Monday, July 13, 2009

The Happy Planet Index Redux

Not long ago, I did a post about the Happy Planet Index, a quantification of 'ecological efficiency' from the New Economics Foundation. Roughly speaking, it measures the satisfaction of basic human needs per unit of resource consumption, so that the "happiest" countries are those that achieve higher standards of living while minimizing environmental impacts.

Well, now the NEF has come out with a rather souped-up HPI 2.0, complete with think-tanky 64-page report. Here's the new map:

happy planet index 2


The NEF regards the equivocation of economic growth with human progress as a foolish fallacy, a position The Map Scroll heartily endorses. They make this observation in their report (pdf), which includes this fascinating paragraph:
For most of human history, economic growth was a minor phenomenon: a side effect, where it existed, of the pursuit of other goals. It only attained its quasi-mystical role when GDP was placed atop the podium of indicators with the development of the United Nations system of National Accounts in 1947. At that time, focusing on productivity growth made sense. Much of the world needed to be rebuilt following the war, and that required growing economies. Furthermore, economic growth helped avoid distributional debates. The rising voice of the working classes demanded more of the material cake. The only way elites could respond to that voice without having to give up anything themselves was by growing the cake.
Our needs have changed since then, but "systems carry their own momentum, and even the wealthiest countries still pursue economic growth as if they were still struggling to recover from the war."

And the report notes this: "once our basic material needs are met, more concumption tends to make little difference to our well-being." This should be obvious and common-sensical; the marginal utility of consumption or wealth decreases dramatically once our basic physiological and safety needs are met. But the negative environmental externalities of consumption only become very onerous when we're talking about further consumption; the man compensating for his low self-esteem and need for acceptance by driving his Hummer does far more damage to the planet than the Malian woman getting inoculations for her infant, though the latter's actions do much, much more to increase happiness and limit suffering. But of course, buying a Hummer contributes orders of magnitude more to economic growth than does getting inoculations. On one hand, this is tragic: all our Hummer-driving and cheeseburger-eating is destroying the planet, and at the same time isn't even contributing much to our collective well-being. On the other hand, it also represents an enormous opportunity: if we could just see this fact, and re-order our priorities in accordance with it, we have a lot of room to limit our negative impacts on the environment while maintaining, or even improving, our level of well-being.

So that's the insight behind the HPI, and it's reinforced by some of their findings. Life expectancy correlates with higher GDP/capita, but not perfectly; Cuba, which is much poorer than the US, has a life expectancy that's nearly as high. And, the report says, "the most important gains in terms of both life expectancy and life satisfaction occur over the first 10,000 pounds of GDP distribution - beyond that there is little systemic difference between nations." This is evident in the map of life satisfaction by country:

life satisfaction map

The country with the greatest value of "happy life years" (a combination of life expectancy and satisfaction) is Costa Rica, with a GDP/capita about one-fourth that of the wealthiest countries. Even countries like Vietnam and China do better than the fairly wealthy Portugal.

The measures are set against the ecological footprint, a measure of resources used per capita. This is measured in terms of global hectares; the world average is 2.1 global hectares per person. The poorest countries have the lowest gha consumption; the largest ecological footprint is Luxembourg's, at 10.2 gha. The US is third, at 9.4. Here's the map of ecological footprints:

ecological footprint map

There's a broad correlation between wealth and ecological footprint, but it's not like all wealthy countries are interchangeable on this metric. South Korea uses only 3.7 gha, and the Netherlands uses only 4.4.

The map at the top of this post assigns countries a valuation of 'good,' 'middling,' or 'bad' for each of the three components of the index: life expectancy, life satisfaction, and ecological footprint, with a further very bad category for countries with exceptionally large ecological footprints. Countries that score poorly on life ecpectancy and satisfaction, like many of the poorest countries in Africa, show up as red even though they have small footprints. Coutries with high life expectancy and satisfaction, but very large footprints, are also red.

Comparing happy life years to ecological footprint yields some interesting regional patterns:

green target chart

Where you want to be on this chart is in the upper left-hand corner: high on the happy life years scale and low on the ecological footprint scale. Most of the countries that come closest to that ideal are Latin American, with a few East Asian and Middle Eastern countries in that group as well. Sub-Saharan Africa tends to be low on both scales, and Western nations tend to be high on both.

Overall, the report says, the world has a life expectancy of 68.3 years, a life satisfaction of 6.1, and an ecological footprint of 2.4, for an overall HPI score of 49 out of 100. In other words, as a global society we're overshooting our resource limits, and we're not even all that happy. Hopefully we'll learn to look to places like Costa Rica to see how to find a balance between our desire to lead happy and fulfilling lives and our need to preserve that same opportunity for future generations, rather than blithely drive our SUVs over the precipice of catastrophe. And when you frame it that way, the choice we ought to make seems obvious. If only we weren't humans, I'd feel pretty confident that we'd make the right one.

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