March, 20th is the United Nations’ International Day of Happiness, recognising ‘the importance of happiness in the lives of people around the world’. Bhutan is credited as the first country to have implemented the concept of ‘Gross National Happiness’ as an official measure for the state of a nation, introduced in 1972. After the global financial crash in 2008, ideas about giving the ‘spiritual, physical, social and environmental health of [people] and natural environment’ more prominence over mere economic development are reflected more and more in international efforts towards a sustainable future.
The Happy Planet Index (HPI), developed by the New Economics Foundation, takes a rather radical approach on this issue. It aims to measure well-being and happiness by taking a universal and long-term approach to understanding, how efficiently people in a country are using their environmental resources to live long and happy lives.
This cartogram maps the results of the 2016 Happy Planet Index from the perspective of people. The gridded population cartogram shows the world resized according to the number of people living in each area, combined with the national HPI score:
(click for larger version including additional detail)
“There is no planet B”. This slogan has become widely mentioned recently in relation to COP21, the United Nations conference on climate change in Paris. The slogan highlights that the debate about climate change relates to much more than simply a changing climate. The underlying processes have a lot to do with our lifestyles and the related patterns of consumption and waste which cause severe damages to the environment (including the global climate). Carbon emissions are therefore one major trigger of climate change, but are also an effect of our unsustainable ways of life. The ecological footprint shown in the following map is a measure that looks at the impact that humanity has on our planet:
(click for larger version)
“We should … dethrone the idea that maximising the growth in measured prosperity, GDP per capita, should be an explicit objective of economic and social policy.”
Adair Turner, Chair of the UK Financial Services Authority, 2007
Today I gave a talk at the meeting of the Sustainability Knowledge Alliance and the Environment Audit Committee (EAC) of the UK Parliament at the British Academy in London. The event aimed at discussing the relationship between growing inequality and sustainability. As the meeting’s announcement explains, “in so many ways inequality is a backdrop to many features of modern political, economic and social arrangements where structures of self-reinforcing power and influence combine to buttress non-sustainability. We see this in the lobbying for the perpetuation of a carbon economy, in the promotion of the “war on terror”, and in the huge biases built into the interweaving connections between business, politics, regulation and consumerism.”
In my talk I explained how inequality and a consumption correlate. I looked at the issue mainly from a global perspective, using evidence that Danny Dorling and I compiled to find out to what extent inequality and (un)sustainability correlate. The following series of charts give in insight into how the level of inequality and a range of indicators related to consumerism and consumption compare:
Inequality and the ecological footprint
NASA’s night lights imagery published in the Earth Observatory provides a stunning view of our impact on the planet. The following map of Europe at night is an extract of my gridded population projection of the the Earth at night showing more detail of where the distribution of night lights is on the European continent in relation to its population distribution (the surrounding areas such as the northern tip of Africa remain unchanged, hence shows a ‘normal’ land area perspective). Europe is one of the few regions globally (alongside North America) where light pollution at night is very much a phenomenon that is ‘normal’ for the vast majority of people who see very little of the night skies (hence the dominantly bright areas in this image – dark spots are those areas where people live with very little light pollutin). Northumberland Dark Sky Park (which gained Dark Sky Status by the International Dark-Sky Association in December 2013) is now to be known as Europe’s biggest Dark Sky Park and the largest unspoilt area in this regard, squeezed in the sparsely populated bright spaces between Northern England and Southern Scotland in this cartogram:
(click for larger version)
In 2007 nature conservation organisation WWF initiated a campaign “encouraging households and businesses to turn off their non-essential lights for one hour to raise awareness about the need to take action on climate change” (Wikipedia). The campaign is called Earth Hour and always takes place at the end of March – this year on Saturday, the 23rd.
The Earth Hour campaign has motto of “uniting the world to protect the planet”, although certainly not everyone will join in switching off their lights at 8.30 pm to unite each time zone with a dark night sky (and there is criticism of campaigns like this). But the wealthier parts of the world will be the main focus, as large parts of the poor world live in relative darkness at night anyway. NASA’s composite satellite image of the world at night (as featured on this website before) that gives us an indication of where light pollution affects most of the night skies has just received an update recently. Earth at Night 2012 was published by the NASA Earth Observatory last December, promising nothing less that “It’s the end of the night as you know it; you’ll see fine.” The resolution and level of detail revealed in the data is stunning, so that I reworked my version of the Earth at Night in an equal population projection using a gridded cartogram transformation. The new gridded population cartogram of the Earth at Night gives an equally stunning insight into how human activity relates to the distribution of light at night, showing the already highlighted inequalities that became apparent in the old version of the map in even greater detail where large parts of the populations in Africa and also in some parts of Asia live in the shadows of the wasteful brightness of the wealthy world. The Earth at Night as seen by humanity – an image of an unequal world:
(click for larger version)