Introduction: Sustainability and Sustainability Indicators

The terms “sustainability” and “sustainable development” came into widespread use in the 1980s, in international debates over environmental protection and economic development. In an often-quoted phrase, the World Commission on Environment and Development (the Brundtland Commission) defined “sustainable development” as “meet[ing] the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” (1)

The concept of sustainability is rooted in the recognition that our society, our economy, and the natural environment are interdependent. Often we tackle problems in the three areas separately, without taking into account the strong links among them, and the implications of decisions in one area for the other two. The search for a sustainable society occurs through a recognition that we must factor these implications into all of our decisions in order to ensure that we will meet future needs as well as current ones.

The economic component of sustainability is about living today at a level of income and material comfort that our descendents will also be able to enjoy. There is tension in our society about whether our current lifestyle can be sustained through new technology and well-designed policy, or whether we must cut back on our consumption to be sustainable. In economic terms, income results from investments, whether in machines (physical capital), education (human capital), or natural resources (natural capital). If we continue to invest at a steady rate, economic theory suggests that we should be able to continue generating the same income, and in economic terms we will be sustainable.

The environmental component of sustainability is about maintaining our natural resources and the quality of our environment, so that future generations will reap the same benefits from them as we do. In physical terms, the concept is fairly straightforward; pollution levels should not become worse, resources should not be used faster than they renew themselves naturally, species should not become extinct due to human activity. There is debate about how much change in the environment is sustainable; some people argue that everything should be sustained and no change is acceptable, while others feel that some change is acceptable in order to enhance human opportunities. For example, cutting down some of our forests so we have timber to build houses and open land to grow food may be acceptable to most of us. Using all of our lakes and rivers to dump untreated sewage is probably unacceptable to most of us, and the costs of preventing this are considered reasonable. Between the extremes there is a large gray area where we don’t fully know the implications of our choices and we don’t agree about how to make them. The tensions between the environment and other aspects of sustainability can be difficult to resolve.

A strong society has cohesion, community ties and sense of unity, rule of law, and effective public and private institutions. These represent a kind of social capital, similar to economic or environmental capital, enabling us to act as a unified body to adapt to meet an evolving set of challenges. The social structure is the underpinning of the economy, and we will only be able to achieve sustainable development if we learn to understand and invest in social capital.

Social sustainability is also about achieving the values that we would like our society to sustain. Equity in access to resources, health care, education, housing, and opportunities to make a living is a key element of social sustainability, as is an equitable sharing of the burdens of maintaining the society. Strong citizen engagement is important; engaged citizens know what is going on, they participate in public debate, they vote, they know who their elected officials are and how to reach them. In sustainable communities citizens benefit from each other’s economic activity rather than letting the profits go out of the community. They work in their own community, they shop at locally-owned businesses, their food may even be grown locally. Sustainable communities are resilient and can adapt effectively to change, rather than being vulnerable to shock when the world around them changes. Their residents feel safe and secure, and the community can welcome newcomers without feeling threatened by them.

Why goals and indicators?

If we want to work towards a more sustainable state, we need mileposts along the way to tell us how we are doing. Goals give us a more precise destination than simply “sustainability,” which can be hard to pinpoint clearly. Indicators tell us whether we are moving towards our destination or heading the opposite way.

The Sustainable State Project brought together a broad set of elected officials, state employees, activists, business people, educators, and other New Jersey citizens to develop a set of sustainability goals. They worked for several years, capturing the interests and priorities of hundreds of people who attended meetings and provided written feedback and comment. Through extensive discussion and debate, they arrived at a consensus on eleven overarching goals and forty-one indicators with which to track the state’s progress towards those goals. The indicators were selected from among a much broader set of suggestions. The participants in the process felt that they represented the best ways then available to measure quality of life and to highlight the interdependence of economic, environmental, and social systems.

The third piece in the goals-indicators system is targets that tell us what our destination is for each of the indicators. Without targets, we may know that we are generally moving in the right direction, but we don’t know if we have gotten there, or how far we still have to go. The state government has developed targets for thirteen of the forty-one indicators. The Institute has been working on establishing additional targets for the energy indicators, and hopes to bring in a wide range of stakeholders to finalize them soon. Table 1 lists the sustainability goals and indicators and shows for which indicators targets have already been established.

