You might be happy to hear that the US is not included in the European Happy Planet Index, compiled by the New Economics Foundation and Friends of the Earth. They limited themselves to Europe, probably in consideration of our feelings.
The ratings don’t give Europe much to crow about. The Guardian considers that “Europe is now worse at creating well-being than it was 40 years ago.”
I went looking for details, and learned that conceptually the HPI is Life Satisfaction times Life Expectancy divided by Environmental Footprint.
The HPI reflects the average years of happy life produced by a given society, nation or group of nations, per unit of planetary resources consumed. Put another way, it represents the efficiency with which countries convert the earth’s finite resources into well-being experienced by their citizens.
Seems like a thing worth measuring, and a reasonable try at measuring it.
So it’s interesting to find the list that does include the US. (Here’s an interactive map of the world colored by HPI.) Of 178 countries, We’re Number One… Hundred and Fiftieth. The UK is 108th, Canada 111th, well ahead of us because of superior Environmental Footprints. The United Arab Emirates take the Worst-Of trophy in that area, with the US, Kuwait, and Qatar tied for second.
Certainly people will dispute the rankings, the definitions, the methods of calculation, and so on (possibly even including some folks not on an oil company payroll). To me the value of such a calculation is precisely that it generates controversy, which in areas such as environmental issues is often the only way that any conversation is allowed to take place.
And it’s not very hard to figure out why.
Andrew Simms, the foundation’s head of climate change, said countries with a strong market-led economic model fared least well. “What is the point if we burn vast quantities of fossil fuels to make, buy and consume ever more stuff, without noticeably benefiting our well-being?”
A rhetorical question, no doubt. Obviously, the point of capitalism is the concentration of capital.
State capitalism, at least. Chomsky talks about a continuum with completely centralized control at one extreme, and completely decentralized control at the other. (I believe a lot of this comes from Bakunin, but I’m not sure how much.) The first he calls “state” and the second “libertarian”.
Capitalism can be of the state variety, like ours, with massive market intervention. Subsidies of all sorts for the defense contractors, drug companies, and so on nudge most of the benefit of the common wealth to those already at the very top of the ladder.
Then there’s libertarian capitalism, which seeks to distribute capital much more widely. The first I remember hearing about such a batty scheme was watching Bill Moyers interview Louis Kelso, the inventor of the Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP). He, along with Mortimer Adler, published The Capitalist Manifesto in 1975. It’s now out of print; Powell’s has no copies, eBay has one for $65, Amazon has three from $40 to $125, aLibris has two starting at $51. Oh, and the San Francisco Public Library does not have a copy, though I did get one through interlibrary loan. Apparently either Moyers interviewed a complete nobody who once had a beer with Mortimer Adler, or Kelso said something you’re not supposed to know about.
As I recall the interview, Kelso advocated a legal and enforced upper limit on the amount of capital that anyone could accumulate. He believed that it’s good to have a lot of well-off people, and as Greider says, capitalism is the greatest wealth-generation engine humanity has encountered. The question is, who ends up with the wealth? Our system concentrates it; Kelso wanted to distribute it.
As much as I believe that capitalism is based on some of the worst aspects of human character, I can imagine that we could make it respond to reality. It’s our construct, after all; it’s not part of nature, or it would have existed throughout history. It’ll be tricky, kind of like turning around a bunch of Bush administrations. But there are signs that we’re learning something about how to do that in the political realm; perhaps that expanded consciousness might transfer to the economic.
For example, in The Soul of Capitalism Bill Greider talks about the extent to which corporations are able externalize many of their costs while internalizing the profits. Whether through loopholes or lax enforcement or political pressure preventing relevant regulations, they can often avoid paying for environmental damage they cause. But you sure don’t hear them talking about sharing their profits with the people in the area that was damaged. Quite the opposite: those people are the ones who pay the cost, in money and health and future.
Capitalism might work if it was forced to include all the actual costs in its calculations. It does not work in the US today. In fact it’s destroying our common fantasy of the American Dream on physical, economic, and spiritual planes.
If we can force Congress to do something about Bush and Cheney, we might actually be able to force Congress to do something about the environment as well. As long as the US is in form a democracy, we have the theoretical power to pull it off.