USA: making our wellbeing more sustainable

resources • Published October, 2021

The USA’s rank on the Happy Planet Index in 2019: #122. Explore the data.

By: Kyle Newman

In 2020, the United States had an Happy Planet Index (HPI) score of 39.7, an increase of over 5 units since 2006, when the HPI was first calculated. The largest driver of this change has been the ecological footprint per capita of the US, which fell from 10.12 gha in 2006 to 7.20 gha today. Broadly, this is due to a shift away from coal-fired power plants and towards natural gas and renewables. In the last year alone, ecological footprint per capita in the US fell by over 1 gha, in part due to dramatic shifts caused by COVID-19, such as reduced travel and spending on goods from abroad.

Though the US has made strides, its per capita footprint is still five times the per capita biocapacity of the Earth. 

Given that the US has achieved or is close to achieving targets related to average lifespan and experienced wellbeing, further increases to its HPI score must come from continuing to reduce ecological footprint per capita.

We must do so while avoiding sacrificing wellbeing or life expectancy. 

There are ways forward. 

Within the US, the majority of carbon emissions, a core component of the ecological footprint, come from electricity generation and transportation. As climate change accelerates, federal and state policy makers must push for widespread adoption of renewable energy technology and limit corporate emissions. Local governments can invest in public transportation infrastructure to reduce the number of miles driven per person. Combined with increased adoption of electric vehicles, the US has the opportunity to drive down its footprint significantly.

Policy is only half the story.

As individuals and communities, we must adapt our lifestyles and habits of consumption to live in a less ecologically burdensome manner. This could include making changes such as consuming less, reducing international travel by plane and car, or lobbying local governments to preserve wild spaces. Transformations brought on by COVID-19, such as the substitution of travel for virtual gatherings, show that we are capable of change.

To get there, we need to uplift new values and narratives that can paint a path forward.

The only way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time. Bon appetit.

About the author

Kyle Newman is a student at Duke University majoring in Economics with a minor in Philosophy and a Certificate in Energy and the Environment. He is a member of the Revaluing Care in the Global Economy research team. He is passionate about rethinking the possible and connecting with others. 
You can connect with Kyle on Linkedin and view his photography on Instagram at @photographi_k.

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