Costa Rica: small feet and big smiles

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.