CHAPTER 9Measuring Sustainability

9.0 Introduction

Over a broad range of metrics, over the past 200 years, human well-being has shown dramatic improvements. This is true even as the population has risen from less than 1 billion in 1800 to over 7 billion today. Economist Gale Johnson of the University of Chicago summarized the trends over the past two centuries: “the improvement in human well-being goes far beyond the enormous increase in the value of the world’s output. The improvements are evident in fewer famines, increased caloric intakes, reduced child and infant mortality, increased life expectancy, great reductions in time worked, and greatly increased percentage of the population that is literate” (Johnson 2000). The average person today is much richer, better fed, and lives much longer than his or her ancestors. The gains have been dramatic. In India, life expectancy increased from 23 years in 1990 to over 65 years now. In the United States, life expectancy increased from 48 years in 1900 to 78 years now.

Why have living standards gone up so dramatically despite limited natural resources and increased population? Neoclassical economists point to human ingenuity as the key factor. New products, new methods of producing goods using fewer inputs and discovery of abundant low-cost resources to replace scarce natural resources have meant that resource constraints seem to be less important now than in the past. The key question in this chapter is whether this trend will continue ...

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