There are a whole host of development indices that aim to present a more holistic picture than the blunt and sometimes absurd ‘more or less’ of Gross Domestic Product. The UN’s Human Development Index (HDI) is one of the more established, combining economic data with life expectancy and literacy. However, it doesn’t have an environmental component, and this is a problem. The countries that score highest on on the HDI also have the largest ecological footprints, and this failure isn’t captured in the index.
As Jason Hickel highlights in a paper for the Ecological Economics journal, “HDI promotes a model of development that is empirically incompatible with ecological stability, and impossible to universalize.”
With the adoption of the Sustainable Development goals, the UN needs a metric to match – a Sustainable Development Index – and Hickel has created one. It takes countries’ existing HDI score, and divides it by ecological overshoot. As a result, “countries that achieve relatively high human development while remaining within or near planetary boundaries rise to the top.”
In the 21st century, it isn’t enough to deliver high levels of income, literacy or life expectancy. If the route to improvements also involves higher carbon footprints and material consumption, then that progress is unsustainable. It has come at the expense of the environment, and of future generations. Countries that fail their future citizens in this way shouldn’t be called a success.
Are there any countries that are getting the balance right? Hickel’s top five reads like this:
- Costa Rica
- Sri Lanka
For reasons why, and lots more information, see the Sustainable Development Index website.