A Peaceful Planet, but Not a Happy One?

Last week, the Global Peace Index 2012 (GPI) indicated that the world is more peaceful this year than in 2011. But how should we interpret this in light of the more sober conclusions of the latest Happy Planet Index (HPI)?

The Global Peace Index measures peace levels by country and region based on 23 indicators, including interstate violence, incarceration, and military spending. The Happy Planet Index uses global data on life expectancy, experienced well-being, and ecological footprint to calculate "the extent to which countries deliver long, happy, sustainable lives for the people that live in them."  

HPI creator Nic Marks says he was inspired by a Robert Kennedy quote: "Gross national product measures everything—except that which makes life worthwhile." Marks is far from the only person preoccupied with this question. Robert and Edward Skidelsky gave a recent lecture here at Carnegie Council on their new book, How Much Is Enough? Money and the Good Life." They asked whether people are inclined to look beyond wealth as an indicator of wellbeing.

The HPI claims to assess whether a country can efficiently deliver a good life not just now, but also in the future. It shows we are not a happy planet, and this year was the worst rating so far. According to the HPI report,  "No country is able to combine success across the three goals of high life expectancy, high experienced well-being and living within environmental limits.”

Much of the unhappiness can be attributed to the fact that ecological footprints are soaring—global biodiversity is down, emissions and energy consumption are up. When we look at the HPI and the GPI together, peace and "happiness" don't really correlate, mostly due to environmental reasons. High-income countries that are peaceful, like many in Europe, lose marks on the HPI because they have bad environmental scores.

To see the disparity between the two indices, let's compare the performance of two countries. Costa Rica tops the Happy Planet Index because it has high life expectancy (higher than the United States), high reported wellbeing, and, above all, most of its energy comes from renewable sources. However, in a globalized world, no country can be sustainable alone—many of the goods that Costa Ricans consume come from countries with worse environmental records.

Costa Rica is also notable for not having an army. In the GPI, they rank 36 out of 158, which is a pretty good score, but perhaps not as low as one would expect considering their low defense expenditures. What brings Costa Rica down on this index are a high level of homicide, access to weapons, and a relatively high "perceived level of criminality"—so their ecological happiness does not equate perfectly with peacefulness. However, Costa Rica’s scores do compare favorably with other Central American countries, like Guatemala (124) and Nicaragua (81), where murder is still rampant.

Qatar, a peninsular country budding off Saudi Arabia into the Persian Gulf, did better than Costa Rica on the Global Peace Index. It ranks 12 in the world on the GPI, making it the most peaceful nation in the Middle East and North Africa zone, which, due to Syria and the Arab Spring, is now the world's least peaceful region (replacing Sub-Saharan Africa). Qatar is peaceful and stable. It has low incarceration rates and has stayed out of conflict. Qatar's ministry of information touted this score loudly.

Less brag-worthy is Qatar's Happy Planet ranking, where it finishes almost dead last, beating only Chad and Botswana. Why? It scores very well for experienced wellbeing and life expectancy, ranking 30 and 34 respectively. Yet the Qatari petrostate, the world's richest country per capita, has the worst ecological footprint, which the HPI report depicts in blood red.

The HPI footprint is calculated by the amount of land required to provide for a country's resource requirements, plus the amount of vegetated land required to absorb its CO2 emissions and the CO2 emissions embodied in the products it consumes. Qataris live in a desert and consume a lot of energy. In just a generation or two, Qatar developed from a pearl fishing community into a resource-based wealthy country—with the consumption habits to match.

Gulf states are far behind the world in environmental protection—not just because they produce oil and gas, but also because of the energy required to build and sustain their growing cities. Nonetheless, Qatar has made noise about moving toward renewable energy and reducing its dependence on fossil fuels. It will host a climate change summit later this year, and it even plans to have solar-powered power soccer stadiums when it hosts the FIFA Soccer World Cup in 2022. But so far, Qatar's steps have been small.

The most important implication of the HPI for policymakers is that, above a certain level, more wealth does not mean more happiness. Even leaving out environmental concerns, many of the countries with the highest life satisfaction are not high-income countries. A pivot for developing countries away from GDP-centered development and toward wellbeing metrics could prove beneficial for them and the planet. Such a move could give developing countries an incentive to leapfrog fossil fuel development in favor of, for example, distributed renewable generation, where electricity is generated by many small on-site energy sources rather than large, centralized facilities.

Right now, only nine countries are living sustainably relative to population size. Eight of those nine are in Latin America, and several countries in that region have seen the biggest HPI gains, thanks to high reported life satisfaction. Marks speculates: "Maybe the future is in Latin America?" Although political instability and inequality are still a problem, Latin America has also been steadily improving on the GPI—making it the only region able to report good news on both rankings. Perhaps these data show the emergence of a new way of doing business.

[PHOTO CREDIT: Délirante bestiole (CC).]

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Tags: army, economics, energy, environment, peace, poor, rich, sociology, wellbeing

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