Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The Happy Planet Index

The New Economics Foundation has come up with something called the Happy Planet Index that categorizes countries based on their relative ecological efficiency. It doesn't actually have much to do with happiness, per se, and it's not to be confused with this map, but it's a snappy enough title. Here it is:

So what do they mean by ecological efficiency? And what do those colors indicate? Well, here's some of what they have to say:
The Happy Planet Index (HPI) is an innovative new measure that shows the ecological efficiency with which human well-being is delivered around the world. It is the first ever index to combine environmental impact with well-being to measure the environmental efficiency with which country by country, people live long and happy lives.

The Index doesn’t reveal the ‘happiest’ country in the world. It shows the relative efficiency with which nations convert the planet’s natural resources into long and happy lives for their citizens. The nations that top the Index aren’t the happiest places in the world, but the nations that score well show that achieving, long, happy lives without over-stretching the planet’s resources is possible. The HPI shows that around the world, high levels of resource consumption do not reliably produce high levels of well-being (life-satisfaction), and that it is possible to produce high levels of well-being without excessive consumption of the Earth’s resources. It also reveals that there are different routes to achieving comparable levels of well-being. The model followed by the West can provide widespread longevity and variable life satisfaction, but it does so only at a vast and ultimately counter-productive cost in terms of resource consumption.
Sound a bit vague to you? Here's the HPI described in somewhat more concrete terms:
The HPI reflects the average years of happy life produced by a given society, nation or group of nations, per unit of planetary resources consumed. Put another way, it represents the efficiency with which countries convert the earth’s finite resources into well-being experienced by their citizens.
Still dubious? Try this:

There: variables expressed in Greek. So you know it's serious.

Actually, the principle here seems like a good one to me; I'll have a bit more to say about it later. For now I only ask: could Guatemala and Honduras really be among the most "ecologically efficient" countries in the world? I don't know - I'm really just asking. But it does surprise me a bit.


Richard said...

By their measure, yes, because those folks are too poor to consume a lot, and they aren't being brutalized. However, would anyone actually want to live as a typical Catracho or Chapine rather than in a first-world country?

If anything, it just shows the flaws of this index.

Gus said...

The real question is Mexico. American companies move to Mexico to avoid our environmental laws, most Mexicans are quite poor, and while the government isn't necessarily mistreating them, drug cartels evidently are, but Mexico is ecologically efficient? Not to mention South American, ranked better than Europe, the US, or Africa - but still slashing and burning rain forest for agribusiness. Does none of this count because Americans are the beneficiaries of the ecological destruction these nations allow on their territory? They're going to have to do better than this to show that a long happy life can be had in an ecologically sound way.

Chachy said...

Richard - most people would choose to live an enormously wasteful and exorbitant lifestyle if they could, no doubt. But that's not compatible with living sustainably. This index is trying to measure ecological efficiency, rather than well-being, which is merely a variable in their calculation.

An analogy: if I work one hour for $100, that's more efficient than working 10 hours for $900. But I'd way rather do the latter. (Of course, Bill Gates might make a different calculation...)

Richard said...

Well, I would counter that it's awfully hard to determine what type of lifestyle is "sustainable" without being able to foresee the future, because it's near impossible to predict what human ingenuity can come up with. For sure, if you extrapolate out our current behavior for a century or so, it's not sustainable, but it's also very unlikely that our behavior would not change over the next 100 years. Humans (and dogs, and most animals) respond to incentives very well, and you can be sure that when the prices of scarce resources start shooting through the roof, people will be incented to either find substitutes or use those resources more efficiently.

Chachy said...

If the prices of scarce resources start shooting through the roof, that'll be a pretty good sign that we're not living sustainably.

Richard said...

If you define "sustainable" as "living just as we are doing now forever onward", but living as people did in the year 1900 was also not sustainable forever, yet no one in their right mind today would want to live in the world of 1900 (much more pollution, inefficiency, and all sorts of nastiness then compared to now), so that begs the question: why should living sustainably be considered such a virtue? I would think that encouraging a socio-economic setup where innovation can occur would be more important.

Chachy said...

I agree standards of living are generally a lot higher now than they were in 1900 (though I wouldn't agree there's less pollution now; it's just in different parts of the world). But the cost of this has been an unsustainable plundering of resources. To take one significant example, the run-up in living standards since 1900 has been hugely dependent on cheap oil. Now we've used up about half of all the oil that will ever be produced, meaning we can't possibly continue to consume as much as we have so far, let alone continue to increase consumption; yet it's never been demonstrated that we can have economic growth in a modern industrial economy without increasing consumption of fossil fuels.

Another example is the Green Revolution. This brought huge expansions in agricultural production, which fed population growth and, again, a rise in standards of living. But there are signs that some of the methods that made the Green Revolution possible are unsustainable - e.g., in parts of India, irrigation has cause the water table to drop dramatically, which may eventually have the consequence of making the land much less fertile and reversing the gains from the GR.

If 'innovation' could simply make such problems go away, that would be great, and I'd be all for it; and indeed, I support increasing wind and solar power generation, which are 'innovations' that could help put us on a more sustainable path. But there's really no precendent for this in modern history; the story since the dawn of industrialization has simply been one of ever-increasing consumption of natural resources and ever-increasing infringement on the biosphere. It's simply not possible to continue these trends and maintain our current, unprecendentedly posh standard of living.

Richard said...

Well, the standard of living in the West has been "unprecedentedly posh" ever since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. I disagree that simply because trends can not continue ad infinitum that these trends will end any time close to our lifetimes. If you think about it, everything is a natural resource: the air you breathe, the sun, the geothermal heat generated by the Earth, radioactive isotopes; there's a hell of a lot more that can be harvested that currently isn't.

(BTW, on one point, I would agree with you that it would suck to no longer be able to eat wild-caught saltwater fish or shellfish due to the collapse of the fisheries and acidification of the oceans, but just imploring people to "live sustainably" won't save them; assigning property rights to them will).

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