How to assess the interconnected goals of sustainability and well-being across scales

What practices support sustainability and human well-being in a given community? And, how can we measure success across local and global scales?

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Oct 23, 2017
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The paper in Nature Ecology & Evolution is here: http://go.nature.com/2gxNfLC

“I didn’t know I was poor” until income generation projects from outside organizations told me so.

-As told by a Papua New Guinean community member to Paige West, 2007 (West, 2016)

Well-being is a universally applicable concept, yet because it can mean so many different things to different people, pinning down an exact definition is difficult. At the same time, well-being is intricately linked with sustainability, given that the sustainable use of natural resources is crucial to support current and future generations. These important concepts can be challenging to identify and measure; for instance, what practices support sustainability and human well-being in a given community? And, how can we measure success in ways that make sense across local and global scales? Such broad questions have guided my and my collaborators’ efforts to develop indicators and indices of sustainability and well-being relevant for local, place-based communities. 

This paper is the result of years of collaboration among people from diverse disciplines and cultures to investigate methods and approaches to creating indicators of well-being in the Pacific. We sought to find common ground between community members, researchers, and decision makers in understanding integrated biological and cultural (or “biocultural”) systems and to develop indicators for local decision-making. We approached this with the knowledge that indicators do not always reflect reality, and that the decisions around which indicators are measured, and how they are measured, can impact management approaches and outcomes. Further, we believe that using a systems perspective, which allows us to step back and view the broader system at hand and the relationships between system elements, will help in selecting the appropriate indicators and identifying opportunities for management.

As part of this project, we held workshops across the Pacific where we explored case studies and existing indicators of well-being that resonate with local communities. For instance, in French Polynesia, our workshop was attended by individuals from the local, regional, and national government as well as experts in Tahitian culture, anthropologists, and community elders. By convening people from this diverse set of professions and lived experiences, we were able to gain varied perspectives about what is important to a Pacific way of life. This also highlighted the potential disconnect between how community members and scientists approach indicator development. For example, scientists attending our workshop were focused on categories and hierarchies while local decision makers and community members used narrative and interconnected ways to represent issues and share ideas. We came away steadfast in our understanding that worldviews of local people should be foundational to the process of identifying indicators that are appropriate, relevant, and useful for community decision making. 

Figure 1: Drawings of garden pests, produce, and practices used at a workshop with community members in Solomon Islands. Photo by Joe McCarter

Working directly with community members led to the development of example biocultural indicators that are more relevant and appropriate for local communities than those used by many large international organizations. For instance, food security indicators often take a vulnerability framing, such as the Food Insecurity Experience Scale Survey Module used by the FAO to gauge if a household has experienced a food shortage. The questions in this module can be insensitive to the deep obligation felt by some communities to share food with their families and guests. We found that more appropriate questions took on a resilience framing by focusing on the support systems and knowledge of a community, and how these enable people to access food in difficult times. It is our hope that by drawing more attention to these “alternative” types of indicators, we can move the conversation forward about uncovering what really underpins well-being in a particular community, and thus, should be measured in the Pacific and beyond. 


Poster image: Fishers at dawn in Solomon Islands. Photo by Michael Esbach

West, P., 2016. Dispossession and the Environment: Rhetoric and Inequality in Papua New Guinea. Columbia University Press.


Go to the profile of Eleanor Sterling

Eleanor Sterling

Jaffe Chief Conservation Scientist, Center for Biodiversity and Conservation, American Museum of Natural History

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