health politics sustainability

Learning from the Happy Planet Index

Critiques of GDP as a measure of progress are as old as GDP itself. Its originator, Simon Kuznets, was among the most vocal critics of those who used his index in that way. Despite decades of inadequacy, no replacement has yet been found, and economic growth remains the one number to rule them all. Personally, I think the quest to find a single alternative metric is a dead end: life is not so simple that it can be reduced to a single number, and progress lies in a variety of measures.

However, alternative metrics can be provocative and help to keep the issue on the agenda, especially when they divert from what we usually understand as success. One of the more interesting is the Happy Planet Index, which launched a 2021 edition a couple of weeks ago.

GDP has one way to succeed: more economic activity, regardless of whether it is positive or negative. And there is one way to fail: don’t deliver more.

The Happy Planet Index has three ways to succeed or fail, and all of them are more relevant to actual human lives than economic activity. They are life expectancy, reported wellbeing, and ecological footprint.

All three of these matter. People want to life long and fulfilling lives on a planet fit to deliver long and fulfilling lives to their children too. And so countries that come out best on the Happy Planet Index have to deliver on all three.

That’s what Costa Rica does: a life expectancy of 80 years, average reported wellbeing at 7 out of 10, and all within an average 2.65 global hectares. It’s enough to give them the top spot on the index – again.

The UK comes in 14th, with life expectancy of 83, wellbeing at 7.16, but requiring 3.95 hectares – well above a fair share of the earth’s resources.

To do well on the HPI, countries have to deliver on all three, but you can fail on any one of them. Who cares if ecological footprints are tiny if you only live into your mid-fifties, as citizens of some countries on the index do. And what’s a long life worth if it’s miserable? India has a life expectancy just below 70, with a highly sustainable 1.22 hectares – but people report their wellbeing at half that of the UK.

This approach is much more honest than GDP. How can a country be called successful if it lays waste to the basis of its future prosperity? And what’s current prosperity worth if it isn’t delivering good lives?

The Happy Planet Index doesn’t give us any obvious solutions, in that no country that is succeeding on wellbeing has a low ecological footprint. Even Costa Rica’s is too high. But it does show us that good lives can be delivered with far less environmental impact than the richest nations – the US languishes at 127th in the rankings, sandwiched between Burundi and Togo.

You can browse the latest results from the Happy Planet Index here, and learn more about what they tell us.

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