development sustainability

Progress has two directions

Last week I mentioned the Happy Planet Index, the alternative metric of success from the New Economics Foundation. Here’s a graph from the full report which demonstrates something rather important: progress has two directions.

The first is standard of living. Everyone wants to live a good life, with their basic needs met and enough spare income to buy the things we want. We want to be safe and healthy, we want  a good education for our children, and we want a say in how we are governed. In recent decades history has delivered that sort of progress, and quality of life has risen over successive generations.

There is another aspect to progress however, and that is more to do with efficiency – how good are we at delivering that quality of life? Once we have achieved a high standard of living, progress consists of refining that and delivering it with fewer resources and less energy. If our quality of life depends on unsustainable consumption, then it will not last and be passed on to future generations. For richer countries, progress means sustainability.

The graph below demonstrates these two directions. It plots countries by ‘happy life years’ on the vertical axis- a combination of life expectancy and reported happiness – on by ecological footprint on the horizontal axis. The ideal place to be is in the top left corner, with high standard of living and low environment impact.

Understood this way, progress means different things for different countries. For the poor, it means moving upwards on the graph. For the rich countries, it means moving to the left.

As you can see, there are plenty of countries failing on the life expectancy front, the poorer countries at the bottom. Many of them are in Africa. There are also countries failing environmentally. The countries in green that are getting both measures right are the ones we need to learn from.

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