Tuesday, October 6, 2009

We can measure our way to 'la dolce vita'

From the 27th to the 30th of this month (October) global experts will gather in Busan, Korea, for the OECD World Forum. Although this event has much greater potential for influencing the future of the world than the Copenhagen Conference on climate change, it has been all but ignored by the world’s media.

Every key player and informed commentator knows that at best Copenhagen will result in a lot of politicians making well-meaning promises they can’t keep – just like Kyoto.

Busan, on the other hand, is about getting results. It’s about the “Global Project on ‘Measuring the Progress of Societies’- hosted by the OECD and run in collaboration with other international and regional partners - it seeks to become the world wide reference point for those who wish to measure, and assess the progress of their societies”.

It’s a cause that has been embraced by French President Nicolas Sarkozy to his credit.

But his initiative has largely been treated with ridicule by the media. Knowing the media as I do, this is not surprising. What is been attempted at Busan is way outside the popular media’s vocabulary.

Our journalists are far-more at home with the finger-pointing, accusations, arguments and emotional rhetoric generated by climate change. This sells papers. Results-driven constructive initiatives like the OECD’s Global Project, or the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, just don’t have anything to offer the media. They lack the strong emotions the media needs to attract customers like you and me.

Tracking effective measurements is one of the most powerful means of bringing about change. I once asked an engineer how he had achieved such remarkable results in improving the energy efficiency and reducing the greenhouse emissions from his industrial plant. He said it was just a result of measuring and tracking theses parameters of our business. “Once we established benchmarks and then tracked our progress as part of our everyday business, the plant operators starting finding all sorts of ways to reduce energy waste,” he said.

This is what the OECD, as well as credible organisations around the world, have been doing for years. But they will never achieve their full potential until they are adopted by the mainstream media.

We do it for anything to do with money, such as share markets, GDP, consumer sentiment, but if it does not relate directly to money we ignore it.

The media goes into a frenzy whenever interest rates move. Here in Australia, particularly since the last election, we saw all sorts of claims and accusations about which party, Liberal Coalition, or Labor, were best at keeping interest rates low.

But do interest rates really present a credible measure of a government’s worth? The merits of debating levels of interest rates under Liberal or Labor leadership is so spurious given the impact of international factors on Australia’s economy.

And anyway, Governments are not just elected to steer the economy – we are a society not just an economy.

According to pioneering sociologist Emile Durkheim, it’s another issue floating around in the public debate lately that is a much more accurate measure of the health of a society than money – it’s suicide.

Durkheim believed that the only true way to gain empirical evidence of our society’s health and wellbeing was by counting how many of us decide to check-out early.

So how do our historic Liberal and Labor Governments go on suicide rates?

According to the World Health Organisation, it’s the Liberals who hold the record for suicide rates in Australia. But not just any Liberal Government, it’s the Liberal Party’s icon, Sir Robert Menzies. He managed to increase the suicide rate by an astounding 37.6 percent to almost 15 per 100,000 people – an all-time record – in a decade and a half of Government.

Most remarkably he managed to increase women’s suicide rate into unprecedented double figures by the mid-‘60s.

Between 1950 and 1965 our female suicide rate went from 4.7 per 100,000 to 10.8, climaxing with an astonishing 42.6 percent increase in the first five years of the swinging ‘60s.

What could have happened to create such a dramatic spike? Looking at the statistics from a high altitude you could not miss the fact that this was a period of tremendous social change in the role of women. This was the epicentre of women’s liberation as they burned their bras and came out of the kitchen and into the workforce.

Does this mean that many of our mums and daughters chose to put their heads in the oven rather than leave the confines of the kitchen?

A quick look through Wikipedia reveals that in January 1961 The Pill went on sale in Australia, April 1964 saw Melbourne woman Judy Hanrahan appointed as the first female teller in the Bank of NSW since the War. In the same month Menzies refused to ratify the International Labor Organisation convention on equal pay for women.

As our suicide rates neared their peak, Donald Horne published The Lucky Country. But then, coincidentally after Sydney’s Philip St Theatre staged its famous comedy revue, A Cup Of Tea, A Bex and A Good Lie Down, the tide turned. Menzies handed the reins over to Harold Holt and female suicide rates began to decline. However, it wasn’t until 2003, with John Howard as PM, that they returned to their 1950 rate of 4.7.

There is no question that according to Durkheim’s measure, the Age of Aquarius, peace and free love was not a happy time. As our society lifted her skirts and let down her hair, and the beautiful people indulged in drugs and sex and rock and roll, women in the English-speaking world were killing themselves in record numbers. But it has to be said that the UK and US rate for women never came close to our double figures.

Our rate for men, on the other hand, lives in double figures.

The title for achieving the highest suicide rate for men goes to Labor icon Bob Hawke. In 1990 it hit an unprecedented 20.7 per 100,000. This was just as the country was heading into Treasurer Keating’s “recession we had to have”.

Durkheim’s mission over a century ago was to find uncompromised data to measure and study social trends, because our intuition is often very misleading.

For example, we like to think of ourselves as “the greatest little country on earth” – land of beautiful beaches, sunshine and “she’ll be right mate”. So then how come, according to the OECD, our suicide rate is nearly twice that of those “whinging”,” whining” Poms?

Sociology has come a long way since Durkheim’s day. We now have a wide range of sophisticated measures such as Cantril-ladder-type questionnaires to test how we’re doing as a society. But, as I said earlier, for some reason we choose to ignore them unless they are linked to money.

Experts agree that suicide rates and the epidemic of depression that has been sweeping the post-war industrial world seems to be linked to breakdowns in social cohesion. In short, it has to do with the “ME” generation. Anything we can do to turn our “ME” upside down to make a “WE” society will improve our outlook and reduce our suicides.

In the past communities grew around a cathedral, synagogue, temple or a mosque. Today we worship the bourse. Our daily news outlets report on the Dow Jones Index, the FTSE, the Nasdaq, the Hang Seng, the Nikkei, the All Ordinaries, the S&P, CPI, GDP, the dollar etc, etc, etc.

As Robert Kennedy said in 1968 – ironically, as American women were killing themselves in record numbers – we measure “everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile”. Three months later he was shot dead.

So the 3rd OECD World Forum on “Statistics, Knowledge and Policy” (October 27-30) will feature its Global Project on "Measuring the Progress of Societies". Although it has been embraced by President Sarkozy who is developing a measurement template “for every interested country or group of countries” for now it looks like the world media’s attention is elsewhere.

However, the success or failure of these initiatives – and therefore our success or failure in achieving our goals including tackling climate change – will depend on the media.

So come-on editors and producers, step away for the sheep and start making real progress.

Here is a sample of some of the human-factor measures you can choose from. They are all tried and tested.

This is only a few and each of these have links to many more.

If we are serious about winning the "War on Terror", if we are serious about building a better world for our children and grandchildren, then we will measure the things that matter most and we will report the results along with the weather, the stock market trends and the value of the dollar in our newspapers and on the evening news.