Co-written with Lew Daly
Imagine this: your state is thinking about building a new coal plant. Gross domestic product measures how much money that project would produce. But it can't account for the children who get asthma or the people who die from that air pollution. And that's a problem.
What was once a highly technical debate about the failures of conventional economic metrics is fast becoming a world movement to unseat GDP and replace it with something better.
In America, many states are finding new, more holistic measures of progress. Already, Maryland, Oregon and Vermont have begun using the genuine progress indicator (GPI).
GPI takes into account 26 social, economic and environmental indicators. These include financial factors such as inequality and the cost of underemployment. But GPI also considers the cost of pollution, climate change and non-renewable energy resources. And it explores the possible social impacts, such as the cost of commuting and crime.
While alternative measures sound ephemeral, they are not. When commenting on Bhutan's Gross National Happiness policy, Cylvia Hayes, the first lady of Oregon says:
"What Bhutan is doing is not trivial at all. They are running policy and infrastructure decisions through a more comprehensive set of metrics that gives a much fuller account of what the effects of those decisions will be."
Oregon's governor, John Kitzhaber (D), wants to tie GPI to a 10-year budget plan that encourages longer-range policy development for a more sustainable state economy.
And Oregon isn't the only state looking for new ways to measure growth. In Maryland, GPI is influencing the development of new goals such as reducing infant mortality, cutting greenhouse gas emissions 25 percent by 2020 and planting more crops that improve soil fertility. Researchers in Utah and Colorado are also developing GPI estimates in collaboration with the other states.
As a group of social scientists argued in the journal Nature, "if a business used GDP-style accounting, it would aim to maximize gross revenue -- even at the expense of profitability, efficiency, sustainability or flexibility."