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Devotees of silent comedy will know self-congratulation is a dangerous thing. No sooner do heroes like Fatty Arbuckle or Laurel and Hardy beam with pride at their achievements than they come a cropper, usually with a hefty dollop of personal humiliation.

So when the government this week announced the latest set of sustainable development indicators, it was wise to leave the job to the low-profile environment minister, Ian Pearson - despite the opportunity to add the usual spin to the fact that more than half the indicators show an improvement.

And credit to Mr Pearson for eschewing the opportunity to blow the government’s trumpet, instead highlighting the challenge that the indicators present.

He’s right to do so. As a whole, the indicators present a complex picture, but one in which a broad theme emerges: that we continue to enjoy economic prosperity and wellbeing at the expense of long-term sustainability and equality.

So housing conditions and local environmental quality show an improvement, a reflection of government investment over recent years and the ‘cleaner, safer, greener’ agenda at local level. Recycling is beginning to take off. There has been a small rise in community participation.

But the culture of consumption continues unabated: we continue to believe we can have it all, as long as we recycle a bit of it. On the crucial issue of climate change, we’re producing more renewable energy and less sulphur dioxide from electricity generation, but carbon dioxide emissions from houses and road transport are worsening, as are greenhouse gases from aviation. We’re generating more household waste and using more energy.

Delve deeper and we find further indications of unsustainable lifestyles. Fewer children are walking to school; childhood obesity is rising; public transport is still in decline; the gap between the life expectancy of the best-off and worst-off is growing. More households are living in temporary accommodation.

This is the flip side of prosperity, and illustrates the difference between a prosperous nation (which we are) and sustainable communities (which we’re still a long way from achieving).

It’s significant that among the key ‘framework indicators’ set out by the government, the ones that show clear improvement are economic growth, employment and education. And while these are essentials if we are to be a competitive nation, it’s a flawed achievement if we remain divided, frightened to engage with each other and environmentally self-destructive.

Julian Dobson, editor, New Start Online magazine

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