These goals, indicators, and targets are designed for use by citizens, the media, educators, nonprofit organizations, and public officials. The data in the system are not detailed enough to provide technical solutions to complex problems, but they are comprehensible enough to give us a good sense of whether we are making headway on the issues of concern to us. The ease of understanding indicators like these means that they can be used without extensive knowledge of the field. The choice of these particular indicators reflects the priorities of the broad array of New Jersey stakeholders who selected them, and an explicit intention to direct public attention to these rather than to other issues.

Why a state system?

The state is a critical level at which to pursue sustainability. It is large enough to interest many people, without being as diverse as the country as a whole. There is enough similarity within a state, especially a small one like New Jersey, to make it useful to work at this scale. Moreover, state governments have the authority to make many decisions that affect sustainability, so everyone in the state is operating within the same policy context. This applies to many aspects of tax policy, land use planning, energy policy, transportation policy, and so on. Many of the data needed to monitor our progress are also reported at the state level, but are not available at local or regional levels.

Of course many key decisions affecting sustainability are made at other levels. New Jersey local governments have great autonomy in their decision-making, and the multitude of small communities means that different development strategies are in effect throughout the state. Federal policy affects New Jersey in countless ways. So do trends in the global economy; OPEC oil pricing decisions may have more impact on New Jersey’s energy use and greenhouse gas emissions than any strategies developed by the Governor or state agencies. No one level of analysis is sufficient, we must always place our behavior in many different contexts. The state context is sufficiently rich, however, to make it a good place to begin.

Are we heading towards the goals set in the Sustainable State project?

The picture is mixed. This report presents our performance over the past ten to fifteen years, as well as letting us see what progress we have made since the last report was issued in 2000. With each update of the indicators we are primarily interested in what has happened since the last available data. However we must put them in the context of longer-run trends, to clarify whether we are observing short-term fluctuations or more solid, long-term progress towards our goals.

Economic data clearly registered the recent cyclical downturn in New Jersey, as elsewhere in the country, though New Jersey incomes still remain above the national average (Ind. 1). Unemployment rose during the recent downturn (Ind. 2) and it continues to track the national rate fairly closely. In economic terms, these data confirm that many New Jersey residents felt the pain of the recent recession.

In the environmental and land use arena, the picture is also mixed. We are producing more solid waste (Ind. 40), driving more miles (Ind. 27) and using more energy (Ind. 34) than ever. On the other hand, shellfish habitats and the quality of beaches have improved over the past decade (Inds. 33 and 36). We have seen an increase in the amount of land now protected from development (Ind. 12). Data on the total developed area (Ind. 37) have not been updated since the previous report; the updates expected next year will show whether the rate of land development has changed.

On some of the social indicators, we are clearly improving. Life expectancy has risen (Ind. 22), while hospitalizations for asthma and reported infectious diseases have dropped (Inds. 2324). High school graduation rates have risen (Ind. 13), and though housing is still expensive, both apartment rents and home prices have become somewhat more affordable relative to incomes (Inds. 19 and 20). Voter turnout, however, has dropped (Ind. 18), as has awareness of public affairs (Ind. 17).

Does this tell us about sustainability?

So far we have considered the three aspects of sustainability independently. Do our indicators tell us anything about whether New Jersey is actually becoming more sustainable, or about the competition among our goals?

There are likely to be tensions among the indicators, to be resolved through dialogue and debate. For example, increases in income are likely to lead to increased demand for new homes, as more households can afford to buy instead of renting. Both increased income and increased opportunity to live in safe well-kept housing are considered desirable. However the land use and housing patterns typical of new construction in New Jersey lead to increased use of the automobile and increased energy consumption. Our indicators show all of these increases; in income, housing affordability relative to income, vehicle miles traveled per capita, and energy consumption per capita. This suggests that it will indeed be difficult to make progress in all areas of sustainability at once. It also suggests that the state should explicitly consider how to address this balance through the design of housing, land-use, property tax, energy, and transportation policies, rather than confronting each set of issues separately without factoring in their links to each other.

