The first three issues (Summer, 1994 through Winter, 1995) of
a newsletter entitled
"ENVIRONMENTAL DAMAGE VALUATION AND COST BENEFIT NEWS"
are available free of charge. Please send
City, State, County, Zip____________________________
to call (516) 897-9728, or fax (516) 897-9185
Please indicate if you would like the ascii text version (the
default--more easily read but less visually appealing)
or a uuencoded (binary) wordperfect version.
AN INSTRUMENT PANEL TO HELP SEATTLE FLY SUSTAINABLY
When you fly a plane, you need an instrument panel in front of you, with lights
and dials telling you how well the parts are working, what direction you're
headed, whether there are obstacles ahead, and how much fuel you have.
If you're guiding a complex social mechanism like a city, you need even more
lights and dials. But for a city what should they measure?
Five years ago several hundred citizens of Seattle asked themselves that
question. Last week they came out with an answer -- a book of 40 "indicators
of sustainability" for their city. Eight of those indicators show things
improving. Eighteen show no discernible trend. Fourteen show declining
sustainability, negative progress, trouble ahead.
The report made front-page headlines in Seattle. When citizens deliver an
instrument panel with warning lights blinking, the powers-that-be tend to pay
It took a lot of work to get those indicators together. The volunteer
organization called Sustainable Seattle started by arguing for six months over
the word "sustainable." Overfishing or overcutting a forest is clearly not
sustainable. Neither, the Seattle folks decided, is deficit spending, nor
loading the environment with pollutants, nor cramming more cars onto the roads,
nor letting young people grow up uneducated and hopeless.
Finally they came up with a definition -- sustainability is "long-term
cultural, economic, and environmental health." Now, how to measure it? More
months of discussion produced 99 suggested indicators. They were posted up on
a wall and everyone got 15 green dots to stick up by the indicators each person
thought were most important. The most green dots by far went to the salmon.
Wild salmon are a valuable resource in the Northwest, and they reflect the
quality of water and the integrity of ecosystems. More than that, they are
beloved. The spectacular annual return of the salmon is a sign that all's well
with the world. But in the new report the salmon light is blinking a red
alert. Since 1978 the population of sockeye salmon is down by 74 percent, coho
by 81 percent.
One possible cause is soil erosion, measured in the report by the muddiness of
the water in streams, which has increased by 185 percent since 1987. Turbid
water is not good for salmon. Sustainable Seattle folks are fond of pointing
out linkages like that among their indicators. For example, they say, child
poverty leads to crime, leads to unsafe streets, leads to fewer people walking
and more driving, leads to paving and water pollution in the salmon streams.
They have indicators all along that chain. More children are living in poverty
-- 13.4 percent in 1979, 15.7 percent in 1989. Juvenile crime is up (35-40
percent higher per capita than in the mid-1980s). Vehicle miles traveled
have almost doubled since 1970. Fifty-nine percent of Seattle's land is paved.
Paved land doesn't absorb rain, doesn't recharge water tables, and does send
stormwater into streams, carrying the oil and dirt of the city.
There is good news, however. In spite of the huge increase in driving, air
quality has improved greatly. In 1981 there were 29 "unhealthful" air days
in Seattle. In the last five years there has been only one. Total municipal
garbage generation more than doubled since 1976, but the city has just turned
an important corner -- its recycling rate is high enough now (at about 30
percent of municipal waste) to reduce the flow of garbage to landfills.
Economically Seattle is thriving (20 percent growth in average income between
1980 and 1990), but, like the rest of the nation, the rising tide is not
lifting all boats. Middle- and low-income families are working as hard but
earning less. In 1990 about 12 percent of households received over 33 percent
of the city's income, while the lowest 50 percent of households receive only
20 percent of the income. Just 8 percent of the income of households earning
over $75,000 per year (which amounts to about half of their 10-year income
increase) could double the incomes of those earning less than $15,000 per year.
Perhaps the most unsustainable trend in Seattle, as in the nation, is in
care. The average household spent 10 percent of its income on health care in
1980 and almost 15 percent in 1990. Emergency room visits at the main public
hospital went up by 50 percent in the past five years. Most of those visits
were not actual emergencies but people without health insurance going to the
only place that would take them in.
On a cheerier note, the percentage of low-birthweight infants is holding about
steady. Voter participation is way up after some hot elections. And 44
percent of Seattle households grow some of their own fruits and vegetables.
Some politicians are suspicious of data-gathering efforts like this, suspicious
of public information in general, thinking of it as some kind of report card on
their performance. The Sustainable Seattle folks finessed their reluctance
partly by including city officials in the discussion from the beginning, and
partly by acknowledging that the indices reflect the behavior of all citizens,
not just City Hall. In fact a full instrument panel makes City Hall's job
clearer and easier.
Furthermore, as Seattle's first report on itself illustrates, indicators are
not only ways of pointing out problems, they can also be ways of documenting
(Donella H. Meadows is an adjunct professor of environmental studies at