Setting the Scales

Posted: October 21st, 2008 under Overview.

“What gets measured, gets managed.”

Peter Drucker

My general plan for this site is to add posts about different efforts to measure environmental performance.  I hope to cover a range of scales of such efforts on an equal basis, from the most personal to the most global.

For each post, I’ll provide a very brief description of the measure in focus, with links to the source if you want to learn more.  Then I’ll look at the “performance” of these measures across three criteria:

1. Transparency: How transparent are the measures?  How open are they about their data sources?  How clear are they about their methods of rating and certification?  In order to assess these assessments, the first and most fundamental criteria is transparency.  I rate the ratings on a 5 point scale, as outlined below:

  • “Air:” Most transparency possible. Sources and methods are clearly described, with references and
  • explanations that enable easy replication.
  • “Glass:” High transparency. All sources and methods are described, but not in enough detail to enable easy replication.
  • “Plastic:” Translucence. Some sources and methods are described, in varying levels of detail, while others are left unclear.
  • “Brick:” Opaqueness. Very few, if any, sources and methods are described, and with very few details.
  • “Lead:” Least transparency possible. Just as lead walls indicate an active effort to avoid prying eyes (even those of Superman), these measures describe no sources and methods, and may even mislead audiences about the nature of the rating.

2. Governance: How is the creation and maintenance of these measures governed and managed?  Who makes the decisions about what criteria gets included and what things get rated?  Understanding these decision-making processes is critical to understanding the nature of the measures themselves.  I therefore identify the the governance style of each measure, on the following 5 point scale:

  • “Monarchy:” A single individual makes the decisions about the measure. The benevolent dictator model, unencumbered by special interests and the ignorant mob.
  • “Oligarchy:” A small number of wise but unelected organizations or individuals run the show. They are brave humanitarians or treehuggers, unmotivated by lowly profit or electoral considerations.
  • “Aristocracy:” The landed class, or in our age, the “industrialists,” hold the cards in this model. They are the ones running production, the reasoning goes, so they should be the ones measuring it.
  • Republic:” Elected or appointed representatives of the people are at the controls in this model, either directly by passing laws or indirectly through the bureaucracies at their command.  While accountable to the demos, they have some latitude in using their “expert judgment.”
  • “Democracy:” Anyone motivated to express their opinion contributes to decision-making. The people speak, and their will is followed, without regard to class, status, expertise, and sometimes even basic facts.

3. Coverage: What issues are covered by the measure?  How well, or how deeply, are they covered?  Once we know something about the transparency and governance of the measure, we probably would like to understand something about its quality, or coverage.  I use the scale below to assess both the “breadth” and “depth” of the ratings covered on this site:

  • “Owl:” The owl is known for its wisdom, and so its ratings are both broad and deep. They cover a wide range of environmental issues in a high level of detail. A rare feat, indeed.
  • “Hedgehog:” As Aesop once said, the hedgehog knows one thing very well. And so do its ratings–they cover one issue in great detail, to the exclusion of other, perhaps equally important ones.
  • “Fox:” The fox, also according to Aesop, is the opposite of the hedgehog, and knows many things, but not in much depth. The fox’s measures, have broad coverage, but do not go into much detail.
  • “Grasshopper:” In Aesop’s tales, the grasshopper is eaten by the owl because of its simplemindedness, falling for the owl’s simple flattery. Grasshopper ratings are similarly neither broad nor deep in their coverage, but cover few issues with limited details.
Narrow Focus Broad Focus
Shallow Focus Grasshopper


Deep Focus Hedgehog


Of course other criteria are relevant to measures of environmental performance, and I will bring them up when they seem appropriate.  But I feel these three — transparency, governance, and coverage — are particularly important, useful, and interesting, and so I want to make sure I cover them, at least for the time being.

I should also note that we should not immediately apply value judgments to these different conditions — glass or lead, republic or aristocracy, owl or grasshopper — as each has their strengths and weaknesses, their costs and benefits.  As we explore different examples, we can discuss these tradeoffs, and how they should be made in different contexts.

A final point is that you may disagree with some of my assessments, and by no means do I believe them to be final or definitive, but merely as a means to begin a discussion on these topics.  I hope you will find this framework and these starting points helpful and insightful — let me know what you think…!

Window photo is from

Hedgehog photo is from

All other photos are from Microsoft Office ClipArt.


RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment