Happiness Index: Don't move to Vanuatu

The bogus logic of 'sustainability'

Foot in mouthprint

The footprint idea, its originators, say is based on "the planet's capacity to regenerate". From this piece of anthropomorphism, a number of extrapolations then follow. Every human activity is translated into its equivalent "land use", with this available land being considered a fixed quantity. It's by using this calculation that footprint advocates come to the conclusion that certain kinds of human activity must be curtailed.

As we described here, however, there are seriously problems with "footprints" - and it leads to some gross distortions. Biomass that absorbs CO2, such as a field of wheat, is counted only as a resource depletion.

Primarily however, footprint thinking fails for the same reason that Thomas Malthus' original sums failed in the 19th century: Things Change. The planet isn't an organism, or a person, and so it doesn't matter whether it needs time to "regenerate", or not.

For example, peat "regenerates" at 1mm a year. Do we sit around and wait for it to grow back, or find a better fuel, such as coal, or uranium? It's human inventiveness that really does the generation (or regeneration), as we find new resources to replace the older ones, and become ever more productive. Famines were commonplace on the Indian subcontinent until the Green Revolution - painstaking germination research, technology and irrigation - tripled wheat production.

Waiting for Gaia to regenerate: a peat bog

There's a backhanded acknowledgement of this by the NEF authors, who admit the human "footprint" has fallen from 2.1 hectares and 1.8 hectares. The accompanying spreadsheet also shows that environmental impact falls as countries develop. A cause for celebration? Of course not - that would be admitting that economic growth is good, and things are getting better... which dooms the report, and the philosophy behind it.

NEF also fails to account for human organisation, and repeats the Easter Island Fallacy. Civilisation didn't collapse because the selfish natives cut down their last tree - the trees had disappeared several hundred years previously. It was disease and slavery that depopulated Rapa Nui.

(Unfortunately the junk science of doom is being peddled in schools. "If they get the sustainability bug when they are young, they could be converts for life," suggests Green Future magazine, after examining a school that uses NEF's Index.)

In their last report, NEF admitted loading the dice, and that their Happiness Index wasn't a measure of happiness at all.

"We don't claim that the index measures happiness (we emphasise several times, in fact, that it doesn't)," Sam Thompson wrote in response to one analysis.

"To an extent we asked for this kind of (mis)interpretation by using the word 'happy' in the title of the report - we have wondered, with hindsight, whether this was such a good idea."

And was it?

"The trade off is that we got a huge (and 95 per cent positive) press hit - and that's all part of the game too." ®


Statisticians will note the liberties taken by NEF. In the first survey, they had to make much of the 'happiness' data up, because it didn't exist. "A considerable amount of modelling was required to fill in the gaps for those countries where no life satisfaction data were available at all," they admit. This time they make less stuff up, but pick and mix from two different 'happiness' surveys.

A linear regression was conducted and 19 further factors thrown in, allowing NEF to predict answers in countries were the question was never asked. A co-efficient is added to the final equation - without it, NEF admits, the figure would be completely dominated by the 'footprint'.

Sponsored: HPC and HPDA for the Cognitive Journey with OpenPOWER