In which my musing, about what would make a good life, is helped along by a good list. It sounds a lot like New Zealand

“I’ve never lived in a commune, there’s no nakedness, I’ve never cleaned my sheets in the river using stones,” Fitzsimons told Next magazine earlier in the year. David Suzuki, more alarmingly, called txting and iphones “unnecessary toys”.

I was wondering how daily life would be, in the real world, if we were saving the world, instead of spending it.

The (un)Happy Planet Index 2.0: why good lives don’t have to cost the earth answers some questions. It maps a better path, describing Costa Rican policies that have helped, and listing life style choices.

The footprint it uses, as a guide, is 2.1 global hectares (gha). However, because “one-planet living defined as 2.1 gha leaves nothing behind for non-humans. Academics have suggested that we should be leaving 20-30 per cent of our ecosystems ‘fallow’ to allow them to function healthily,” its aspiration is 1.7 gha.

New Zealand’s footprint is 7.7 gha. The global average is 2.4, which sounds not so bad. More relevant is what the footprint would be if everyone lived like us (three planets) or the USA (four-and-a-half) or Luxembourg (five).

New Zealand already does something right: we leave, in the conservation estate, a third of the country fallow (not, however, representative of all ecosystems).

I don’t just randomly think about this stuff for fun, you know … it’s quite hard work, quite a lot of the time … But it was on my mind, after this conference, as I wondered whether we’ll ever have a sensible (political) conversation about a sustainable economy, without first slaying the primitive dragons hovering over it — or even, just banishing the spectre of 1961.

Also, at what point do personal actions stop being pretext and denial, and start to count? Can I still eat, deliciously (if not greedily)? How much meat and dairy? How far can I drive my car? May I keep my favourite toy: my shiny little phone?

I went around and around carbon footprints, for a while, until I got bored, with not much result. Here’s a list I like better: a part-manual on how to do it. It's not really up for debate (Mother N doesn’t argue) but if we were going to debate it:

Based on calculations by the US NGO Redefining Progress, 1000m2, one-tenth of a global hectare, can get you one of the following:

  • 288kg of fruit and veg (9% above the US annual average per-head consumption)
  • 20kg of cheese (35% above US annual average)
  • 178 litres of milk (72% above US annual average)
  • 8kg of beef (average US consumption over 15 weeks)
  • 10kg of local only beef
  • 7kg of fish (US annual average)
  • 125 bottles of imported wine (three times US average)
  • 350 330ml bottles of imported beer
  • 990 pints of locally produced beer
  • 18 medium chickens (1.6kg each)
  • 258 baguettes (made from local wheat)
  • 440kWh of electricity (based on mix of energy with 5% renewables; would cost £65, and is what average American uses in six weeks)
  • A 10-mile round-trip city commute by saloon car every working day for two months OR a round trip, by car, from London to Newcastle.
  • A desktop computer with a 20” screen, keyboard and small deskjet printer, but not the energy to run it.

To achieve one planet living under current trade, economic and energy production systems [my emphasis], each individual would need to restrict themselves to a total of 21 such portions of consumption per year.

I really do like this list, even though it’s not looking so good, for the phone.

On the Happy Planet Index (HPI), which scores life satisfaction (a good life), life expectancy (a long life), and footprint, Costa Rica — not Australia — scored best:

With the highest levels of reported life satisfaction [8.5], and the highest happy life years [78.5 years] — Costa Rica stands out in the HPI even before considering its ecological footprint [2.3]. It has the fifth-lowest human poverty index in the developing world, and the proportion of people living on less than $2-a-day is lower than in Romania — an EU member. What makes these results even more remarkable is that it achieves this with a quarter of the footprint of the USA.

