Éloi Laurent


On his book Measuring Tomorrow: Accounting for Well-Being, Resilience, and Sustainability in the Twenty-First Century

Cover Interview of January 28, 2018

The wide angle

Measuring Tomorrow is essentially a guide to the well-being and sustainability transition and as such aims to make four contributions. First, while we have several insightful historical accounts of GDP’s ascent, we also need to take stock of existing alternatives in a forward-looking way. By the same token, we have plenty of pointed critiques of GDP but need to address the limitations of the alternative indicators to growth. Dozens of the latter are created or updated each year, such as the Social Progress Index (SPI) or the Environmental Performance Index (EPI) but their conceptual and empirical foundations are often obscure or sometimes weak. (What exactly do they measure? How well do they measure it?) This book is not only a (necessarily partial) guide to alternative indicators, but a guide to understanding their meaning, accuracy, and usefulness.

Measuring Tomorrow also attempts to grasp these alternative indicators’ plurality in an as-yet missing consistent framework so that we can better understand the continuum among well-being, resilience, and sustainability. Because this framework breaks down well-being and sustainability into a limited number of fundamental dimensions, it does not impose one best indicator on readers, but rather invites them to select and even design those that matter the most for them. This book also intends to convince readers, within this framework, that advances in human well-being are fully compatible with environmental sustainability and even that the two are, or at least can be, mutually reinforcing. In doing so, it counters the beliefs that there is an unsurmountable trade-off between well-being and sustainability, that sustainability can exist without well-being, and that well-being does not need to be sustainable. Well-being represents the many dimensions of human development (or, in a more poetic view, human flourishing). Resilience represents well-being under shocks. Sustainability represents dynamic well-being. Linking these three dimensions is an operational way to acknowledge the continuity or non-dichotomy between humans and their natural environment, or, in the words of French social psychologist and environmental pioneer Serge Moscovici, the fact that “almost all of the natural world is now human while humans have always been natural.”

Finally, I try to show throughout the book how metrics can change policy. Well-being and sustainability indicators now need to become performative and not just descriptive. While we should be concerned about obsessive quantification, blind monetization, and hazardous commodification, building, disseminating, and using alternative indicators is a practical way to reclaim essential values and advance important issues. Done properly, measuring produces positive social meaning. But we should not shy away from the ethical questions posed by valuation: Can we measure everything? Should we?

I was trained as a macroeconomist and realized ten years ago that economics, the small human household, was contained in and fully depended on the larger household of the biosphere, so that measuring economic realities in a narrow and isolated way made little sense. This book is a testimony to how much my vision of economics has changed in the last decade, especially through teaching.