A Better Way to Measure Prosperity
The Happy Planet Index
This is a long report by the New Economics Foundation ("nef") about its great new index. Bravo!
A new global measure of progress, the ‘Happy Planet Index’, reveals for the first time that happiness doesn’t have to cost the Earth. It shows that people can live long, happy lives without using more than their fair share of the Earth’s resources. The new international ranking of the environmental impact and well-being reveals a very different picture of the wealth, and poverty, of nations.
The Happy Planet Index, an innovative new index from nef (the new economics foundation) launched on Wednesday 12 July 2006, is the first ever index to combine environmental impact with well-being to measure the environmental efficiency with which countries provide long and happy lives. The results are surprising, even shocking. The ranking unmasks a very different world order to that promoted by self-appointed global leaders, the G8. For example, the UK is a disappointing 108th and the USA fares still worse at 150th on the Index.
nef’s report, The Happy Planet Index: An index of human well-being and environmental impact, published in association with Friends of the Earth, moves beyond crude ratings of nations according to national income, measured by Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to produce a more accurate picture of the progress of nations based on the amount of the Earth’s resources they use, and the length and happiness of people’s lives.
The Happy Planet Index (HPI) strips the view of the economy back to its absolute basics: what we put in (resources), and what comes out (human lives of different length and happiness). The resulting Index of the 178 nations for which data is available, reveals that the world as a whole has a long way to go. In terms of delivering long and meaningful lives within the Earth’s environmental limits - all nations could do better. No country achieves an overall ‘high’ score on the Index, and no country does well on all three indicators.
“It is clear that no single nation listed in the Happy Planet Index has got everything right. But the Index does reveal patterns that show how we might better achieve long and happy lives for all, whilst living within our environmental means. The challenge is - can we learn the lessons and apply them? Governments the world over have been concentrating on the targets for too long. If you have the wrong map, you are unlikely to reach your destination”, says Nic Marks, head of nef’s Centre for well-being.
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. Key findings of the Index are:
- Self appointed world ‘leaders’ – the G8 - score generally badly in the Index: The UK comes a disappointing 108th – with the remainder of the G8 faring little, if at all, better. Italy is 66th, Germany 81st, Japan 95th, Canada 111th, France 129th, United States 150th and Russia 172nd.
- The UK manages only 108th place in the Index: Just below Libya, and above Laos. The UK’s heavy ecological footprint, the eighteenth biggest worldwide, is to blame. But well-being in the UK is also unspectacular for a Western nation: it is beaten by countries such as Germany, the US, Costa Rica, Malta and, in top place, Switzerland.
- Central America is the region with the highest average score in the Index: The region combines relatively good life expectancy (an average of 70 years) and high life satisfaction with an ecological footprint below its globally equitable share. Central America has had a notorious history of conflict and political instability, but the last 15 years have been relatively peaceful, which perhaps, with traditionally high levels of community engagement, explain its success.
- Countries classified by the United Nations as ‘medium human development’ come out better than both low and high-development countries: Only one ‘low-development’ country has a strong HPI score, whilst 21 per cent of countries classified as ‘highly-developed’ do. However, 44 per cent of countries with ‘medium-development’ score well. This is because, beyond a certain level, vastly increasing consumption fails to lead to greater well-being.
- Well-being is not based on high levels of consumption: For example, Estonia - with high consumption - rates poorly on well-being. And, in the Dominican Republic where well-being is high, consumption is not above a globally equitable share.
- Life satisfaction varies wildly country by country: Questioned on how satisfied they were with their life as a whole, on a scale of 1-10 (1 being ‘dissatisfied, 10 ‘satisfied’), 29.4 per cent of Zimbabweans rate themselves at 1 and only 5.7 per cent rate themselves at 10. By contrast, 28.4 per cent of Danes rate their satisfaction with life 10/10, with less than one percent rating 1.
- Life expectancy also varies wildly: Babies born in Japan can expect to live to 82, but only to 32 and a half if born in Swaziland.
- Overall, we are over-burdening the Earth’s currently available biocapacity: By consuming 22 per cent above our ecosystems’ ability to regenerate we are eating into and degrading the natural resources that our life-support systems depend on. In the process we are depleting the environmental goods and services that future generations will depend on, with potentially devastating consequences.
“We are used to comparing countries in terms of crude riches or what they trade. There are international league tables for performance on issues from corruption to sporting success. But, nef’s Happy Planet Index measures something much more fundamental. It addresses the relative success or failure of countries in giving their citizens a good life, whilst respecting the environmental resource limits on which all our lives depend. The order of nations that emerges may seem counter-intuitive. But this is because, to a large degree, policy makers have been led astray by abstract mathematical models of the economy that bear little relation to the real world,” says Andrew Simms, nef’s Policy Director.
Some of the most unexpected findings concern the marked differences between nations, and the similarities among some groups of nations:
- Island nations score well above average in the Index: They have higher life satisfaction, higher life expectancy and marginally lower Footprints than other states. Yet incomes (by GDP per capita) are roughly equal to the world average. Even within regions, islands do well. Malta tops the Western world with Cyprus in seventh place (out of 24); the top five HPI nations in Africa are all islands; as well as two of the top four in Asia. Perhaps a more acute awareness of environmental limits has sometimes helped their societies to bond better and to adapt to get more from less. Combined with the enhanced well-being that stems from close contact with nature, the world as a whole stands to learn much from the experience of islands.
- It is possible to live long, happy lives with a much smaller environmental impact: For example, in the United States and Germany people’s sense of life satisfaction is almost identical and life expectancy is broadly similar. Yet Germany’s Ecological Ecological footprint is only about half that of the USA. This means that Germany is around twice as efficient as the USA at generating happy long lives based on the resources that they consume.
As the HPI clearly demonstrates, happiness doesn’t have to cost the Earth. 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.
“The UK economy hoovers up vast quantities of the world’s scarce resources, yet British people are no happier than Colombians or Guyanese, who use far fewer. The current crude focus on GDPis outdated, destructive and doesn’t deliver a better quality of life. The UK economy must get much smarter and greener,” says Simon Bullock, Friends of the Earth’s economics co-ordinator.
nef proposes a Global Manifesto for a happier planet, outlining how we might begin to both live within our environmental limits and increase well-being. Necessary first steps include:
- Eradicating extreme poverty and hunger. Increasing material wealth in ‘developed’ countries does not lead to greater happiness, while in ‘developing’ countries extreme poverty systematically undermines people’s opportunities to build good lives for themselves and their families. We urgently need to redesign our global systems to more equitably distribute the things people rely on for their day-to-day livelihoods, for example: income, and access to land, food and other resources.
- Supporting meaningful lives. Governments should recognise the contribution of individuals to economic, social, cultural, and civic life and value unpaid activity. Employers should be encouraged to enable their employees to work flexibly, allowing them to develop full lives outside of the workplace and make time to undertake voluntary work. They should also strive to provide challenges and opportunities for personal development at work.
- Identifying environmental limits and design economic policy to work within them. The ecological footprint gives us a measure of the Earth’s biocapacity that, if over-stretched, leads to long-term environmental degradation. Globally we need to live within our environmental means. One-planet living should become an official target of government policy with a pathway and timetable to achieve it. (The UK currently consumes at just over three times this level. If everyone in the world consumed as we do in the UK, we would need 3.1 planets like Earth to support us.)
But perhaps most importantly, nef calls for political organisations to embrace and apply new measures of progress, such as the HPI and properly adjusted GDP measures. Only then will we be equipped to address the twin challenges of delivering a good quality of life for all whilst remaining within genuine environmental limits.
For more information, go to www.happyplanetindex.org
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