Indexes can serve as useful tools to compare many aspects of our lives. The ‘gross domestic product’ (GDP) calculates the wealth of states; the UN Development Program’s ‘human development index’ (HDI) ranks populations’ lifestyles through an assessment of health, education and living standard levels; the carbon footprint measures how much carbon we transform; and earlier this year, Gross National Happiness was adopted as a new performance measurement by the Himalayan state of Bhutan.
However, an all-encompassing index to cover everything was missing, so, in 2006, Nic Marks, a fellow at the new economics foundation, decided to fill the gap by introducing a global measurement tool to gauge sustainable human – and planet – well-being. This resulted in the creation of the ‘happy planet index’ (HPI). Its third annual report was released yesterday (14 June) and the conclusions are thought-provoking. While most indexes focus on economic activity or economic and social development, the HPI also adds environmental considerations in measuring human well-being. Yardsticks include the use of resources.
The HPI has one goal: its results “show the extent to which 151 countries across the globe produce long, happy and sustainable lives for the people who live in them.” The index uses global data on life expectancy (from the 2011 UNDP Human Development Report), experienced well-being (from Gallup World Poll ‘Ladder of life’) and ecological footprint (from World Wildlife Fund). The ranking is a product of life expectancy with experienced well-being and ecological footprint.
HPI’s first publication was a little revolution in the world of global indexes. For the first time, an index was considering economic activity, development and the environment to be part of the same complex formula to evaluate the quality of human life. Within two days of its publication, it had been read in 185 countries. Three years later, HPI 2.0 received the same welcome. Its creator obtained increased publicity, becoming a TED Global Conference speaker in 2010. No doubt the surprise and novelty of the index have helped to stimulate such widespread interest.
If we consider the 2012 ranking, and the cases of the US and Costa Rica, the comparison is compelling. In 2010, the World Bank estimated Costa Rica’s GDP at $35 billion, the US at $14 trillion. Their respective GDP per capita were $7,500 versus $47,100. In 2011, the UNDP’s HDI ranked the US in 4th place with a score of 0.910 (the highest being 1). Costa Rica’s was placed 69th with a score of 0.744. However, taking the criteria of the Happy Planet Index into account, the order between the US and Costa Rica is reversed: Costa Rica comes first, with a score of 64.0; the US well down at number 105 out of 151, with a score of 37.3.
Why such a difference between HPI and other existing indexes? HPI takes into account many of the criteria other indexes use. For example, the same measurement of life expectancy is used for both the HPI and the HDI. However, the importance given to carbon footprint tips the balance in favor of environmentally-friendly countries – those which pollute least. This explains why many industrialized countries occupy the lowest positions on the scale… Many African countries also rank poorly because of their short life expectancies. At the top of the scale many Latin American and South Asian countries triumph.
In addition to its unconventional classification, another interesting aspect of the index is the target it sets for the countries concerned. “On a scale of 0 to 100 for the HPI, we have a target for nations to aspire to, by 2050, of 89. This is based on attainable levels of life expectancy and well-being and a reasonably-sized ecological footprint.”
Even Costa Rica is 25 points below the target. Which means that, according to the analysis of the Index developers, we are “still not living on a happy planet.” Observing more closely, it is clear that none of the countries are able to combine success across the three goals.
The notable omission of factors such as governance, security, and human rights, seems counterintuitive in an index rating people's well-being. The constructors of the index are aware of this, observing: “countries that do well on the HPI suffer many problems, and many high-ranking countries are tainted by important human rights issues.” However, when Pakistan ranks higher than Sweden, the credibility of the HPI is undermined. Statements from the new economics foundation such as “it is likely that people directly affected by extreme human rights abuses represent a minority, the population average well-being score may not fully reflect this harm,” suggest the reader examine other indexes, but demonstrate the disregard of a rather important factor. It would seem that freedom, a peaceful country, and good governance through an accountable government should be included to fully encompass four –not three, as with the HPI- fundamental aspects of well-being: life expectancy (reflecting health), happiness, freedom and a sustainable way of living.
Nonetheless, with the Rio+20 conference coming up, the index provides interesting tools for new thought and a new vision for a sustainable human impact on our planet. It points us towards the priorities for our efforts. It also provides a basis on which international organizations and national governments should rely, in order to assess economic performance and its impact on the population and the environment. In short, it may not be the perfect index, but it can certainly show us the path towards a happier world.
(Photo © Happy Planet Index)