Happy Planet Index (or Economics as if People and the Planet Mattered)

Last week, I finally got to meet the people at the New Economics Foundation, whose motto is “economics as if people and the planet mattered.”

These are the guys in London who create the fascinating Happy Planet Index, or HPI, which evaluates countries based on 3 components: their level of health, level of well-being and rate of resource consumption. Basically, the HPI is a measure of how effectively a country converts resources into human well being. As you can see from the HPI map, some countries do this very efficiently and some countries – like mine – less so.

The cool thing about the Happy Planet Index is that is demonstrates that good lives don’t have to cost the earth; it’s not inevitable that we trash the planet and each other in order to have good, happy, long lives. There are some countries in which people achieve high levels of happiness and health while using a fraction of the resources as do other countries with similar levels of well being.

The Happy Planet Index, like Gross National Happiness and the Genuine Progress Indicator, are ways to measure how a society is doing beyond just its rate of economic activity. Today, the primary measure of how a city, country or the whole planet is doing is the Gross Domestic Product, or GDP. The problem with limiting our measuring to economic activity is that we miss a lot of crucial information on what life is actually like for real people. The quality of education, environmental health, stress levels, income inequity, trust in government, social fabric, vibrancy of the culture are all things missed by measuring economic indicators alone.

Gross National Product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.” — Robert F. Kennedy

Unlike the GDP, the Happy Planet Index identifies health and a positive experience of life as universal goals. You know, that really shouldn’t seem so radical, yet it is. Can you imagine how very different our economic policies would be if their overriding goal was to promote health and well being, rather than increased economic activity?

Crunching data from all over the world, the latest Happy Planet Index concludes that: It is possible to live long, happy lives with a much smaller ecological footprint than found in the highest-consuming nations. For example, people in the Netherlands live on average over a year longer than people in the U.S. and have similar levels of life satisfaction – and yet their per capita ecological footprint is less than half the size. Even more dramatic is the difference between Costa Rica and the U.S. People in Costa Rica also live slightly longer than those in the U.S., and report much higher levels of life satisfaction, and yet have a consumption footprint which is less a quarter than those in the U.S.

Clearly, my country – the U.S. – does not fare well on measures like the Happy Planet Index. We simply use and waste way too much stuff.

But when I see data like this, I feel hopeful. One of the good things about rating so low on the scale is that the only place to go is up. We could do things so much better.

With a good mix of humility and curiosity -  plus a sense of urgency that today’s ecological situation requires –  we can learn much from other countries about living longer, healthier, happier lives with less consumption. Check out the Happy Planet Index to see where your country falls and to get ideas on living better with less.

blog comments powered by Disqus