Our indicators can help us recognize such tensions by looking at whether specific pairs or groups of indicators consistently move together or in opposite directions. For instance, when we see that increased income consistently occurs with increased vehicle miles traveled and increased energy use, we recognize that we will need additional policy strategies to achieve all of our goals. Our indicators do not tell us what those strategies may be, however. They can alert us to the interplay among our goals, and they can suggest where we need to investigate further to develop solutions, but they will not define the solutions themselves.

Where do we go from here?

In the long run, indicators are useful if we use them to assess our progress towards sustainability and modify our behavior accordingly. This depends on the third piece of the indicators system, the targets. We would like to see key stakeholders come to consensus on what we want our sustainable state to look like, and how soon, in precise quantitative terms that can be measured. With such targets defined, we could all use the indicators to assess our progress. We could also hold proposed programs and policies up to the light of such targets, to see how far they take us towards the sustainability endpoint we have defined.

Targets could be of two types. “Sustainability targets” will reflect our best effort to grapple with the complex specification of what we really think we must achieve if our society is to continue to survive. Although we are only working at the scale of New Jersey, the process of defining such targets should address whether they would be sustainable if the whole world adopted them. The process should also consider whether each sub-component of a sustainable state – each town, each industry – must be sustained, or whether the state may be considered sustainable if new industries replace old ones, or new cities take over the roles of older ones.

By contrast, “operational targets” are less ambitious but more feasible to define and achieve. They are based on what we think we could achieve in the medium term with an ambitious but plausible set of policy choices. For greater simplicity, operational targets might focus on one aspect of sustainability at a time, rather than trying to integrate all aspects into a single system.

The Institute’s target work so far has focused on operational targets for energy. Members of the Institute staff are assessing the policy tools that could help reduce our energy consumption, the emissions from our energy use, and the risk that that energy needed to sustain the economy might not be reliably available. The next step in this work is to facilitate a stakeholder process to develop consensus on appropriate targets for sustainable energy use in the state.

Over the next few years, it will be important to develop both operational and sustainability targets for New Jersey. This should involve stakeholders from a wide range of organizations and roles in the state, as well as experts who can shed light on relevant technology and policy choices. It is likely to involve refining the existing goals and indicators, as other measures may prove to be more effective to assess how far the state has come. This will be a complex process, particularly taking into account the interactions among the elements of sustainability. It may not be that hard to identify what we think would be an appropriate level of housing, public health or environmental quality for a sustainable society. However identifying such levels while also sustaining economic well-being and individual liberties will be much more challenging. It is this process that the state must tackle in coming years.

The targets will then be used to show how we are doing, and how the consumption and policy choices we make today will affect our ability to reach our targets on the schedule we set. By comparing historical trends, projections based on current choices, and targets, we can determine where we have succeeded and where we have more work to do. This should, we hope, create the public will to change our behavior now, so that New Jersey will have a chance of reaching its targets.

How does the rest of the world relate to New Jersey sustainability?

Sustainability is a global issue. It is also a community issue. What can we learn by looking at other scales?

One of the key aspects of social sustainability is equity. Our indicators let us see the inequities existing within our state, but not the much greater inequities between New Jersey and much of the rest of the world. Is it acceptable to look for strategies that sustain New Jersey’s income, consumption, and energy use, if such behavior could not be sustained worldwide? If we want our state to behave in ways that could be sustained worldwide – the equity objective of sustainability – we must consider whether or how we could make our current levels of consumption sustainable.

A related issue concerns the impact of the manufacture of goods consumed in New Jersey on the states or countries where they are produced. We import electricity from other states, a significant share of it generated by burning coal. This imposes both global environmental burdens through greenhouse gas emissions and local burdens through the emission of other pollutants. Similarly, by becoming increasingly a service economy, New Jersey has reduced its direct contribution to pollution. However, the goods we consume are often produced in countries with less restrictive environmental controls or worker protections than we have in New Jersey. While occupational safety and health may be improving within the state (Ind. 25), the rate of accidents or illnesses elsewhere in the world due to production of the goods we consume may be higher than in the past. For the most part our indicators do not capture these impacts. Assessing them is quite difficult, even with quite sophisticated international data, so it is no surprise that we cannot do it here. It is important to remember them, however, when we consider whether we are actually moving towards greater sustainability.

(1) World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987. Our Common Future. (Oxford: Oxford University Press)