Saturday, 10 September 2011

Capturing the Good Life in Statistics

by Linda from The Witches Kitchen.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics has started a blog called "Measures of Australia's Progress". It's a public consultation about what we could use, instead of or along with GDP, as a measure of "progress'. It asks "Is life in Australia getting better? How will we know if it is?"

I find this immensely encouraging, and I wonder why I hadn't heard of it before? I knew about Bhutan's "gross national happiness" indicator, which has been around in alternate circles for yonks. But it's a clumsy, soft measure and I could never see mainstream politics taking it really seriously.

Of course one of the seductions of GDP is that it is used internationally, but the MAP site has a page with links to all the similar projects around the world, including UK and USA, and it says "There has been an explosion of interest in indicator projects over the last several years, both in Australia and around the world".

That official statistical bureaus are looking for other ways of meauring wealth beyond how much stuff we buy and sell is, to me, really exciting. It's really hard to argue that simple, green, frugal equals good when the measuring stick used to measure progress is how much wasteful overconsumption we've indulged in over the last year. It's like our whole society is in a giant hot dog eating competition and it's called progress.

But wealth is a slippery beast and it's not so simple to nail it down in a way that can be measured and compared, in a way that newspapers can grab onto and politicians can use. Marge Piercy has a poem called "The Perpetual Migration" that has a lovely part in it about wealth:
"Peace, plenty, the gentle wallow
of intimacy, a bit of Saturday night
and not too much Monday morning,
a chance to choose, a chance to grow,
the power to say no and yes, pretties
and dignity, an occasional jolt of truth."

It's very beautiful and true, but I can just see the poor ABS statisticians trying to measure it. I'm all in favour of the ABS consultation, but when it comes to having my say, it's tricky. How do you measure progress?

The Australian Bureau of Statistics project tries to solve it by a kind of complex of measures grouped under society, economy, and environment, with a whole heap of sub measures such as health, education, crime, social cohesion, productivity, biodiversity, atmosphere and so on, each with their own tick or wavy line or cross. They're all measurable, but they don't grab you. It's like comparing a big box of apples with oranges. My eyes glaze over.

I've been trying to summon up the courage to have a say. The concept at the centre of it, I think, is that once everybody in a society has enough, has their basic needs met, producing and consuming more stuff takes us backwards, not forwards. It destroys common wealth like air and soil and water and wildlife and being able to lie on the beach on a sunny morning without a hole in the ozone layer overhead. It steals resources from future generations that they will need for "enough". The only areas in which you can keep producing more and keep becoming wealthier is in art and knowledge and culture and science. And that's the thing.

I think a society is progressing, is becoming wealthier when more of its citizens have the basics, when less is borrowed from future generations, and when more is given to future generations in the form of knowledge and culture. That would give us three basic measures.

The basic needs themselves are not simple. A nation is wealthier when more of it's citizens have enough, are above the poverty line, but we Australians are all wealthy by the standards of Somalians. A nation is wealthier when more of its citizens are healthy. A nation is wealthier when more of its citizens have access to education, at every life stage from early childhood to third age. A nation is wealthier when people do not need to hoard to feel safe but can rely on their community to rally to their aid, when it has a good and functional fire, police, ambulance, and emergency services, and community connections. It's not simple, but we should be able to have a crack at coming up with a measure for whether we are going forwards or backwards at providing everyone with the basics.

Borrowing from future generations is a simpler measure. Are we using more or less non-renewable resources than last year. Less? Yay, that's progress.

And thirdly, how much have we invested in art and knowledge and culture and science. There will, of course, be huge debates about whether it is better to spend money on opera or street art, a cure for malaria or for coral bleaching, an internet protocol or a novel, surfing or soccer. But an overall dollar value will do for a measure of progress.

By these kind of measures, simple, green, frugal equals wealthy, and that feels like the truth to me. What do you think?