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Trevor Hancock: Imagining Victoria as a ‘one-planet’ region

One of the recurring themes in my columns is that we are using the wrong measures to assess how well we are doing, locally, provincially, nationally and globally.

One of the recurring themes in my columns is that we are using the wrong measures to assess how well we are doing, locally, provincially, nationally and globally. Instead of focusing on economic development and the gross domestic product, we should focus on how well people and the planet are doing.

One new indicator is the Happy Planet Index, and the 2016 report has just been released. The index was developed by the New Economics Foundation in London, one of the world’s leading “alternative” economic think-tanks. The foundation, established in 1986, states: “Our aim is to transform the economy so that it works for people and the planet.”

The index is the number of years of “happy” life experienced by the population of a country, divided by the country’s ecological footprint. “Happy life” is measured as life expectancy adjusted for the level of well-being and the level of inequality; the aim is to have a long life of good quality with a low level of inequality and a low ecological footprint.

The ecological footprint “represents the productive area required to provide the renewable resources humanity is using and to absorb its waste,” according to the Global Footprint Network. Globally, we use about 1.5 planets worth of bio-productive capacity every year, which is clearly unsustainable. In fact, what the network calls Earth Overshoot Day — “the date when humanity has exhausted nature’s budget for the year” — was on Monday.

The happy-index results are surprising, and very different from a ranking based on GDP. The top country is Costa Rica, with a life expectancy of 79.1 years, a well-being score of 7.3 (out of 10), an inequality rate of 15 per cent and an ecological footprint of 2.8 global hectares per capita (gha/capita). Canada does slightly better on life expectancy (81.7 years), well-being (7.4) and inequality (nine per cent), but at 8.2 gha/capita, our ecological footprint is almost three times as large; we rank 85th out of 140 nations.

Unsurprisingly, no high-income countries rank in the top 10, which are all Latin American or Asian; the four countries after Costa Rica are Mexico, Colombia, Vanuatu and Vietnam. The top European countries are Norway (12th) and Spain (15th); the U.K. ranks 34th and the U.S. 108th. The high-income countries fare badly because they all have large ecological footprints, although most are smaller than Canada’s; Norway’s footprint is 5.0, Spain’s is 3.7 and the U.K.’s is 4.9 gha/capita.

Since we only have one planet, we have to learn how to live — and live well — within the ecological constraints of our home. This means we need to move to a future where we have a good quality of life while only having a “One Planet” footprint; that is currently 1.73 gha/capita, which is roughly the footprint of Vietnam, Morocco or Indonesia.

I don’t dispute that it will be difficult and challenging, that it will require some massive changes and will take time, but it is what we need to achieve, and fairly soon. The alternative is that we carry on as we are now, in the hope that some sort of technological marvel will save us, or that we just don’t need the planet’s ecosystem goods and service. I am not pinning my hopes on either.

So I have a suggestion. First, let’s calculate the Happy Planet Index for the Greater Victoria region; I have checked with the New Economics Foundation, and to their knowledge, only one other municipality in the world has done this (Caerphilly, in Wales).

This will, of course, necessitate measuring life satisfaction and the ecological footprint (we already know life expectancy and can easily adjust for inequality).

Then let’s try to create a model of what life in this region would be like, if it had a “One Planet” footprint with a high quality of life and a low level of inequality.

We should do so using what we already know about what can be done technologically and is being done elsewhere in the world, or is reasonably foreseeable.

Only if we can imagine it and show it is feasible will we be able to engage people in what should be an inspiring quest — to create a “One Planet” region with a high quality of life.


Dr. Trevor Hancock is a professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s school of public health and social policy.

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