According to the trends in energy and material consumption and carbon emissions described earlier, we have no empirical grounds to be optimistic regarding the economic growth-ecological sustainability dilemma. After 40 years of discussion (considering The limits to growth (Meadows et al., 1972) as the trigger of the discussion), the absolute decoupling between economic growth and carbon emissions, energy and materials consumption defended by neoclassical and environmental economics has not materialized, even though most of the countries have experienced significant improvements in their respective intensities (carbon, energy and material intensities of GDP). Although dematerialization of the economy is the goal, we cannot solely trust on technological development for achieving a sustainable socioeconomic subsystem within the ecosystem boundaries.
Economic growth, therefore, should not be considered as a goal itself, as it has traditionally been, but as an instrument to achieving welfare and socioeconomic sustainability. There have been interesting tries to redefine the goals of economic activity beyond economic growth. The simplest yet compelling framework, outlined by Moran et al. (2008), consists on combining the ecological footprint on one hand, as a measure of the ecosystem boundaries, and the Human Development Index (HDI) on the other hand as an indicator of human welfare. The HDI is a composite measure, which takes into account per capita income, health and education, and it has recently been improved to weight these indicators by social and gender inequality, making it a comprehensive indicator. According to this framework, sustainable development would be achieved when the countries’ ecological footprint lies below the earth biocapacity (1.71 hectares per person), and when the human development index reaches a minimum level (e.g., 0.7, as we can see in figure 1).
According to this framework, and as shown in Figure 1, we can divide the countries into four groups according to their performance in social and ecological sustainability. The upper-left quadrant represents the countries with poor performance in both, human and ecological development. Most of the countries, however, have either (i) both high HDI and ecological impact (upper-right quadrant; developed countries); or (ii) both low HDI and low ecological impact (lower left quadrant, developing countries). The goal is to achieve sustainability by having high human development and low ecological impact (lower-right quadrant). Only two countries meet both sustainability criteria according to the data provided by the Global Footprint Network for 2013: Sri Lanka and Dominican Republic.
Figure 1. Sustainable development as a function of the Human Development Index (benchmark: 0.7) and Ecological Footprint (benchmark: earth’s biocapacity: 1.71 hectares per person). Bubble size represents the countries’ population
Source: Global Footprint Network
The main goal of each country would be therefore given by their position in this figure. While developed countries should reduce their ecological impact without reducing their human welfare, developing countries should achieve higher human development without incurring in higher ecological impact. The challenge is how to pursue two objectives that have so far been opposite to each other.
 It is not a perfect indicator though. For example, whilst health (life expectancy) and education (mean and expected years of schooling) have upper limits, income can always grow. Therefore, there is a point from which increases in the HDI only reflect economic growth. Besides, the index is relative to maximum and minimum levels so it can be misleading in some circumstances, e.g. if the top performers decline other countries would improve without having any real improvement. A more comprehensive index is the Better Life Index developed by the OECD which measures eleven composite indicators going from environment to subjective life satisfaction, in addition to the conventional ones such as income or jobs. The HDI is, however, a useful indicator for a general level of analysis, although obviously much more detail is required for further analysis.