The Poor but Unusually Chipper and Long-Lived Index

The Happy Planet Index is an ideologically rigged ranking released each year by the New Economics Foundation as part of their fight against the evils of economic growth. As far as I can tell, the whole thing is based on the false assumption that it is physically impossible for the entire population of Earth to achieve OECD-levels of material wealth. I suspect NEF sort of hopes media outlets will misunderstand what their index is an index of, as they've chosen a rather misleading name for a ranking of countries according to this formula:

Nevertheless, here are some of the headlines:

Australia Not Home to the Good Life — Sydney Morning Herald
Costa Rica: World's happiest place — Xinhua
Happy Costa Ricans top global list for the good life — Financial Times
Costa Rica tops list of 'happiest' nations — CNN

I do like the quotes around CNN's 'happiest'. So, anyway, what is the Happy Planet Index and index of?! Who can say!? Not journalists, who can be counted on to read no further than the press release. If one takes a moment to poke around the website for the Index, they do get around to saying: “The Index doesn’t reveal the ‘happiest’ country in the world,” which is a help. But they should put this up front, or change the name of the damn thing.

Anyway, so what's this “ecological footprint”?

The ecological footprint of an individual is a measure of the amount of land required to provide for all their resource requirements plus the amount of vegetated land required to sequester (absorb) all their CO2 emissions and the CO2 emissions embodied in the products they consume. This figure is expressed in units of ‘global hectares’. The advantage of this approach is that it is possible to estimate the total amount of productive hectares available on the planet. Dividing this by the world’s total population, we can calculate a global per capita figure on the basis that everyone is entitled to the same amount of the planet’s natural resources. Using the latest footprint methodology, resulting in the data in the Global Footprint Network’s Ecological Footprint Atlas, the figure is 2.1 global hectares. This implies that a person using up to 2.1 global hectares is, in these terms at least, using their fair share of the world’s resources – one-planet living.

Don't ask me why they think this makes sense. (Artifical trees!) In short it seems to mean that countries get docked for containing lots of people wealthy enough to buy lots of things.

Let's move on to alpha and beta. What do they mean? NEF doesn't tell you on the website. But if you diligently hunt around the pdf of the report, it is possible to discover Appendix 2, where it is finally revealed what the Happy Planet Index is an index of:

… a constant (α) is added to the ecological footprint to ensure that its coefficient of variance across the entire dataset matches the coefficient of variance for HLY across the dataset. In effect, this serves to dampen variation in the footprint. Once this is done, HLY can be divided by the adjusted footprint to produce an efficiency measure. This is then multiplied by a second constant (β) such that a country achieving a maximum life satisfaction score of 10, and life expectancy of 85, whilst living within its global fair share of resources (one-planet living), would score 100.

They apparently want to dampen the effect of the footprint to avoid the embarrassment of miserably impoverished countries “winning” simply due to the fact that they've got antibiotics but are too poor to buy coal.

It is well known in the happiness biz that Latin American countries tend to do better in terms of self-reported life satisfaction than their economic and political fundamentals would predict–in much the same way East Asian countries do worse. Given that the index strongly penalizes wealth, it's not much of a surprise that the winner would be a poor-but-unusually-chipper Latin American country that also has a suprisingly good average lifespan.

Here is an article on Costa Rican longevity.

Here is my annoyed response to the 2006 index.

What do you make of this claim, just thrown out there in NEF's explanation of its notion of ecological footprint: “[E]veryone is entitled to the same amount of the planet’s natural resources”?