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New Ways to Measure Our Progress

Seven indicators for Cascadia yield a clearer picture of what we are doing right, and wrong, in this province.

Alan Durning 10 Mar

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Over the past century, Cascadia--the region encompassing British Columbia, Idaho, Oregon, Washington, and western Montana--has changed dramatically. Cascadians have multiplied their number ninefold, added three decades to their lives, and increased their economic output thirtyfold. Their cities and farms have spread across the region's most fertile lowlands. Their clearcuts, dams, ranches, and roads have transformed much of the remaining landscape.

These changes--you could call them "slow news"--are extreme over decades but almost imperceptible day to day. Yet they shape the region's future more profoundly than fleeting, headline-grabbing events. But such long-term trends are poorly tracked. To fill this gap Northwest Environment Watch (NEW) has spent months researching the Cascadia Scorecard (PDF link), a new regional gauge of progress that monitors and compares seven trends (PDF link) critical to the region's future: health, economy, population, sprawl, energy, forests, and pollution.

Today we unveil our results for British Columbia. The province boasts the second longest lifespan in the world and is a regional model for smart growth, but lags significantly in economic security for its residents. Some specifics:








Tracking the big picture

For B.C. and its region, what's the big picture? To see how B.C. compares with other members of Cascadia, as measured by our seven indicators, click here (PDF link).

Overall, four of the indicators offer good news. Cascadia shines in human health--the region's lifespan ranks eighth in the world. Its economic security and birthrates are also good, by world standards. Clearcutting has decelerated, though it remains rapid.

But there are many areas for improvement. The two biggest priorities are controlling sprawl and energy consumption: despite a well-deserved reputation for innovation in energy efficiency, northwesterners still consume almost like Texans. And though they are building communities that are more compact, sprawl is still the region's dominant pattern of growth. Unintended pregnancies and births to teens remain commonplace. And northwesterners' economic security did not keep pace with North America overall.
The Scorecard presents an experimental, three-step method for combining the indicators into a unified index that marks how far away the region is from reaching a real-world goal for each indicator. Japan, for example, is the target for lifespan. Vancouver, B.C.'ers are a best-in-the-region model for sprawl. Germany suggests a goal for energy use.

Thousands of people in this region are already at work on a future in which Cascadia leads the world, in which the Pacific Northwest achieves the elusive goal of reconciling people with place. Our newly published book Cascadia Scorecard points to several priorities. To yield dramatic improvements in energy and sprawl will require approaches that are systemic, such as tax shifting; redirecting markets to promote sustainability; and--as a foundation--better monitoring of the region's progress through projects like The Scorecard.
What we watch, we change. Attending mostly to the dramatic, we neglect the slow. Monitoring flawed gauges such as stock prices, consumer confidence, and gross domestic product, we organize our institutions to generate high stock prices, confident consumers, and an increasing GDP. Conversely, because we do not watch them, we do not get the healthiest lives, the strongest communities, or the most vibrant ecosystems. The ultimate aspiration of The Cascadia Scorecard is to give us these things.

Alan Durning is Director of Northwest Environment Watch, a Seattle-based nonprofit research and communication center. The Cascadia Scorecard will be updated regularly both in publications and at  [Tyee]

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