Never in my life, when I’ve heard politicians say things like “we have to make sacrifices for the economy,” could I understand what they were talking about. As far as I can tell, the economy is here to serve the people. More specifically, the economy is supposed to support the well-being and happiness of the people. So I’ve just plain never understood the idea of sacrificing the happiness of the people to support the economy.
I mean, I understand the reasoning. The idea is that a robust gross domestic product (GDP) means a lot of money flowing into a nation’s economy and that should mean a lot of cash going into its people’s pockets which, in turn, should mean more happiness in people’s hearts.
But questioning the presumptive link between GDP and happiness is really important, because growth in GDP generally requires growth in use of the planet’s dwindling resources and in pumping its overburdened atmosphere full of greenhouse gas. As a result, some opponents to cuts in carbon emissions claim such cuts would mean cuts in GDP and therefore happiness. In other words, as their argument goes, the happiness of the people is pitted against the happiness of the planet.
Except that more and more, GDP is proving to be a very poor predictor of people’s happiness, suggesting that cutting carbon emissions may not hurt a country’s happiness at all. Indeed, the truth may be that it is not the environment that is pitted against people’s happiness, but an overarching policy emphasis on growth in GDP instead of on happiness itself.
This, anyway, is one of the conclusions of a recent report by the New Economics Foundation (NEF) on its Happy Planet Index (the HPI). The NEF argues “that governments have been concentrating on the wrong indicators for too long. If you have the wrong map, you are unlikely to reach your destination.”
The HPI gives countries points for the life satisfaction and life expectancy of its citizens and takes them away for the size of citizens’ average ecological footprint. In other words, the HPI measures the efficiency, essentially, of a country’s economy in terms of the health and happiness per ton of greenhouse gas emitted (see the map above for a graphic representation of worldwide results).
Out of the 233 countries ranked by HPI, guess where the United States falls? 150th.
This means, according the to the New Economics Foundation webpage, “it is possible to live long, happy lives with a much smaller environmental impact: For example, in the United States and Germany people’s sense of life satisfaction is almost identical and life expectancy is broadly similar. Yet Germany’s Ecological footprint is only about half that of the USA. This means that Germany is around twice as efficient as the USA at generating happy long lives based on the resources that they consume.”
Andrew Simms, the NEF’s policy director, told the BBC, “These findings question what the economy is there for. What is the point if we burn vast quantities of fossil fuels to make, buy and consume ever more stuff without noticeably benefiting our well being?”
According to the Beeb, NEF’s prescription for happy countries with low per-capita carbon footprints includes measures such as:
- mandatory short-term targets for cuts in greenhouse gas emissions
- reducing inequalities in income, education, health and social opportunity
- using the emerging science of well being as a driver of policy
PS You can measure your personal HPI here.
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