Special Section: The challenges of decolonizing conservation, edited by Dan Brockington, Esteve Corbera and Sara Maestre-Andrés

Seeing environmental injustices: the mechanics, devices and assumptions of environmental sustainability indices and indicators

Authors: ,


At the heart of any colonization project, and therefore any move to de-colonize, are ways of seeing nature and society, that then allow particular ways of governing each. This is plainly visible in a number of tools that exist to measure progress towards (or regress from) environmental sustainability. The tools use indices and indicators constructed mostly by environmental scientists and ecologists. As such, they are not neutral scientific instruments: they reflect the worldviews of their creators. These worldviews depend on three dimensions: the values they prioritize, the explanatory theories they use and the futures they envision. Through these means different tools produce conflicting notions of the sustainability of our economies and societies. In this article, we shed light onto the theoretical and epistemological assumptions that lie behind key international sustainability indices and indicators: the Environmental Performance Index,Domestic Material Consumption, Material Intensity, the Material Footprint, the Carbon Footprint, the Ecological Footprint and CO2 emissions (territorial). The variables included in these indices, the way they are measured, aggregated and weighted all imply a particular way of understanding the relationships between economy, society and environment. This divergence is most clearly visible in the fact that some indices are negatively correlated with each other. Where one index might plot growing environmental sustainability, another shows its decline. Our results highlight that those devices and the theories informing them are particularly interesting for way how colonialism is materialized. Some of these measurements hide the material roots of prosperity and the ecological (and economic) distributional conflicts exported to the poorer countries by the global North, and others show how its production and consumption levels are reliant upon a socio-ecological 'subsidy' imposed on Southern countries. These subsidies represent injustices that present a primafacie case for decolonizing indices and indicators of environmental governance.

Keywords: colonization, ecological distributional conflicts, green growth, degrowth, political ecology

How to Cite: Requena-i-Mora, M. & Brockington, D. (2021) “Seeing environmental injustices: the mechanics, devices and assumptions of environmental sustainability indices and indicators”, Journal of Political Ecology. 28(1). doi: https://doi.org/10.2458/jpe.4765