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Which countries are best positioned to pivot toward sustainable development?

DAILY SCIENCE

Which countries are best positioned to pivot toward sustainable development?

A research team created an "Industrial Modernity Index” that challenges conventional wisdom—suggesting that a country's ability to transform itself is not solely determined by wealth or environmental impact.
February 27, 2024

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Getting out of our current environmental, biodiversity, and climate crisis will require major changes to societies around the globe. What exactly are the barriers to such a transformation, and which countries are best placed to make the change and could therefore serve as an inspiration to others?

Researchers have developed various sustainability-related indices to get at answers to these questions. But those existing measures tend to just replicate the divide between wealthier, more energy- and material-intensive countries in the Global North and less industrialized countries in the Global South.

That doesn’t tell us anything new that could help us get out of our current predicament. What’s more, it oversimplifies the picture, new research suggests. “There are a number of factors that contribute to a country’s ability to enact transformative change, and these are not always reflected in traditional metrics of societal progress,” says study team member Anna-Kati Pahker, a doctoral student at the University of Tartu in Estonia.

Pahker and her collaborators developed a new measure that attempts to gauge the “thickness” of industrial modernity underlying different societies – industrial modernity being the problem, because of how it neglects and instrumentalizes the natural environment and reflects an overconfidence in science and technology.

The team’s key insight is that existing approaches tend to only look at societal practices and their environmental impacts, leaving out people’s attitudes and societal institutions. But ideas and attitudes could be an early signal of willingness to undertake a sustainable change – or could herald a coming slide towards environmental degradation.

 

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To score countries according to their new Industrial Modernity Index, the researchers gathered data from a variety of existing sources to capture the ideas, institutions, and practices related to the natural environment, science, and technology in 63 different countries.

The data that go into the index pertain to questions such as: Do people in a given country think that economic growth should take precedence over environmental protection, or vice versa? Do they have an overwhelmingly positive or negative view of science and technology, or a nuanced one? Do institutions prioritize societal or environmental concerns? Are environmental laws and regulations proactive or reactive? What is the country’s consumption of material resources and fossil fuels? How much agricultural land is organic and how many vehicles are on the road per capita? What proportion of scientific publications and patents focus on sustainability and green tech?

The top performer in the new index is Sweden, the researchers found. But five other countries – Spain, Brazil, Slovenia, Peru, and Nicaragua – also score better than average across all categories. The top countries represent geographic and socioeconomic diversity not seen in other sustainability measures, and include countries that industrialized early as well as those that industrialized relatively late.

“This suggests that a country’s ability to enact transformative change that is needed for a deep and just sustainability turn is not solely determined by its wealth or environmental impact,” Pahker says.

The results of the analysis bear out the researchers’ hunch that a given “thickness” of industrial modernity – and thus, the barrier to sustainability change – can come from varying combinations of beliefs, institutions, and practices. For example, South Korea and Ethiopia have similar overall scores on the index, but societal practices represent the main barrier to sustainability in South Korea, whereas ideas and attitudes about the natural environment pose more of a barrier in Ethiopia.

The findings don’t just rehash what’s already well known. “I was surprised by the high public support for enacting transformative change in Latin American countries, such as Brazil and Colombia, as this support generally tends to be correlated with the country’s wealth, especially the employment rate,” Pahker says. “I was similarly surprised by some Asian countries like Japan and South Korea scoring relatively lower for technological optimism as these are generally considered very technology-heavy societies.”

More studies will be necessary to validate and refine the new index, Pahker says. “Our next steps include country-level case studies to better understand and validate the results,” as well as looking back at older data to see if the index really is able to predict a country’s direction of change, she reports.

Source: Pakher A.K. et al.Where is the deep sustainability turn most likely to emerge? An Industrial
Modernity Index.” Technological Forecasting & Social Change 2024.

Image: Pixabay

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