The USA is the lowest scoring G7 nation on the Happy Planet Index, mainly due to its high ecological footprint. If all countries matched the USA’s resource use, we would need more than 5 planets to maintain our consumption levels.
The 2020 Happy Planet Index score for the United States increased to its highest point in the last 14 years. This is important, and it points to gradual progress in the US, as well as strong improvements over the previous four years. The measure for ecological footprint dropped by over one full point from 8.21 to 7.20 between 2019 and 2020, and this factor is what resulted in the country’s best HPI score in well over a decade.
The ecological footprint measures how much each person in the US impacts the environment. We know from other data that carbon output and other environmental impacts went down in the US at the highest rate since World War II as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. People drove less, flew less, and consumed less as a result of working from home and cutting back on travel. This year, as travel reopens and people begin commuting to work again, this trend is likely to reverse. The US then needs to act quickly on reducing ecological footprints by transitioning to electric vehicles, supporting clean public transportation, and changing our patterns of consumption, including using fewer plastics and showing greater support for circular economies. Policy changes at the local, regional, and national level will go a long way toward these kinds of changes.
In order for the United States to continue improving on the Happy Planet Index, we need to design policies that address the overall satisfaction or wellbeing of our residents. This part of the HPI, called the Ladder of Life, went up slightly from 2019 to 2020. On the whole, however, it has decreased gradually over the past several years. This measurement of wellbeing places the United States lower than Canada and the lowest of any G7 nation on the Happy Planet Index.
Gallop describes the Ladder of Life score as correlating strongly with things such as economic opportunity, the amount a country spends on an individual’s health, and measures of citizen engagement. If the US is to improve on its wellbeing score, we will have to increase the kinds of social services that enable people to worry less about their long-term health and wellbeing and that encourage participation in the kinds of decisions that most affect their lives. The US needs to ensure fair and equal access to democratic processes, like voting. Additionally, we would be well served by expansions of government provided healthcare for lower income groups, such as we have seen in a number of states around the country.
The US has the opportunity to start designing policies that support not only basic needs but also a holistic approach to satisfaction. Recent studies have shown that policies touching on diverse sectors can positively affect wellbeing. This could include funding for the arts, for recreation in local communities, ensuring access to affordable and healthy food, and supporting community programs that build a sense of pride and belonging. Each of these have ties to economic opportunity for all and work toward healthier and more engaged citizens.
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