This is no matter of chance. Costa Rica, a haven of democracy and peace in turbulent Central America, has taken very deliberate steps to reduce its environmental impact. Unique in the world for having combined its ministries of energy and the environment back in the 1970s, a staggering 99 per cent of its energy comes from renewable sources. In 1997, a carbon tax was introduced on emissions — with the funds gained being used to pay indigenous communities to protect their surrounding forests. Deforestation has been reversed, and forests cover twice as much land as 20 years ago. In 2007, the Costa Rican Government declared that it intended to become carbon neutral by 2021. As a result of these huge steps, Costa Rica has risen up the ranks of Yale University’s Environmental Performance Indicator, from 15th in the world in 2006 to 5th in 2008, the highest position outside Europe.

Professor Mariano Rojas, a Costa Rican economist at the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences in Mexico, is unsurprised by his country’s performance and adds a few further explanations:

  • The abolition of the country’s army in 1949, freeing up government money to spend on social programmes.
  • Solid social networks of friends, families and neighbourhoods, allowed by a sensible work-life balance.
  • Rich natural capital.
  • Equal treatment of women.
  • Strong political participation.

Costa Rica is not heaven. Its welfare state, one of the most developed outside Scandinavia, must deal with an economic system that produces high levels of inequality, and almost 10 per cent of the population live on under $2-a-day. Clean water and adult literacy are almost universal, but not quite. And … its current ecological footprint is still eight per cent above the one-planet living threshold.

“Some have mocked the high levels of reported life satisfaction in Latin American countries as belying a lack of knowledge of anything better …” it continues. But on this HPI measure, we ourselves, and the countries we copy, are the ones looking a bit deluded: happy enough, but not smart.

North America, the United Kingdom, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand all score green lights on life satisfaction and life expectancy, but are deeply in the red on footprint, the consumption side, with no better result. The Netherlands was the highest-placed Western nation, ranking 43rd. The USA was 114th, because of its big footprint, up there with the UAE. New Zealand is 103rd. But people don't live any longer or more happily in the USA than the Netherlands; or in either of them, than Costa Rica.

A good life, it suggests, is unrelated to ecological cost, rather than one being the price of the other.

Also, the HPI trend is going the wrong way. Scores were higher in 1961, because although life satisfaction and life expectancy scores together rose 15 per cent, ecological footprints grew 72 per cent in the years to 2005. (No surprise maybe, to anyone who was there in 1961 … or who's remarked on old photos’ spartan home furnishing.)

Here’s what studies suggest would make us happy. It sounds a lot like New Zealand:

The averages for countries tend to be higher where people within that country enjoy higher levels of social capital, better climate, richer natural resources, higher life expectancy, better standards of living [my emphasis], and more voice within government.

The dysfunctional bit and the hard one to change, the thing that the authors of this report conclude turns Latin-Americans happy and green, is their culture. They have, apparently, a different set of non-material aspirations.

So what does a "better standard of living" mean? To me, 21 portions from that list, or even 17, doesn't look so bad; or more portions, if we learned to be smarter on trade, energy, food production, and economics.

Comments (17)

by Tobias Barkley on May 12, 2011
Tobias Barkley

Hi Claire,

Excuse my ignorance but what is the spectre of 1961?


P.s. I always look forward to reading your articles. The effort you put in to writing them is much appreciated.

by Claire Browning on May 12, 2011
Claire Browning

No, my fault. Sorry Tobias. Thanks for kind words. It was supposed to refer to the discussion of 1961 later on in the post, but then that doesn't really explain it, either ...

What I meant was: this report says HPI scores were better in 1961, particularly footprint-wise. However, people probably don't think that going back to 1961 is a great aspiration. Nor do I.

Nobody's actually cracked the concept of an environmentally-sustainable economy, that sustains people too. There's a lot of literature talking about how you start measuring it, and the kinds of features it might have, but in practice, it's untried. We're still on GDP and growth.

That makes it easy, for anyone trying to characterise how an economy like that would look, to set up straw men - like 1961 - then bravely knock 'em down.

