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The Happy Planet Index
Alex Steffen, 12 Jul 06

What ultimate goals should we pursue? The Happy Planet Index offers and claims to measure one answer: happy, long lives within environmentally sustainable ecological footprints.

The HPI ranks countires based on the reported happiness of their inhabitants, the length of their lives and the size of their ecological footprints. What they've found is that some nations (like Costa Rica, Cuba and Bhutan) which we think of as relatively underdeveloped are actually delivering longer, happier human lives on a more sustainable basis (as measured by their people's ecological footprints). Their point seems to boil down to the idea that more environmental consumption does not equal a better quality of life (an idea at the heart of bright green environmentalism):

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.

That's a useful point to make. However, there are some real problems with this model.

First, reported happiness is a very tricky concept, as I understand it, easily subject to data-collection errors when used to measure entire societies. It also tends to change depending on the circumstances of those to whom you can compare yourself: if everyone you know is more or less in the same income bracket, poverty is less grating than if some of your friends are doing really well. As global connections grow more tight, though, the relative poverty of those in middle-income Global South countries seems less prosperous to people living there (I'm not arguing that this is good, simply that in general this seems to happening everywhere people are exposed to images of Global North affluence -- even Bhutan).

The second is that even if we assume the data is good, some major measurements of societal well-being (for instance, the protection human rights, relative economic justice and governmental transparency) are completely stripped out of this equation, so places like Columbia (where corruption is rampant and "disappearances" and attacks on human rights workers have been escalating) or Vietnam (where sweatshops are proliferating and the government is attacking and jailing democracy advocates and ethnic minorities) wind up high on the list, even though no reasonable person would conclude that these countries are models to which we ought to be aspiring. Despite its claims, the HPI is not an accurate assessment of the ecological efficiency of human well-being.

Finally, there seems to me to be a problem with the idea of always taking a small ecological footprint itself as a measurement of success. Is it enviable if someone (or a nation of people) uses few resources and energy because poverty leaves that person with no other choice? Much of Afghanistan is a deforested ruin, with soils depleted by centuries of poor farming and overgrazing -- by many accounts, the land there simply doesn't have much more to offer its people. Subsequently, their ecological footprint is very low by global standards. Who here wants to live at an Afghani standard of living, though?

What we perhaps need, then, is a different measurement, one which measures not only ecological impact but the genuine prosperity it produces. If, for instances, Germans are producing prosperity twice as efficiently as Americans, that's worth knowing - far more valuable than knowing that someone elsewhere is living within a tiny ecological envelope because they are too powerless to have any other choice. As I've said before, a sustainable future must involve increased sustainable prosperity for all, or it simply will not work (though just getting richer is clearly not enough).

That said, it would be lovely to have a better version of the HPI, one that incorporated broader factors of societal well-being and measured not just ecological impact but sustainable prosperity to produce a more meaningful number that nations, regions and even individuals could aim at improving over time. As it is, the HPI is a bit of a media stunt - perhaps useful as such, but more a thought-provoker than an actual tool.

(Thanks, Lorenzo!)

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Hm. Metrics do create reality: if people are trying to optimize for a Happy Planet Number, however the number is computed is going to define what people do.

Long life and minimal environmental impact is good stuff, though. Hard to knock that.

Energy intensity vs. GDP is really useful too:

The key phrase, though, is "sustainable prosperity."

As I've said before, nearly 100% of the sustainable humans on the planet are peasant farmers living on the land using organic agriculture. Anybody who regularly uses electricity is living an unsustainable lifestyle at this point in time.

We could fix that with wind and solar but, for now, all prosperity is unsustainable. We have to change that, fast.

Posted by: Vinay Gupta on 12 Jul 06

"What we watch, we change. Attending mostly to the dramatic, we neglect the slow. Monitoring flawed gauges such as stock prices, consumer confidence, and gross domestic product, we organize our institutions to generate high stock prices, confident consumers, and the grossest domestic product we can muster. Conversely, because we do not watch them, we do not get the healthiest lives, the strongest communities, or the most vibrant ecosystems." -- Cascadia Scorecard 2004, Northwest Environmental Watch

Posted by: Jan Steinman on 12 Jul 06

Alex, excellent post.
I have a real issue with using happiness in these things at all. It's a terrible choice of indicator: vague, prone to massive fluxuation, maybe even meaningless. And if we are using good indicators for sustainable prosperity (what a great phrase!) then we're not talking about happiness.
Human happiness is just not a good goal - there's no answer. Alex, you use the term 'well-being' instead, I think that's a much better one. It's measurable, and therefore actionable.

