The bogus logic of 'sustainability'

NEF co-author Saamah Abadallah

Did you know people in Haiti, Burma and Armenia are all better off than in Britain? And the Congo is happier than the USA? That’s what the London think-tank New Economic Foundation reckons in its second “Happy Planet” rankings. But even NEF admits that its “happiness” rating or HPI doesn’t really measure human happiness, and that it’s sacrificing truthiness for the publicity its reports can generate.

Like the notorious Carbon Calculator, the Happy Planet Index is an advocacy tool for limiting, rather than promoting, human health and happiness, and it too is based on the idea of an ecological “footprint”. This Neo-Malthusian concept was developed by population-control advocate William Rees, a professor at British Columbia University, and his splendidly-named pupil Mathis Wackernagel. The latter has since turned it into a successful consultancy business.

NEF uses older surveys where people expressed happiness, multiplies it by life expectancy, and divides it by the “footprint”. Factors such as crime, freedom, or infant mortality rates are not considered.

So not surprisingly, given this skew, the “Happiness Index” produces some very odd results. The last survey was topped by the Republic of Vanautu. The south sea nation has a population of just over 200,000 and an infant mortality rate of one in 20 – about 10 times that of the UK.

The authors urge industrialised economies urgently need to become more like the underdeveloped. In human terms, that would mean over 300,000 unnecessary child deaths in the UK each year. Such is the price of happiness, NEF argues.

NEF also frowns on India and China for improving the material welfare of their people. Accompanying the report is a spreadsheet which hindcasts the NEF “happiness” figure retrospectively. It tells us that since 1990, China and India’s “HPI rating” has fallen.

In the latest survey Costa Rica tops the poll, and Vanautu has dropped out completely. Jamaica ranks third, Columbia is at six, Bhutan (with 74 deaths per 1,000 live births) and Laos (89 per 1,000) is in the Top 20 – far higher than any OECD country.

It’s too bizarre even for some anti-capitalist environmentalists. Writing on his blog, the activist Derek Wall, author of Babylon and Beyond: The Economics of Anti-capitalist, Anti-globalist and Radical Green Movements observes that:

“Colombia comes in at number six on the index out of 143 countries… yet death squads commonly clear peasants from the land for biofuels. Doesn’t sound that good a place to me.”

“But maybe I am just one of those old fashioned left greens who worries about little things like human rights and the environment?”

Meet the Carbon Cult, Derek.

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 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 revealed 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 Thomas Malthus’ original sums failed in the 19th century: Things Change. The planet isn’t an organism, or a person, as a human resource 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 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.”

Statistical Footnotes

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’.