Among the sayings associated with the social upheavals of 1968 in France were "nobody falls in love with a growth rate" and the gross national product (GNP) doesn't measure the level of national happiness... This was the start of criticisms of the yardsticks used to measure national performance, and what some called derogatively "the gospel of progress" with its heavy reliance on economic indicators.
Almost 40 years later, have we really managed to shake off this way of thinking? Not really, says Jean Gadrey. He echoes the criticisms of the gross domestic product (GDP), which is used even more often today, and discusses the advances that have been made towards creating different indicators, the best known being the "human development index" constructed by the UN Development Programme.
From the outset Gadrey acknowledges that "the choice of weights attached to the different variables making up an indicator, like the choice of variables taken to be significant, is a matter for public debate and for a confrontation of viewpoints, as to what should be included and what should be of greatest importance". Bearing this in mind, he presents the efforts made in recent years to develop new indicators that capture more accurately social advances and/or the impact of human activities on the environment. He then describes the new overall indicators, which can be grouped into three categories:
- those mainly concerned with matters of human and/or social development, without systematically attaching monetary values to the variables;
- those inspired mainly by environmental concerns, without systematically attaching monetary values to the variables;
- those intended to complement the national accounting indicators by adding or subtracting variables measured in monetary terms, with variants that factor in environmental criteria to a greater or lesser extent.
Since the second half of the 1990s there has been renewed interest in these overall indicators of development. Gadrey describes those that he considers the most promising, making clear how they have been constructed and how reliable they appear to be. His article is especially welcome at a time when a new approach is emerging (exemplified in France by the work of Dominique Méda and Patrick Viveret) that seeks to "re-evaluate wealth", to assess more accurately the true level of economic and social development, also taking environmental factors into account, not only of our countries but also of our organisations. In many ways, therefore, the article is in line with the studies being undertaken, including in businesses, to improve accounting systems and to be less rigidly bound by evaluations measured solely in commercial terms.