development sustainability

The Sustainable Development Index

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:

  1. Cuba
  2. Costa Rica
  3. Sri Lanka
  4. Albania
  5. Panama

For reasons why, and lots more information, see the Sustainable Development Index website.

1 comment

  1. Jeremy, you are too quick for me. I was hoping to get some friends together to discuss Jason Hickel’s new SDI and formulate a question for the MLAs to ask in the Northern Ireland Assembly. It would be interesting to move NI away from GDP and calculate a SDI score for the Province to see how far behind Cuba and Costa Rica we actually are.

    Meanwhile after finishing the excellent “The Economics of Arrival” I have move on to “The Case for Universal Basic Services” by Anna Coote and Andrew Percy. I found that they made a compelling case for moving on from neo-liberal unreconstituted capitalism. I would take issue with their dismissal of UBI on two counts
    1 I would hope that indeed UBI would be globally applied (see p29)
    2 I would expect UBI in UK to be IN ADDITION to UBS not instead (see p55)

    I do not believe in Conclusion No 9 that UBS cannot be implicated alongside a LIMITED universal cash payment scheme, (due to conflict of purpose and competition for funds) (see p133

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