A recent news article in a Colombian newspaper proudly announced that Colombia was the third best country in the world socially and environmentally based on the Happy Planet Index, a seemingly innocent and well-intentioned measurement of progress developed by the New Economics Foundation. I have a previous interest in measurements of progress to replace the clearly unsuitable and dangerous monetary measurements such as GDP from my experience in environmental economics during my MSc. I am, therefore, keen to discover a suitable alternative but am aware of the problems of previous attempts (such as Genuine Savings/Genuine Progress Indicator). So, with an open mind I read up about the Happy Planet Index. Here is the link:
I thought I would write a bit about my initial reactions to their chosen methodology, especially since Colombia ranked so highly and I have just completed a research dissertation focusing on the negative aspects of this society. Furthermore, the top 10 are all countries from the Global South and all but one are in Latin America and the Caribbean which I found interesting to say the least.
I have issues with all of the three indicators they use to determine this supposed ranking of a 'Happy' country. Reported Wellbeing is an indicator gaining popularity in recent years due to the increased awareness of the importance of including the opinions of subjects themselves into studies rather than simply observing them and using external factors to tell a story on their behalf. However, to use this method as the sole measurement of wellbeing, to me, seems contentious. From my experience in Colombia, people's reported wellbeing can be massively biased since many people have different priorities and understandings of their rights. For example, for many Colombians, earning a living, having family time and, to put it bluntly, surviving in the face of high rates of crime and violence and the longest-running civil war in modern times, are understandably very important. Therefore, when asked if they are happy, they may say they are very happy because they understand happiness as a lack of life-threatening problems. In addition, I have heard many people here claim that people who leave Colombia are crazy since they already live in paradise. From my understanding, some may have a limited perception of the rights and opportunities that they deserve and assume that it cannot get better than it is here.
An example of this is when I tell new people I meet that in most of Europe we get free, high quality education and healthcare. It is clear that this is a concept that many simply do not understand and they cannot get their heads around the fact that is it true. They think there must be a catch and often ask 'But why would a government provide that? It makes no sense', which says a lot about their expectations of a government and of life. Also, reported wellbeing can vary depending on the time of day, week, month or year that it is asked. For example, people who have just been paid will generally feel happy to very happy, but if asked another time it would elicit a different response. Furthermore, reported happiness doesn't mean that this translates to access to education, feeling safe walking down the street or that they have been paid enough to buy enough good quality food for the next month. And even very well off people in countries like Colombia who have a very privileged way of life, even by European standards, who would report feeling happy since they can afford luxury goods, healthcare, education (good schools and hospitals are private and expensive) and holidays, are accessing these goods from behind bullet-proof cars and houses which are essentially fortresses of armed guards, electrified fences and security cameras ensuring no contact with the majority of the rest of the country. Many of these people cannot grasp the concept of living without these bubbles created by wealth and, therefore, genuine freedom and safety do not figure in their notion of happiness.
So, if reported happiness either hides underlying problems which have become normalised, or if happiness is reported due to having to dedicate large parts of one's life to ensure you can protect yourself because your country is so dangerous, are we still satisfied that this is real happiness? And that this happiness should be taken at face value? If it is deemed as true happiness simply because it is reported, then it is clear that happiness is not an appropriate indicator to determine progress. Plus, there is a shame attached to telling an interviewer that you are unhappy because a natural human desire is to seem well off and to show off to new people, especially for such a proud nation like Colombia. It can be a sort of coping mechanism in the face of adversity and this was a significant finding in my dissertation when, on the surface, people seemed very satisfied with their lives but, only once delving further into the issues, it became clear that they lacked significant services, opportunities, freedom and general wellbeing. The language of being 'happy' and 'satisfied' is overly simplistic to reflect true wellbeing and is tainted by cultural expectations on the answer that is by default 'yes'. I am by no means suggesting that Europeans are all happy and that European countries are perfect, I am simply demonstrating, using Colombia, the shortcomings of this methodology, which should not be used in Europe either as it will skim over other, different social problems over there.
Consider this quote from Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen: '… Consider a very deprived person who is poor, exploited, overworked and ill, but who has been made satisfied with his lot by social conditioning (through, say, religion, political propaganda, or cultural pressure). Can we possibly believe that he is doing well just because he is happy and satisfied? Can the living standard of a person be high if the life that he or she leads is full of deprivation? The standard of life cannot be so detached from the nature of the life the person leads.'
