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Happy countries are all alike; unhappy countries…

28 January 2010

Esther (From Xico) writes about the (un)Happy Planet Index:

This index is actually based on pretty serious research …  It correlates environmental impact (ecological footprint), life expectancy and life satisfaction and ranks countries accordingly. …

The HPI, the Happy Planet Index (pdf file) is a score of one to 100, not based on purely economic data or levels of consumption– not entirely, anyway:

… we should not lose sight of the fact that economic growth is just one strategy to achieve well-being and, in terms of natural resources, a demonstrably inefficient one. Rather than pursuing growth at all costs, even if detrimental to well-being or sustainability, leaders should be striving to foster well-being and pursue sustainability, even if detrimental to growth. The horse and the cart need to be returned to their rightful places.

Working from first principles, the report identified health and a positive experience of life as universal human goals, and the natural resources that our human systems depend upon as fundamental inputs. A successful society is one that can support good lives that don’t cost the Earth. The HPI measures progress towards this target – the ecological efficiency with which happy and healthy lives are supported.

By those scores, Latin Americas are the planet’s happiest (and Costa Ricans the happiest of the happy), Sub-Saharan Africans the least happy.

Sub-Saharan Africa, like Latin America is not known for its political or economic stability, but the HPI researchers offer an intriguing look at what makes Latin America tick — and happy as ticks:

The region has had, and continues to have, its fair share of misery: decades of civil wars and coups, the destruction of the Amazon, sharp inequality, and the favelas and slums of metropolises from Mexico City to Sao Paulo. For some, the region represents a sad tale of lost opportunity…

And yet, the top two sub-regions in terms of the HPI are those of Latin America. What sense can we make of this success? Are Latin Americans as happy as they say they are? And what, if anything, can the rest of the world learn from Latin America?

Survey data reveals two key features of Latin American culture. One is the presence of relatively unmaterialistic aspirations and values, compared to countries with similar economic conditions. Latin Americans report being much less concerned with material issues than, for example, they are with their friends and family. Secondly, social capital is particularly strong in the region. Civil society is very active, from religious groups to workers’ groups to environmental groups. The data on ‘formal’ social capital is reflected in anecdotal evidence of informal social capital in terms of strong family and community ties.

Mexico — despite political stability, a moderately healthy economy and  strong social capital — is not among the top ten (nearly all in Latin America).  The relatively (for Latin America) large “ecological footprint” of 3.2 (where a score lower than 2.1 is considered the threshold for sustainable living) knocks us down to #23 of 143.  Mexico, does, however, earn its high ranking for both achieving a life expectancy over 75 years  (75.6) and a high level of life satisfaction (7.6 out of a theoretically possible 10).

By comparison, the United States, with a higher life expectancy (77.9 years) and similar life satisfaction numbers (7.9) ranks only at #114,  mostly because of its alarmingly high ecological footprint (9.4).  Canada (#89) is also an ecological bigfoot (#7.1), as are most “wealthy” nations.  If everyone on the planet consumed at the level of the United States or  even ecologically conscious (but still consumption heavy) Germany (ecological footprint (4.2), it would require four earths to sustain that lifestyle.  A Mexican lifestyle might be sustained by one planet, but it would be a strain.

Mexico can be happier (as can we all) if it did nothing but reduce it’s ecological footprint.  I don’t see that any radical changes would be required.  More tree planting, a bit more attention to water  and energy conservation (all things being done now, but not in any systematic way), perhaps a few changes in our transportation system (going back to trains instead of inter-urban buses might bring down the footprint a notch), maybe a little less dependence on petroleum-based disposable products might get us there.

The rest — bringing down the murder rate, more rural heath and nutrition programs, better telecommunications (with its implications both for energy savings, better health and other issues) — is gravy.

Don’t worry… be happy.

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