The bit I don't understand is the resistance to even talking about something different - since we have to. Well, I do understand it actually. I take that back. But it's not like where we are currently is that much of a utopia. It's fine if you're at the top of the heap. It's delivering rubbish at the bottom - ie, in policy terms, it's a failed policy. Not meeting its objectives. (Assuming you believe they ever were really the objectives.) 

by tussock on May 13, 2011

440kWh of electricity (based on mix of energy with 5% renewables; would cost £65, and is what average American uses in six weeks)

That looks very wrong. AFAICT, conservative numbers have solar heating at ~400kWh/m^2/annum, and solar electric at ~100kWh/m^2/annum. Covering 1000^m2 at low density should get you enough for ten Americans and plenty more for generational rebuilding and transmission losses.

But you can harvest wind at the same time you graze the ground under the towers, so cover the ridgelines in windfarms, build some big pumped storage, and forget about power.

by Claire Browning on May 13, 2011
Claire Browning
That's because you're giving stats for renewables; theirs is based on a mix of 5% renewables. As per the quote you reproduced.
by Claire Browning on May 13, 2011
Claire Browning
Also, its no use in this context telling me how much energy you can harvest with solar etc, without including the turbines and panels' hidden footprint. Silver, I believe. Coal. Etc.
by Claire Browning on May 13, 2011
Claire Browning
''or more portions, if we learned to be smarter ...'' Being smarter is always good. Not more portions; instead, making the same number of portions go further.
by Antoine on May 13, 2011

It is also interesting to think about what resources we have which are sustainable and abundant and don't need to be parcelled into footprints. Some off the top of my head:

- libraries, galleries and concerts

- the internet

- the company of others

- work

- creativity

- exercise and sport

- hanging around in the 30% of the country that is conservation estate

- friends and family.

It's nice to think that a "better standard of living" might be based on putting more importance on these things.


by Claire Browning on May 13, 2011
Claire Browning
You see, you do get it after all. Just not sure about the internet. Since it runs on computers.
by Antoine on May 13, 2011

We should be able to have computers for the foreseeable future, I think? Using a computer seems much more sustainable than (say) running a car, taking overseas holidays, or eating meat.

I like it when politicians support people to do these kinds of things. That Helen Clark was good - she was into tramping and she made some new National Parks.





by Antoine on May 13, 2011

P.S. I'm by no means convinced that low-carbon energy is more sustainable than fossil fuels. For instance, I suspect we'll be able to burn coal in New Zealand a long time after we've exhausted the high grade shallow geothermal resources.

by Claire Browning on May 13, 2011
Claire Browning
You put the 'net on a list of things that needn't count. I said: not sure. I am, however, totally sure you can swap a computer for a car, or a steak, if that's what you want to do. Never said otherwise. Coal availability =/= sustainability.
by tussock on May 13, 2011

Ah, so when it says I get one of the following, I actually get one of those and 440 kWh of electricity (7840 kWh on the whole 1.7 hectares). I couldn't quite figure out what their 5% meant, but it still looks low at that, because the hidden footprint on modern solar collecters is only about 20% over their lifetime, from what I've read.

Silver mirrors? No chance. Lots of the new ones (Texas, California) are all about building GW solar powerstations that are cheaper than the same sized coal plants, using less embedded energy, with near-zero running costs, for the $$$, no subsidy needed. The first generation is built with coal power, but in 20-30 years there could easily be enough renewables to replace that coal power if they put a real price on carbon.

by Raymond A Francis on May 16, 2011
Raymond A Francis

What Tobias asked and the PS

You raise some interesting answers to interesting questions

by Judy Martin on June 05, 2011
Judy Martin

Hi Claire, sorry to be late to this. I really like this pick your own rationing approach. Have you got a link for your 21 unit list, or did you work it out yourself?

Off to work out how many times we drive from London to Newcastle in a year...

by Claire Browning on June 07, 2011
Claire Browning

Hi Judy. It's in here.

by on September 26, 2011
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by on March 07, 2012

If someone else really wants to choose the shoes and boots for likely to workplace or maybe a proper party, he should buy treadmill sale that suit official t-shirts or fits.

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