ecostory 22-2006
"Ecological Footprint" compared to "Environmental Impact"

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"Ecologocal Footprint" compared to "Environmental Impact"

A critique of the HPI - Happy Planet Index, proposed by the new economics foundation

The NEF's web page announces: "The Happy Planet Index: An index of human well-being and environmental impact."
While this may be true in a restricted sense, it is misleading in as far as it is by no means what we expect it to be: a measure of ecological viability. The HPI is by no means measuring environmental impact. This claim is simply wrong.

The HPI index is defined as
Life Satisfaction x Life Expectancey : Ecological Footprint.
But, in brief: the happiness vector is unsharp and probably exaggerated in its effect; the life expectance vector is confounded by its material content; the footprint vector is measuring biological pressure only, omitting the far more important other human pressures on the planet's ressources (non-renewables).

The concept is lacking in different important methodological aspects.

The happiness/satisfaction measure remains obscure, despite explanations. In their daily lives people do not differ tremendously, from the poorest to the richest country, when you ask them if they are happy. Happiness is certainly heavily influenced by social structures, i.e. whether people are embedded in social life or feel rather lonesome.
If you ask them whether they are satisfied they are actually incited to make comparisons to other material life conditions that they have heard of or experienced. These conditions are logically mostly better than what the enjoy themselves. One almost always aspires to more. But that is distinct from what people feel as their daily happiness.

The sources that HPI uses to assess happiness/satifaction seem having a very narrow base (1000-3000 persons) and the methodology is not clear to me. I don't believe happiness should be a factor in an index. I think the measure is necessarily biased. The authors say that it is not very surprising that Zimbabwe ranks low in happiness. Yet I would seriously doubt this. This remark is certainly influenced by Britain's critical stance regarding that country's political system. Which is justified of course. But even so, in daily life people can't be continuously depressed.

Taking life expectancy as another factor - i.e. a positive one - is methodologically wrong since it is by no means certain that a high life expectancy is directly and always linked to more happiness. In our overdeveloped westernised societies a longer life span is frequently bought with negative developments in social structures, notably stress and isolation before retirement and loneliness and suffering at old age.
If, on the other hand, in a given society people tend to die early, it is a general characteristic of that society. When everyone suffers the same fate, it has an influence on happiness when individuals are able to relate to other societies.

The footprint measure is, as the authors write themselves, a bioregenerative footprint only, excluding all non-renewable mineral resources, climate change, soil erosion, water depletion, etc. They say the footprint should not be considered as a measure of ecological viability.
Whilst this is mentioned once, is is certainly not mentioned every time when the HPI index is used. The same counts for Wackernagel's footprint.

The report's commentary on the failure of conventional economics as to their aims and the impossibility of growth are right of course.

But think that the HPI is another one of these efforts that will do more harm than good since it delivers the wrong message because of the lacking ecological rigidity and false pretence.

Telling people that their footprint is 22 per cent higher than sustainable is simply misleading. It took me until I met Matthis Wackernagel in Geneva last year and asked him, that I understood that his footprint is biological only.
Now I may not be very clever, but would the average man/woman understand it better? I don't think so.

Recapitulating I will discard this HPI index because it's misleading and grossly underestimating the real impact we humans have.

References from HPI's PDF file: Ecological Footprint - Footprint restrictions - Calculation sources - Bio capacity - Satisfaction - Manifesto - Growth - Climate

A simple measure for sustainability does exist:

Income and personal expense budget.

The lower a person is on his or her income and expense budget scale, the lighter he or she lives on the planet:
- The car that I don't drive, must not be manufactured and reqquires no infrastructre end does not pollute the atmosphere with CO2.
- The 3000 Euro holiday trip that I don't make saves an equivalent of 3000 Euros in resource consumption and pollution.

One word about climate change. I believe the NEF is overly optimistic. Compare climate. There is no way to reduce CO2 emissions by three percent per year if we do not immediately stop all grwoth and start the relocalisation of work and life, abolish up to 90 per cent of all transportation cut tourism and and and.

Helmut Lubbers ... 22.7.2006
Footprints and sustainability

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