Thursday, July 20, 2006

Happy Planet Index

The Happy Planet Index ranks countries based on ecological efficiency with which human well-being is delivered. It is an interesting concept that is calculated by multiplying life satisfaction by life expectancy and dividing by ecological footprint. (Also the map they display is using this cool DIY map technology).

I like the idea of trying to calculate such a number, but this is done in such a simplistic manner that the actual results it comes up with are highly suspect. Alex over at World Changing has a very nice analysis of the index and its issues. I would also add a couple.

First, the second highest rated country is Colombia. Yes that's right, a country besieged by drug violence is somehow the second best place to live. I don't see it as a country to be modeled for happiness, well being and ecological soundness.

Second, while I like the concept of the Ecological Footprint, I have some issues with the actual calculation of it. If you take a look at this Excel spreadsheet of the data, you notice that most of the US's footprint is due to energy usage. How exactly do you convert oil or nuclear energy usage into an amount of land? If you read the methodology, they take the total amount of energy and divide it by the amount of land needed to grow fuel crops (in particular roundwood). But we are unlikely to actually make that replacement. Instead we will replace fossil fuel usage with solar and wind power. So, why not figure out how much land would be required in solar panels to generate the same amount of energy (see previous post)? And since that land could be deserts, ocean or built up land (cities or roads), it would use land that is not currently being counted as usable land. This would raise the size of the footprint available for all individuals. The US's energy usage could actually be produced in a sustainable way if we just switched over to solar and wind.

The current Happy Planet Index has its issues, but a more accurate and refined version of the Happy Planet index would be a very valuable tool.

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