The power to question is the basis of all human progress.

—Indira Gandhi

In our lives, in our work, in our communities and our world, it seems that there are always questions of whether progress is being made. Many of us have been raised in a culture of growth and with assumptions and expectations about delivering on results and measuring performance. And while this perspective on the world has undoubtedly resulted in a certain level of material progress, we now found ourselves at the edge of confronting what this has meant from a sustainability and social responsibility perspective. 

Nature, as most have observed, doesn’t seem to adhere to the same rules we lay out for ourselves: in most cases, growth in an organism or ecosystem stops at the point at which it is able to best contribute to the overall health and equilibrium of its environment. Unless there is some kind of imbalance (which nature is usually fairly good at correcting), growth can’t occur in an unchecked or unlimited way in the natural world. If we think there is some wisdom in the way that the rest of life has evolved on the planet, we might consider applying these models to our own expectations of our lives and institutions. 

In several conversations over the past month, I’ve been speaking with colleagues and clients about the differences between growth and development. In our organizations—and certainly in our economic system—there is a premium placed on growth, rather than on the complexity and system of relationships that can develop if we think about development.

It’s also curious that we tend—in the international development arena—to conflate these terms, which has resulted in practices that aim to bring projects to communities around the world that might serve economic interests but don’t respect the underlying cultural and social needs of the community. 

The same can be said of our organizations, and the way in which we create expectations in our work around delivering on results for ourselves, our co-workers, or those investors or funders supporting our work. Increasingly, we are seeing the importance of working collaboratively—either due to funding challenges, and/or because we don’t have the capacity or expertise to accomplish our mission alone.

With a greater understanding of the way systems work, partially raised by issues such as economic and climate instability, the inherent value of a collaborative approach is also being seen. And we need to adjust to what progress means in such a situation—when working collaboratively or with community groups, there are often unrealistic expectations laid out for goals within a particular timeline. 

Even with adjustments in expectations, measuring progress can get confusing and overwhelming, as described in an article from last year from the OECD about understanding what we are actually measuring. In an even more recent New York Times article on The Preservation Predicament, expectations about protecting particular ecosystems are shown to be shifting because of the way in which global climate change is altering those systems.  

Given this sense of uncertainty about measuring progress, it’s no surprise that there has been increased talk about ‘eco-fatigue’ and ‘eco-anxiety’, as seen in the February 2008 issues of Outside and San Francisco magazines. Both suggest that we are simply overwhelmed by even knowing what to do to address the environmental challenges we face.

But it’s important that we don’t simply surrender: like the overwhelm we experience once we decide to stick to that resolution or take on a new project, this may be a healthy indicator of moving toward progress as our understanding of sustainability and social change deepen. This is part of what environmental and culture writer Bill McKibben refers to as “the inner culture shift” and is an essential part of making progress. 

One area where there has been incredible work around measuring progress on a community level is in looking at indicators, which help provide a sense of progress on a range of issues for communities and organizations. Yet even here, there is always room for improvement.

While working on an indicators project years ago, I surveyed colleagues about appropriate community progress indicators. I got the usual list of responses around using childhood asthma rates, percentage of tree cover in a community, and number of owner-occupied homes. But one colleague said: “I think we should measure how many people are smiling on the train every morning!”

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