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Number: 67
Year: 1999
Author: Eloísa Trellez Solís and Gustavo Wilches Chaux
Title: Education for a Sustainable Future in the Americas

Subjective Indicators of Quality of Life

Certain indicators undoubtedly provide a more or less accurate assessment of the conditions in which the life of a specific community evolves. Among these are access to essential public utilities (potable water, sewerage, solid waste disposal and treatment, etc.), means of communication (telephone, roads), building materials for housing, educational opportunities, and number of physicians or hospital beds per capita. Additional macrolevel indicators of quality of life include infant mortality rates and child malnutrition rates, which reveal features of the basic living conditions in a given region.

Still other indicators, which we might call “subjective indicators of quality of life,” simply reflect the features of “success” models prevailing in a given culture. In urban sectors of our countries, particularly, these success models are closely linked to the consumption of material goods, energy and services. For the most part, they are not success models arising from endogenous cultural evolution, but are instead the consequence of imported development models and styles. In particular, the cinema and the television transmit symbols of external power and material success from the developed world, which are often adopted without reservation. While some social groups in Latin America and the Caribbean lack the essentials for everyday survival, other sectors seek out, at any personal, social or environmental cost, consumption levels typical of the most privileged elites in developed countries.

Ironically, in the developed North, these same elites are increasingly concerned about the negative social consequences derived from success models based primarily on consumption. They lament the apparent decline in the importance of “traditional values,” by which they mean diminishing tolerance, self-sacrifice, cooperation, compassion, responsibility, friendship, courage, perseverance and faith.11 In other words, dissatisfaction with the fruits of competition and consumption is growing, consistent with spreading disillusion about the sustainability of social life based, predominantly, on such acquisitive priorities alone.

Agenda 21 draws attention to the urgent need for the North, in particular, to adopt a mode of “sustainable consumption”. At least in theory, the Declaration of Heads of State and Government issued by the Summit at Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia, articulates a consensus concerning “common but differing accountability.” This term refers to the commitment of more-developed countries to reduce their environmental pollution and degradation levels, stressing, at the same time, that “a special commitment should be made regarding those groups who, traditionally, have benefited little from economic growth and human development, such as indigenous populations, minority communities, and poor women and children.”

Today’s children, youth and their descendents should learn and achieve what generations before them have been unable to understand due to ignorance or folly: how to harmonize individual with collective satisfaction; short-term gratification with long-term sustainability; personal wellbeing with global health. To achieve this, we must develop new “subjective indicators” that allow us to measure and to perceive success not in terms of material accumulation but on the basis of more complex and humane criteria.

Challenge for the Future
  • To provide future generations with the tools necessary to look critically at the world they inherit.
  • To consolidate early-stage educational strategies, through both formal and non-formal approaches, that promote the formulation of relevant evaluation criteria, such as those mentioned above, so that future generations can arrive at their own methods of seeking a more sustainable world.
  • To develop educational orientations that prepare for a global world in which we can measure success on a local basis in terms of our own needs and our own satisfactions.12