The second indicator of a so-called Happy Planet is Ecological Footprint. This measurement is largely criticised in academia and these are my main issues with it. It bases its equation on how much land is required to sustain a country's population with their current consumption habits. But production does not depend on how much land is used, but what type of land use and methods of production are used. You can have little consumption based on very inefficient production using huge quantities of land, or you can have large consumption based on very efficient and sustainable land use using little land. The Ecological Footprint, however, does not state which one is in use and where and there is a tested lack of correlation between the Ecological Footprint and land degradation, which is, importantly, only one of many measures of sustainability anyway.
It will come as no surprise that the countries with the lowest footprint are extremely poor countries with low levels of industry and consumption, compared to those at the other end such as Qatar and the USA. But, is a country environmentally sustainable simply by virtue of being poor? According to the Happy Planet Index, these countries should carry on as they are since their footprints are below average but this is hugely misleading since it underestimates the harmful effects of even small levels of unsustainable production and consumption due to conditions of poverty. Individuals in the low Ecological Footprint countries are increasing their consumption very rapidly and could reach the consumption levels of the high Ecological Footprint countries, but this measurement does not tell us what this increased consumption will look like as it only describes increase in production without technological change. This measure offers no policy suggestion as to which technologies should be implemented and where in order to make production more efficient and simply states that the low-income countries are not as bad as the high income countries… yet. Instead, its simplicity and omissions fall into a dangerous trap by implying that the fewer people, the better since they would consume less and use less land. That is obviously a harmful policy prescription and fails to allow a more detail understanding of who consumes more and less within a country i.e. the class/gender/age/industry type differences.
Furthermore, many countries with low Ecological Footprints have very poor or non-existent environmental awareness and poorly enforced environmental policies. However, the Ecological Footprint does not highlight these as important factors as its focus is simply on land and it certainly does not lead to preventative measures. Following the Ecological Footprint measurement will simply justify these countries being locked into and dependent on an unsustainable path which will bring with it long-term repercussions and a larger Ecological Footprint in the future as consumption and industries grow. The Ecological Footprint gives a snapshot of the land required for current consumption habits, not whether these habits are actually sustainable, even if they are quantitatively less than in other countries, and nor does this measure indicate future consumption and its repercussions. Again, a little unsustainable consumption is worse than a lot of sustainable consumption, regardless of the land used. Furthermore, it overlooks the globalised nature of how economies and consumption work and the national boundaries it uses for its calculation are arbitrary. Whether half of the world uses less than the equivalent of half a world for its consumption is irrelevant if the other half uses significantly more or if the type of production it is based upon creates vast environmental problems.
The last indicator which I have less of a problem with but still, for me, is overly simplistic is Life Expectancy. This is because it is a number which reflects the end point, rather than the ways in which people get there. In other words, if, in Colombia, the life expectancy is at an average level globally of 73 years, this does not explain anything about the causes of death or the state of the healthcare system. In Colombia, the healthcare system (like the educational system) is a typical capitalist, free-market system of expensive, private healthcare vs appalling free state-run healthcare with incredible overcrowding, under-staffing and under-investment. Therefore, if one of the top priorities of a family is spending most of their wages on private healthcare, working 12 hours a day, 7 days a week or getting a money from a loan shark in order to get a relatively good life expectancy, the Happy Planet Index suggests that this is a good thing because the desired outcome is increased life expectancy, no matter how it is achieved. However, this figure masks many inequalities, and can support a development model based on spending huge amounts of money and time on healthcare which should be subsidised and provided for by the state. The outcome is not the only thing that matters, the means is equally as important to understand and the average life expectancy overlooks gendered, geographical and class/racial differences in life expectancy and health wellbeing.
Of course I respect and appreciate any attempt at redefining progress and have the hope that in my lifetime a universal measurement that includes the diverse environmental and social aspects is implemented. However, this does not mean that I advocate simplifying the complexities in order to come up with a measurement that looks and sounds great to laymen and is easy to market. The issue with the challenge that lies ahead is that it is highly complicated and, whatever the solution may be, it will need to reflect that and I do not believe the Happy Planet Index does. And, although the description states that it is not intended as a singular measurement of progress, I think that even if teamed up with other indicators, the shortcomings of this one would do little more than skew the results.