The argument against a reductionist approach for measuring sustainable development performance and the need for methodological pluralism

Alexandros Gasparatos, Mohamed El-Haram, Malcolm Horner

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    94 Citations (Scopus)


    Both sustainability and sustainable development continue to remain elusive concepts even now, 20 years after the Brundtland Commission report that brought them into prominence. This situation most likely stems from the fact that sustainability science encompasses the need to address a wide set of issues over different time and spatial scales and thus inevitably accommodates opinions from diverse branches of knowledge and expertise. However, despite this multitude of perspectives, progress towards sustainability is usually assessed through the development and utilisation of single sustainability metrics such as monetary tools, composite sustainability indices and biophysical metrics including emergy, exergy and the ecological footprint. But is it really justifiable to assess the progress towards sustainability by using single metrics? This paper argues that such a choice seems increasingly unjustifiable not least due to these metrics' methodological imperfections and limits. Additionally, our recent awareness of economies, societies and ecosystems as complex adaptive systems that cannot be fully captured through a single perspective further adds to the argument. Failure to describe these systems in a holistic manner through the synthesis of their different non-reducible and perfectly legitimate perspectives amounts to reductionism. An implication of the above is the fact that not a single sustainability metric at the moment can claim to comprehensively assess sustainability. In the light of these findings this paper proposes that the further elaboration and refinement of current metrics is unlikely to produce a framework for assessing the progress towards sustainability with a single metric. Adoption of a diverse set of metrics seems more likely to be the key for more robust sustainability assessments. This methodological pluralism coupled with stakeholder involvement seems to offer a better chance of improving the outcome of the decision making process.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)245-256
    Number of pages12
    JournalAccounting Forum
    Issue number3
    Publication statusPublished - 2009


    Dive into the research topics of 'The argument against a reductionist approach for measuring sustainable development performance and the need for methodological pluralism'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

    Cite this