Assessing Sustainability Indicators: The Need for a Criterion of "Performative Coherence"
Séminaire de recherche du Collège d'études mondiales avec Géraldine Thiry, post-doctorante pour la chaire Ecologie, travail et emploi de Dominique Méda.
Are beyond-GDP indicators the potential lever of a paradigmatic change? Or, on the contrary, are they the tool of legitimization of a status quo in the way societies are governed and organized? Given the political issues raised by the growing use of indicators in governance patterns, it appears crucial to distinguish, among the indicators discussed today, between those liable to bear a change in the orientation of societies and those which, in the way their are designed, encompass the roots of a system they elsewhere pretend to
overcome. If indicators are adequately designed, they might be something else than the ineluctable vector of a general transposition of a managerial norms and principles to all the societal spheres.
However, most of the quantification options encountered in the current debates appear inadequate to quantify sustainability in a coherent way: we have systematically observed contradictions between, on the one hand, the normative signal launched by the accounting of a dimension (such as environment, for instance) in the indicator and, on the other, the performative implications of the methodology adopted to quantify this dimension. These contradictions lead us to think about the methodological, theoretical and epistemological conditions needed to design more coherent indicators.
The objective of that communication is to propose a new evaluative criterion of sustainability indicators: the "performative coherence". This criterion results from the triple perspective we adopt to address sustainability indicators. The latter are conceived as tools of convention, as the cogs of a form of governance inscribed in the mutation of the State-Statistics relationship, and as technico-theoretical constructs with empirical and normative ends, therefore being performative.
We show that referring to this criterion is necessary to apprehend sustainability indicators in all their complexity. The search for the conditions of performatively coherent indicators leads us to discredit neoclassical economics and to investigate the contribution of ecological economics, by de facto shedding light on its adequacy to the complex issues of sustainability.
The presentation is structured as follows. After a terminological clarification on our use of the concept of "sustainability" (Section 1), we draw a diagnostic of the debatable conceptual foundations of most of the indicators discussed today (section 2). We then develop the principle of performative coherence as a new evaluative criterion of sustainability indicators, liable to imply a change in the perception of sustainability issues through quantification (section 3). Section 4, addressing the theoretical and epistemological conditions of performative coherence, stresses the interest of a post-normal epistemological posture as the trigger towards a paradigmatic change. Such a posture raises a question of legitimacy, which is treated in section 5. Section 6 concludes.