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Good lives shouldn’t cost the Earth

Happy lives can be achieved with lower levels of resource use. As the G8 prepares to meet, Juliet Michaelson argues that world leaders should turn away from the siren song of limitless economic growth.

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In an age of financial crisis, energy insecurity and climate change, how do we really know if we are moving in the right direction? Leaders from the Group of Eight (G8) nations, gathering in Italy later this week, believe that economic growth crudely measured by gross domestic product (GDP) holds the key. Yet, following the siren song of economic growth has delivered only marginal benefits to the world’s poorest, while undermining the basis of their livelihoods. Neither has it notably improved the well-being of those who were already rich – or even provided economic stability. And that is before we begin to address environmental resource use.

In the United Kingdom, prime minister Gordon Brown recently restated his belief that the global economy stands to double in size over the next 20 years. He fails to mention – or doesn't know – that each “doubling” of the economy uses as many resources as all of the previous doublings combined. Since the world as a whole already uses more resources and produces more waste collectively than our forests, fields, oceans and atmosphere can safely provide and absorb, there is one question we must ask: where will the resources to double the size of the global economy come from? Clearly, we need a new measure to chart a new course, before high-consuming lifestyles plunge us into the chaos of irreversible climate change.

One such measure is provided by the Happy Planet Index (HPI). First launched three years ago by nef (the new economics foundation), the HPI is a radical departure from the current focus on GDP as the ultimate measure of societal success. Working from first principles, the HPI identifies health and a positive experience of life as universal human goals, and the natural resources that our human systems depend upon as fundamental inputs. A successful society then, is one that can support good lives that don’t cost the earth. As the US ecological economist Herman Daly puts it, the HPI is the ultimate efficiency measure.

The second global compilation of the HPI has now been calculated, with new data sets for 143 countries (99% of the world’s population). The results show that the world is still far from achieving sustainable well-being. However, by turning the idea of progress on its head, the report also reveals signs of hope. Although the HPI shows that the countries where people enjoy the happiest and healthiest lives are largely richer, developed countries, it also reveals the unsustainable ecological price we all pay as a result. And there are a number of notable exceptions: for instance, less wealthy countries with significantly smaller ecological footprints, and high levels of life expectancy and life satisfaction.

Latin America dominates the top of the HPI: nine of the 10 highest-scoring nations are Latin American, and Costa Rica is the highest scoring nation on the index. Overall, middle-income countries, such as those in Latin America and southeast Asia, tend to be the closest to achieving sustainable well-being. However, no country achieves a good score on all three components that make up the HPI: life satisfaction, life expectancy and ecological footprint. Even working at its optimum level, our current model is unable to deliver.

China fares relatively well, coming 20th out of 143 countries, but is the highest scoring country not to achieve a good score on at least one of the components. China’s ecological footprint was 2.1 global hectares per person in 2005, the latest year data are available. This exactly represents a fair share of the earth’s resources, given its current biocapacity and population – the level described as “one-planet living”. However, if the steady increases observed in the country’s ecological footprint over the last 20 years continue, we should not expect China to stay at this sustainable threshold for very long.

The HPI also reveals just how much China has much in common with the two other biggest countries in the world, India and the United States. All three are aggressively pursuing growth-based development models. All three have seen their HPI scores drop during the last two decades, not only as a result of bigger ecological footprints, but also because levels of well-being are lower than in 1990. Experience in China bears this out. As Sam Geall, deputy editor of chinadialogue, observes in his contribution to the HPI report: “despite the many benefits of the move to a market economy, including soaring GDP and much poverty reduction, many people have felt sharply the downsides of rapid growth.”

However, although China’s HPI score is clearly heading in the wrong direction, most rich, developed nations perform far worse than China, falling somewhere in the middle of the index. The highest-placed western nation is the Netherlands, which comes 43rd out of 143. The United Kingdom ranks midway down the table, at 74th, behind Germany, Italy and France, while the United States comes a long way back in 114th place.

The results of the HPI do provide some grounds for optimism. Comparisons between nations show that long, happy lives can be achieved with far lower levels of resource use. People in the Netherlands live on average over a year longer than people in the United States and have similar levels of life satisfaction – yet their per capita ecological footprint is less than half the size. This means that the Netherlands is over twice as ecologically efficient at achieving good lives as the US. Costa Ricans also live slightly longer than Americans, and report much higher levels of life satisfaction, and yet have a footprint that is less than one-quarter of the size.

