By Stan Hirst, Member of Suzuki Elders

I discovered a set of data that says Canadians are a happy lot. A 2006 world-wide poll by the prestigious Gallup organization puts Canada joint 3rd in the world in terms of life satisfaction, just 0.5 out of 10 index points behind the leading and supremely happy Ticos of Costa Rica.

Some years back a Dutch sociologist, Ruut Veenhoven, noted the analogy between 'healthy years' (a statistic used much by public health specialists) and 'happy years' and figured he could use life satisfaction statistics to give an index of a country's happiness. He multiplied the satisfaction index by the average life expectancy for a particular country and came up with a number which he joyfully termed 'happy life years' or HLY. Doing this calculation for Canada we find ourselves brimming over with 64 HLY for each (average) Canadian, just a tad ahead of the Europeans (62.2 HLY) and Americans (61.2 HLY) and a little ahead of the average South American (50.3 HLY).

Happiness & life expectancy

But then along comes the UK's New Economics Foundation to totally rain on our parade. They divide the HLY for each country by the ecological footprint for that country (measured in 'global hectares') and end up with something they call the Happy Planet Index or HPI. The HPI is a cleverly designed metric which relates human well-being and happiness to the planetary cost of that well-being in terms of resource extraction and imposition upon nature. Canada's HPI is just 39.4, which puts us at a miserable 89th in the world (out of 143). Costa Rica again heads the list with an HPI of 76.1. An astonishing 10 of the top 11 countries on the HPI list are south- and central American, with economies only about one-eighth the size of Canada's (measured on a per capita basis).

The ecological footprint concept was developed in the late 80's by Dr. Mathis Wackernagel in collaboration with Professor Bill Rees of the University of British Columbia. Wackernagel has gone on to develop and extend its practical use as a tool for measuring and assessing global sustainability. It is a measure of humanity's demand on the biosphere in terms of the area of biologically productive land and sea required to provide the resources we use and to absorb our waste. In 2005 the total global ecological footprint was computed to be 17.5 billion global hectares, a global hectare being a world-averaged unit area for producing resources and absorbing wastes.

Canada's ecological footprint computes out at something from 7.1 to 7.6 global hectares per capita, depending on the data and methods used to compute it. This compares to our South American neighbours who achieve their respective happiness levels on areas of from 1 to 2.5 global hectares per capita. A more telling comparison is that if every country on the planet lived at the same level of ecological impacts as our Latino friends, then the Earth could just about support us all indefinitely. If, on the other hand, they all guzzled fossil fuels and spewed out wastes the way North Americans do, we would need another three or four Earths to make ends meet.

But wait a moment say the cynics, especially those in Alberta. Canada's economy is worth $1.5 trillion, compared to the $30 billion for a smallish South American country like Costa Rica. As hewers of wood, drawers of water and rampant extractors of resources from a huge, freezing cold country, you can't expect us not to use resources like oil at a higher rate than much smaller economies which have warm climates and stacks of visiting tourists riding bicycles. Can you?

Well no, statistics from countries with widely disparate climates and natural resource bases are obviously not directly comparable. But consider this. A major component of the ecological footprint is the so-called carbon footprint (also measured in global hectares per person) which represents the biocapacity needed to absorb CO2 emissions from fossil-fuel use and land disturbance, other than the portion absorbed by the oceans. The average South American needs about 0.5 global hectares to absorb the CO2 emitted as a result of his driving, heating, burning, cooking and industrial processes. The average European needs 2.5 of the same global hectares. Canada, by comparison, needs 3.6 and the U.S.A. a whopping 6.4.

Carbon footprint

Does Canada's size and cold climate account for the big differences between us and the Europeans and the South Americans? Ecological footprint data from the Global Footprint Network show that Canada's per capita usage of land for urban areas, grazing and crops is not hugely different to that used by Europeans and South Americans, in fact we use less cropland per capita than the Europeans. What does stand out is the large contribution made to the North American footprint by use of forests [Canada's forests cover more than four million km2, about 40% of the land area].

Eco footprints land use

Canada's very high fossil fuel consumption shows up in World Bank data which places Canada 11th in the world, with about half the annual fuel use per capita of Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and other choice locales with dirt cheap oil and refrigerated swimming pools. We have the same level of per capita fossil fuel use as Saudi Arabia. Each year Canadians use up more than six metric tons of fossil fuels (expressed as the oil equivalent) for each man, woman and child in the land. In so doing, we belch out 17 metric tons of CO2 per capita, which puts us globally in 11th place again.

Fossil fuel usage

Do we really need to use that much oil, gas and coal to maintain a happy life style? Its not a simplistic question, and has as much to do with lifestyles and consumerism as it does with resource use and distribution and the country climate. But one thing stands out. If you use large amounts of fossil fuel energy, you are going to pay for it. And that payment comes out of your pocket or from the bank in the form of a credit loan. The Certified General Accountants Association of Canada has compiled a detailed report on Canadian household debt and finds Canadian households at the top of the world list in terms of their debt-to-financial-assets ratio which is currently 10.1%. The U.S. trundles behind us with 7.2%, as does Europe (median 2.9%). And those friendly Latinos? Their debt is just 0.4% of household assets.

Household debt

Happy now?

July 26, 2010

Read more

Post a comment

The David Suzuki Foundation does not necessarily endorse the comments or views posted within this forum. All contributors acknowledge DSF's right to remove product/service endorsements and refuse publication of comments deemed to be offensive or that contravene our operating principles as a charitable organization. Please note that all comments are pre-moderated. Privacy Policy »