Final Reflections on Measuring Human and Social Capital

Resources, their linkages, and their sustainabilities are generally represented, in this volume and elsewhere, in physical terms. The use of resources, however, is ultimately a function of human capital, social capital, and institutional capacity. Joining these concepts and approaches of the social sciences to those of the physical sciences is a work in progress, and that progress has been slow. It is nonetheless a crucial part of the sustainability discussion. A transition toward a more sustainable world cannot be achieved by disciplinarians acting within their specialties, but rather through collaborative efforts active at disciplinary boundaries. One of the biggest challenges to such collaboration is to understand what the practitioners of different disciplines think is important to measure and how.

In the social sciences as in the physical sciences, we tend to measure what we can. Many standard statistical measures (e.g., age, gender, and income) have been mainstays of survey research, not because of any underlying robust theoretical reason that associates them with particular behaviors or attitudes, but because they are relatively easy to measure. Traditional human capital, assessed, for example, by years of schooling, degrees per capita, publication rates, child mortality, numbers of doctors per capita are easy to measure, but are very hard to relate to the overall productivity of countries, let alone to the identification, extraction, transportation, transformation, and disposal of materials in the overlapping global systems of governance, innovation, production, and consumption. On the other hand, there seem to be fairly robust theoretical linkages between the presence of social capital and economic and regulatory performance of organizations at all levels, from firms to states. However, theoretical indeterminacy about what social capital actually is contributes to serious difficulties in measuring it. It appears that both measuring social capital and assessing institutional capacity are somewhat context dependent. This is inconvenient for any project seeking to measure global resource stocks and flows, which are themselves constructed and shaped by these hard-to-measure variables. Conventional economic analyses commonly respond to the hard-to-measure by omitting it altogether in the name of "preserving rigor." This effectively sets the value of the omitted measurement as zero (or infinity), which is much less likely than a poorly constructed value in between. When it comes to measuring human or social capital or institutional capacity, it may be worth considering that if something is worth doing, then it's worth doing badly!

Overleaf (left to right, top to bottom): Karen Seto, Dolf de Groot, Anette Reenberg Tom Graedel, Marina Turner, Fred Pearce Oswald Schmitz, David Skole, Karlheinz Erb Julia Lupp, Navin Ramankutty

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