The report contains a range of suggestions for strategies which could help to achieve sustainable well-being, drawing on living examples from around the world, where people, communities and governments have taken action to enhance well-being while reducing ecological footprint. The report also introduces a “Happy Planet Charter” calling for an unprecedented collective global effort to develop a new narrative of human progress and reduce consumption in the highest-consuming nations as the biggest single barrier to sustainable well-being. It highlights the importance of governments consistently and regularly measuring people’s well-being, and sets ambitious targets for both developed and developing nations. By presenting a compelling new vision of what is possible, the Happy Planet Index might inspire the action that can deliver good lives for all, without bankrupting the earth we live in. Let’s hope the G8 listen.

Juliet Michaelson is a co-author of The Happy Planet Index 2.0 and a senior researcher at nef (the new economics foundation).

The Happy Planet Index 2.0: Why good lives don’t have to cost the Earth was published by nef (the new economics foundation) on July 4, 2009.

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匿名 | Anonymous




This new HPI is very interesting! Possible to learn more about the model and how it is computed?

- This comment is translated by Jo

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Agree with the above comment

I hope the author would further elaborate on the research method that leads to the data. I have come across various survey reports on the well-being (or satisfaction) level of residents, but most are based on a simple random sampling on streets. I am not sure if a more comprehensive research method has been employed in this HPI finding.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



首先,政治家们谈论增长,是因为它可以很好地反映先进程度。对此人尽皆知,甚至是在20世纪30年代发明这一指标的西蒙 库兹奈特。政治家们热爱增长,这有助于提升他们的形象——不管是发生坏事还是好事,它都易于提高。政府得以运转的税收收入与GDP,这意味着我们的钱更多地为他们所用。

——James Greyson (田亮翻译)

How about growth in understanding growth?

Yes HPI helps show if the economy is moving in the right direction. But no, sorry, you can't throw away economic growth as a measure of progress.

Firstly, politicians don't talk about growth because it's a wonderful measure of progress. Everyone knows that; it was even pointed out by the guy who invented the measure in the 1930's, Simon Kuznets. Politicians love growth because it makes them look good - it tends to go up when dumbs things are happening as well as when smart things are happening. And the tax revenues that run governments arrive in direct proportion to GDP so growth means more of our money for them to play with.

Secondly, growth is not a measure of resource flows or harmful impacts: it is an entirely innocent gauge of financial flows. Growth tells us about the speed of the economic 'vehicle' not its direction. This is the key to changing into forwards gear so the economy can accelerate away from the ecological 'cliff edge'. We need an entirely new pattern of sustainable valuable needs-based economic activity. There's no reason why the value of this new economy couldn't grow in value and shrink in resource flows and impacts.

James Greyson

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Good lives shouldn’t cost the Earth

Ignorance, greed, madness, and self-righteousness are the roots of the Earth's deteriorating environment. (trans. Jerry Stewart)

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



What kind of life do you want?

On July 10, Phoenix Television's " 360 News" program also reported the New Economics Foundation's "Happy Planet Index." I was surprised as out of the top ten, nine are Latin American countries, while those wealthy countries were ranked behind. Perhaps this ranking will enlighten people in their pursuit of life goals, that the popular trend of big city life is not the only choice.

Translated by Jennifer Yip

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


“好生活不应牺牲地球。愚昧、贪婪、疯狂、自以为是是导致地球环境日益恶劣的根源。”这说得对,但仔细想想,这不过是人的本性而已,我们每天都在曝露这些特征。随后,商业悲剧降临,后果就理所当然地发生了。我只是相信,每人都须承担相应责任,都应从留意身边小事物、力所能及的事情开始。另外,我发现了这个关于快乐星球指数的网站。我喜欢它动画模式的图表呈现方式,或许可以为有兴趣了解更多相关信息的朋友提供帮助: http://www.happyplanetindex.org/explore/global/

Just think about what each of us as an individual can contribute

Good lives shouldn’t cost the Earth
Ignorance, greed, madness, and self-righteousness are the roots of the Earth's deteriorating environment. (trans. Jerry Stewart)"

That's true, but think about it, these are just human nature, and we express these characteristics everyday. Then the tragedy of commence results and that's basically how things turn out like they always do. I just believe everyone has a fair share of responsibility, and we should just start with paying attention to little things, and as much as we can do.

P.S. I found this site about HPI. I like the flash representation of the graph. Maybe that brings more information to those who wants to learn more

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous





How can we measure happiness?

This HPI survey is based on a prerequisite, i.e. happiness can be quantified and measured. In fact, is this prerequisite valid? Happiness is an intangible and subjective concept. It may be rather unconvincing to say happiness (even just short-term mood) has a cause and effect relationship with the environment, lifestyles, finance, etc. I cannot deny that factors such as the surrounding environment would affect people's mood and emotions, and even attitudes towards life. I do not agree with judging whether a person or the citizens are happy simply by summing up all the aforesaid factors. Not to mention, how can happiness of citizens be compared among countries?

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Love the earth

if only we have the love,we will know who we are.