Sustainable development has broad appeal and little specificity, but some combination of development and environment as well as equity is found in many attempts to describe it. However, proponents of sustainable development differ in their emphases on what is to be sustained, what is to be developed, how to link environment and development, and for how long a time. Despite the persistent definitional ambiguities associated with sustainable development, much work (over 500 efforts) has been devoted to developing quantitative indicators of sustainable development. The emphasis on sustainability indicators has multiple motivations that include decision making and management, advocacy, participation and consensus building, and research and analysis. We select a dozen prominent examples and use this review to highlight their similarities and differences in definition of sustainable development, motivation, process, and technical methods. We conclude that there are no indicator sets that are universally accepted, backed by compelling theory, rigorous data collection and analysis, and influential in policy. This is due to the ambiguity of sustainable development, the plurality of purpose in characterizing and measuring sustainable development, and the confusion of terminology, data, and methods of measurement. A major step in reducing such confusion would be the acceptance of distinctions in terminology, data, and methods. Toward this end, we propose an analytical framework that clearly distinguishes among goals, indicators, targets, trends, driving forces, and policy responses. We also highlight the need for continued research on scale, aggregation, critical limits, and thresholds.


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  • Article Type: Review Article
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