How evil is aggregation? lessons from the dashboard of sustainability

Authored by: Jochen Jesinghaus

Routledge Handbook of Sustainability Indicators

Print publication date:  June  2018
Online publication date:  June  2018

Print ISBN: 9781138674769
eBook ISBN: 9781315561103
Adobe ISBN:


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In democratic societies, voters have the right to be informed about the current government’s performance in advancing progress. But only a handful of objective figures reach the public, namely GDP growth, unemployment and inflation rates, and stock indices. After decades of watching the news, the brainwashed voter will believe that a good government is one that cares for GDP growth and the Dow Jones. This absurd situation has triggered numerous initiatives to either “green” GDP, or to replace it with an index composed of the most relevant indicators, e.g. in areas like health, equity, environment, justice, etc. While 20 years ago data availability was the bottleneck, official statistics produce nowadays hundreds of “key” indicators. Obviously, voters and journalists alike cannot digest huge batteries of indicators with cryptic names, therefore aggregation is a must. The author shows the pitfalls of aggregation but concludes that a transparent methodology based on surveys among experts and voters could provide a convincing alternative index of societal progress. Unfortunately, this would require a commitment from governments, in financial and political terms. Since governments are clearly unwilling to do that, the author suggests that journalists take a clear stance on GDP growth, and in particular denounce its abuse as a misleading labour market predictor.

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