Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Other Side of the Coin

The other day I wrote about the Prosperity Index, just one of a slew of international surveys that usually ranks Finland highly in some important aspect of how societies live. These rankings, of course, depend on different criteria and methodology, and to be fair, there is more than one way to size up a country.

One alternative ranking that showed up in my Tweeter feed (or Facebook feed, I forget) is the Happy Planet Index, which focuses on evaluating countries according to “sustainable well-being”.

This survey gives a different perspective on the livability of different countries, with mostly tropical, less prosperous, nations topping the list. These nations, according the Happy Planet Index, are is some sense the “happiest” for people and, as the name implies, for the environment.

The HPI is calculated based on three comparatively simple measurements: life expectancy, perceived well-being, and ecological footprint.

Red-eyed Tree Frog. Presumably, a happy resident of Costa Rica.

After crunching these numbers, the folks behind the HPI ranked Costa Rica as number one in sustainable quality of life, perhaps not a surprise considering the country’s reputation for eco-tourism. Apparently, it also has a decent standard of living for Central America. I’ve understood a number of Americans have chosen it as the place to retire. I probably wouldn't mind living there myself.

Meanwhile, Finland comes in at 70th in the HPI list, in the middle of the 151 countries surveyed. The US is ranked 105th.

While Finland had slightly higher scores than number one Costa Rica in life expectancy (80 years versus 79.3) and well-being (7.4 vs. 7.3), it loses some ground when it comes to its ecological footprint.

The footprint is what sets the Happy Planet Index apart from similar surveys I've seen. It is a commonly used measurement indicating the amount of land required per person given a country’s current level of consumption.

Costa Rica’s footprint of 2.5 means two and a half hectares (six acres) of productive land are needed per resident to maintain the Costa Rican lifestyle. By comparison, each Finn requires 6.2 hectares (15 acres), the 5th highest of the European countries. The footprint of the US is higher still, 7.2 (18 acres), which globally is 7th overall. (Qatar has the highest.)

When it comes to ecological footprints, tropical lands do have a bit of an edge. Humans evolved in the tropics, and though that big brain of ours has allowed us to push into environs that nature alone didn’t prepare us for (like chilly Finland), setting up house in marginal habitats so far from Mother Africa does come with a higher cost.

Also, I think it’s interesting how the HPI highlights the tradeoff between ecological impact and quality of life. Most folks, even the environmentally minded, would appreciate some balance between the two. Let’s face it, countries with the lowest ecological footprints, like Afghanistan, aren’t necessarily great places to live.

Costa Rican coffee plantation. Note the blue sky.
Photo: Dirk van der Made.

Another country comparison that I recently saw reveals the less-attractive sides of EU countries, highlighting the negative characteristics that each country ranks first in.

Some of these “firsts” point to serious problems, such as the UK coming in first in terms of cocaine use. Others are much less dire, like the fact that France has the lowest usage of the English language. I would suspect the French don’t see this as somehow a negative trait. Mais non! 

One of the most revealing of the “negative” distinctions belongs to Denmark, which has the EU’s lowest per capita concentration of, wait for it…Zara clothing stores.

Now, I do realize I’m not the target market for Zara. Believe me, I’ve spent enough time in the painfully alien world of Forever 21 or New Look or similar stores, while my daughter tried on clothes, to know that those places are not trying to draw in any foot traffic at all from guys like me. Just the opposite. So, from my point of view, if a lack of Zaras is the worse that Denmark can throw at you, then life is certifiably bearable there, maybe even as happy as in Costa Rica.

As for Finland, its negative claim to fame is something much less bearable – the EU’s highest rate of depression. 

Of course, people can suffer from depression at any season, but it seems all the more understandable this time of the year. A medically recognized form of depression, seasonal affective disorder (aptly abbreviated SAD), can be a serious problem here in the dark, dark far north, so distant from the tropical sun of our primeval ancestors. The disorder reportedly does affect some 9.5% of folks in the even-darker, northern part of Finland.

And no wonder. The days are already short (only six hours, sunrise to sunset) and, before the coming of the permanent snow, it’s dark and cloudy. Incredibly cloudy

This November, there were only 12.4 hours of actual sunshine in Helsinki, compared to a normal average of 37 for the month. In places, it was worse. Kuopio, in eastern Finland, got a mere 12 minutes (normally, 22 hours) of the sun peeking through the clouds. If you were taking a shower at the wrong moment or stuck in some drab meeting room, you would have missed it completely. And that truly is depressing. 

Luckily for us, the Winter Solstice is almost here. It has to get better after that. It has to.

The Winter Solstice at Stonehenge.
Photo: Mark Grant.


  1. I recall my German teacher telling me about what it's like to visit Europe. (Since I've still never been there.)

    "The first thing you notice when you get off the jet and draw a breath is the stench of gasoline fumes. It's everywhere. It's pervasive. Europe is horribly densely populated and you almost can't get away from the stink of gasoline, even when you go into rural areas."

    I don't know, since I've yet to visit Europe. And admittedly her visits were to northern Europe since that's where her Nordic people were based.

    1. I wasn’t in Europe in the 70s, so I can’t say how accurate your teacher’s impressions were about the smell of exhaust everywhere. But that does sound a bit surprising, especially in rural areas. Of course, what passes for “rural” in northern Germany, wouldn’t be the same as “rural” in the US.

      In any case, can’t say that's been my experience, except maybe in the middle of bigger European cities, which can be gritty, and smelly for other reasons as well. Guess I haven't noticed a remarkable amount of exhaust fumes..

      You’re right, though, that Europe on average is hugely more crowded than America. (Finland is different, it’s less dense than the US.) Luckily, public transport is generally better developed on this side of the pond, so hopefully that dampens the effect some of having so many people living here.

    2. I would think the oil crisis changed things quite a bit. Quite a bit more in Europe than the US, possibly?
      Also, I think European airports might closer to cities..?