 2005 study seem to be at the top due to natural resource endowments, low population density and responsible management of environmental issues. Improvment on the ESI would require some serious changes to land, population and policy. Unfortunately, countries have little control over things such as population increase, as population tends to be ever-increasing. The land a country is given to manage, well short of declaring war, a country just has to work with the land they were dealt. Really, the only significant factor a country can control is its environmental policy towards their land, and yet then this is only a small portion of the ESI score. It is here, however, that policy makers need to consider the finite nature of the earth and make sensible and responsible choices to protect it from ourselves for generations to come.
So beyond academic realms does a countries ESI score actually mean anything? It does seem to satisfy the urge many of us have to place things into well defined groups and categories so we can rank them. Perhaps there is some room for bragging rights here too. Now the people of Finland can not only claim to be the winners of Eurovison and the birthplace of cheesy metal-rock band Lordi, but also the most sustainable country in the world. A pat on the back is well deserved. But in the end each country has to work with what it has. Some countries are naturally more well-endowed than others, but as someone once told me its not what you’ve got so much
as how you use it. Every country has a responsibility to protect its own environment from destruction. More importantly, we all have a responsibility to protect everyone’s environments because in the end the environment doesn’t recognize national borders, or really cheesy metal rock bands, only we do.
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