If you had no commitment to any nation or culture, which country would you choose to be born in, and why?

That’s the question underlying the Happy Planet Index, an analysis of life satisfaction and sustainability in 143 countries, the second of which has just been released.

Would you choose a rich country, or one in which people report high levels of satisfaction and fulfilment with their lives?

All other things being equal, would you prefer a country with a low environmental footprint or a high one? Would you look for a country where you are most likely to lead a long, satisfying and sustainable life?

Based on these criteria, would you choose Australia?

Not likely, according to the Happy Planet Index: Australia ranks 102 out of 143 countries. It seems we are living long and relatively contented lives here, but with a very high ecological footprint.

So who’s at the top of the list? The results may surprise those accustomed to calling any place south of the US-Mexico border a “developing nation”.

Number one is Costa Rica, the nation that famously did away with its army in the 1940s and that has set aside 23% of its land area as protected ecosystems. Costa Ricans live very nearly as long as Australians, enjoy greater life satisfaction than we do and have less than a third of our impact on the environment.

This is the case for quite a few countries in Central and South America, which hold nine of the top 10 rankings. It would appear a Latin-American pattern of development is better at generating high levels of health and wellbeing at a reasonable environmental cost than the Anglo-American focus on material wealth.

It has become usual to ask how “developing countries” can achieve our level of economic prosperity while still protecting the environment. But if Costa Ricans and Guatemalans (and Panamanians, and Brazilians, and …) are leading long and satisfied lives at a fraction of the cost to the planet, perhaps that’s the wrong question.

Perhaps we should be asking ourselves instead how we can deliver Costa Rican levels of wellbeing at a lower environment price tag.

We could start by using sensible measures of national success.

Many of the world’s leading economists have urged a de-prioritisation of GDP, for starters. An expert group chaired by former World Bank chief economist Joseph Stiglitz recently canvassed many possibilities for improving our national accounts. For example, scrapping gross measures of economic activity such as GDP in favour of adjusted net income measures would allow us to account for environmental degradation.

According to the very conservative reckoning of the World Bank, each year Australia wastes 3.3% of our nominal gross national income on pollution and depletion of the country’s natural resources. This “improves” our GDP but even a primary-school kid can see it is no good for our future.

But even as economists caution against focusing too heavily on the GDP, today and for at least the rest of this week, Australia’s economic and political leaders and media will engage in the quarterly worship of the GDP figures.

And this despite growing evidence that GDP bears little relationship to our overall wellbeing: the latest figures from the Australian Unity Wellbeing Index show that overall life satisfaction in Australia increased markedly over the past 12 months, despite — or perhaps even because of — the economic downturn.

Last year, the UK Conservative Party broke new ground by questioning the conventional wisdom that economic growth is always good, observing that: “Levels of income and consumption have soared over the last three decades in most developed countries. Yet consistently, the people of those same countries report no increase in their sense of contentment or wellbeing. In many cases they report a decline. It seems that in wealthy countries, a continued increase in economic growth, is not increasing wellbeing.”

The same is true of Australia. We need political leaders with the honesty to acknowledge that economic growth may have served us well in the past, but it is time to throw it a retirement party and get on with the more difficult but more rewarding task of increasing our genuine quality of life.

Perhaps a goal of getting Australia into the top half of the Happy Planet Index would be a good place to start.

Maybe, in time, Australia can even dream of attaining the felicitous level of development of a Costa Rica or a Dominican Republic.

Peter Fray

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