Systematizing Environmental Indicators and Indices

Robert P. Blauvelt


Environmental indicators and indices are detailed and complex devices that attempt to describe not only ecological status but also the reactions of the biosphere to the demands placed on it by society. Researchers have proposed the use of hundreds of different environmental indicators to evaluate everything from socially responsible investing, to the effects of governmental policies, and even cultural survivability. However, an unqualified environmental or sustainability index cannot be developed given the innate complexity of natural systems in combination with the influence of human activities on those systems. The trend in indicator development is toward the compilation of environmental and sustainability data sets and indices that are more encompassing. Therefore, it becomes essential to identify the fundamental system attributes indicators are measuring and indices are aggregating.
This paper provides an overview on the make-up and limitations of environmental and sustainability indicator sets based on the driver, pressure, state, impact, response (DPSIR) framework. It goes on to suggest a technique to categorize environmental and sustainability indicators based on their alignment with DPSIR. Environmental or sustainability indicators and their associated indexes can be arranged into categories that are distinct, well defined and transferrable, regardless of the degree or intensity of aggregation. By so doing, the underlying preferences inherent in the index or data set are revealed and the user/decision maker/policy advocate is able to evaluate the full context of the information being presented.

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