I am all for using new indicators, I think Redefining Progress is an incredibly important project. But let's talk about providing genuine benefits and minimizing negative impact.
Let people take responsibility for their own happiness, which is independent of external cirumstances anyway.

Posted by: justus on 12 Jul 06

I like the concept of Gross Happiness Index. But they deseparately need to clarify their formula of the Happy Planet Index. Half a century of low intensity war and rampant violence do not deter Columbia from the no.2 spot? Or did I read it wrong? It is measuring the happiness of the planet, not the happiness of people living on the planet.

Posted by: Wai Yip Tung on 12 Jul 06

Alex wrote, "As I've said before, a sustainable future must involve increased sustainable prosperity for all, or it simply will not work (though just getting richer is clearly not enough)."

Excellent point!

The bottleneck has always been how to raise everyone's living standards to those of the post-industrial world while at the same time hugely reducing our collective environmental impact.

Many say this can't be done. I defy that assertion. That's why I come here to read. Thanks Alex!

Posted by: Pace Arko on 13 Jul 06

Good critique, Alex, obviously "happiness" as it is defined here is an entirely subjective feeling.

However, the concepts and standards you are referring to (human rights, ethnic minorities, etc...) are all very much constructs of a small global elite from the West, from academia. Far from universal or 'objective'. Not very important to most people.

Two main factors included in the HPI are far more objective, though, and can be measured exactly: life-expectancy and eco-footprint.

Now life-expectancy is one of the strongest socio-economic indicators available. Long lives don't necessarily mean happy lives, but they mean good social, medical and economic conditions on a societal level. That's hard to beat. And very objective.

Even life-satisfaction, the most subjective of the factors has some qualities that pose questions to us, the small tiny elite from the wealthy West. Who are we to doubt the value of the subjective experience of others in the South? When they live in what we perceive to be miserable material circumstances, who are we to judge them valueing their rich and wealthy social circumstances?

We often put too much stress on material well-being, whereas I think part of the NEF's effort is to show that happiness has much more to do with social cohesion, communal integration and with "wealth in people".

Anyway, the HPI is more a thought-provoker than an objective analysis, I agree.

Please do read the NEF's own statement upon the release of the index, it gives a nice overview of their angle:

[It seems like their website is down due to too much traffic - the HPI's definitely a success in that regard!]

Posted by: Lorenzo on 13 Jul 06

I have a problem with the use of any single score as an indicator for an entire society. It's good to see people working on new indicators but, as Alex points out, this one has real problems as is really only valuable as a thought experiment

You can find flaws in any major indicator. We need to move away from the desire to replace the cultural use of GDP with a one single other indicator. It's just not going to work. The world is complex. Signals are mixed. Not all impacts are linear and everything doesn't move in the same direction.

What we need is a good way to simply present an array of new and old indicators that can capture the intricacies mentioned above.

Our societies have different, overlapping goals. There is an increasing awareness that metrics do create reality, but they were created in reality and we need to think about the goals that they achieve, what goals we want to achieve and how we want to achieve them.

The array of indicators would therefore represent different goals, and the way they interact. This indicator does a great job of pointing out that our different goals react in ways we might not expect, which is why it is interesting, but it reproduces a limited number of goals that don't necessarily have anything to do with happiness.

Posted by: Ryan on 13 Jul 06

I would catagorise the raitings into 3 groups :
1.the developed countries
2.the developing countries and
3.the underdeveloped countries.
They comparison herewith is not fair nor justified. How can people from Columbia, Palestine, Bosnia live happier and longer than the GB countries, as well as Luxemburg and Hong Kong. As some has pointed out, the HPI is more for the country where ecoligical footprint is less and the resources have not been exploited.

Posted by: leonie on 16 Jul 06

It's worth mentioning the fact that scientists have actually found that animals tend to live longer the less they eat. Thus far I haven't found any mention of this scientific research in the NEF's report.

Posted by: Kris on 19 Jul 06



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