Clearly Sustainable Episode 43 Measuring Society’s Progress
Welcome to this episode in the series in which we will explore the goals of sustainable human development particularly with reference to happiness and well being across society and the different ways of measuring this concept. I am delighted to have James with me today to help with this episode.
Hello everyone. Happiness is a fuzzy concept which means it is difficult to define and the boundaries are not very clear and precise. Since the turn of the millennium, psychologists have increasingly become interested in developing an approach to understanding human societies – especially what makes a successful society where individuals can meet their goals and enjoy a ‘happy life’. This is sometimes called a flourishing society. So firstly, lets explore two definitions of happiness. In psychology, happiness is a mental or emotional state of well-being which can be defined by, among others, positive or pleasant emotions ranging from contentment to intense joy from the Greek word hedonia. The higher your ratio of positive to negative emotions, the happier you are thought to be. In philosophy and religion, happiness may be defined in terms of living a good life rather than simply as an emotion. In Greek this was called eudainomia which means human flourishing and this stresses the importance of having a life’s purpose or having a meaningful life. So it can be said that if hedonia is defined as “feeling good,” then eudaimonia is defined as being and doing good—and as seeking to use and develop the best in oneself in a way that fits with one’s deeper principles.
Many of us want to build a better future – for ourselves, our loved ones and for society at large. Much of the work of moving towards sustainability is about progressing the quality of life across society for future generations and for all living creatures on the planet. But how might we define and measure such progress – it is difficult enough to do this for any individual let alone for a wider society either nationally or indeed globally. A range of indicators have been developed which measure different aspects of human society.
The most well known indicator is the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) which is a method for measuring economic activity. GDP is a measure of the final goods and services produced in a given time and a given population – usually for a nation. This became widely used after the end of the second World War. This figure is often divided by the population of the country to give a GDP per person or per capita. This can then be used to compare and rank countries against each other. The implication being that the higher the GDP per person the ‘better off’ a country is. The GDP figure is constantly referred to in the media as a single measure of the wealth of the nation. GDP does not make any judgements and measures the currency value only so it considers the production of guns to have the same value as the production of medicines. However, the GDP figure does not account for a lot of things which are important to the quality of our life such as access to education, health services, the hours people work and the quality of the environment. Other limitations include the fact that GDP doesn’t account for any environmental damage, for the value of unpaid work, or for the distribution of income in a society.
In 1912 another indicator was developed to represent the income or wealth distribution of a nation’s residents, called the Gini Coefficient. A Gini coefficient of zero expresses perfect equality, where everyone has the same income. A Gini coefficient of 1 expresses maximum inequality for example, where only one person has all the income.
Further work by Pakistani economist, Mahbub ul Haq at the United Nations Development Programme in the 1990s led to the Human Development Index or HDI. This had the explicit purpose to shift the focus of development economics from national income accounting to more people-centered policies. The HDI is based on a range of indicators includimg life expectancy, access to education, and income per person. It was later adjusted to account for inequality and an annual World Human Development Report is now published by the UN Development Programme.
In 2013 professors Helliwell, Layard and Sachs published the first World Happiness Report. This was based on thousands of new research papers on human happiness. It included other measures such as life satisfaction, freedom of choice, trust and absence of corruption. But this still neglected the environmental impact of a society’s activities.
The ecological footprint concept was first described by Rees and Wackernagel in 1992. It is defined as the biologically productive area needed to provide for everything people use – how much land is required to produce all the food you eat, all the products you use, the buildings you occupy and other activities. It is measured in hectares per person and can also be rated per country. The term Bio-capacity refers to the productive area required to continuously supply the needs of a person or a population. At the current global consumption rate we are greatly exceeding the bio-capacity of the earth to supply our needs. In fact, depending on the precise measurement system used, we would require multiple earths to supply our needs. Ecological footprint is a measure of human impact on the Earth’s ecosystem and reveals the dependence of the human economy on nature which is not recognised by the other indicators.
Over the years a range of environmental indicators have been incorporated into measurement systems for assessing human sustainability. For example, the Happy Planet Index produced by the community centred, independent think tank the New Economics Foundation. This index incorporates the average well-being and longevity of a population and a measure for inequality. It then divides the result by each country’s ecological footprint. It aims to measure a nation’s success not only by its productivity – but by the happiness, well-being and sustainability of its people. The Index is published bi-annually and provides a compass to guide the development of nations, and shows that it is possible to live good lives without greatly harming the Earth.
There is also the Gross National Happiness Index which is mostly famously used by Bhutan – the small county north of India in the Himalayan mountains. This index includes a lot of different indicators such work/life balance, cultural diversity and community vitality. Focusing on the well-being of the citizens guided Bhutan to follow its own path rather than just basing decisions on economic indicators. Bhutan decided not to join the World Trade Organization, for example, when it concluded that such a move would undermine happiness and well-being.
In the United States, Maryland and Vermont are using the Genuine Progress Indicator to measure happiness. They are factoring in the benefits of volunteer time, housework, educational achievements, and functional highways and streets while subtracting things like crime and the depletion of non-renewable energy sources. By measuring these and other factors, a more complete picture emerges of real well-being.
All these are attempts to measure and account for societal goals and achievements that are much wider than the narrow economic focus of GDP. Globally, the United Nations around the year 2000 set out the Millennial Goals which have now been followed by Sustainable Development Goals – the SDG’s. These are wide-ranging inter-dependent goals which all governments can work to in an effort to build more flourishing societies and happier citizens. Clearly Sustainable will be producing a series on these 17 SDG’s shortly with our partners in Global Action Plan. It is important to remember that not everything that counts can be counted. Human society is a complex system nested in the broader ecological system. When people live in harmony with themselves and with other species then human happiness and sustainability will naturally emerge
That concludes this episode in the series which we hope you have found useful and interesting. My thanks to James for his help with this and to you for listening. We look forward to you joining us for future episodes in the series.