EM SC 470
Applied Sustainability in Contemporary Culture

Development, Quality of Life, Social/Environmental Justice


The Inadequacy of GDP

GDP is the most oft-used metric to indicate how a country "is doing," economically speaking. But it is also widely used as a general indicator of how a country's people are doing. There is some usefulness to this, as you will see below. But GDP obscures a lot of possible problems (economic, social, environmental, etc.), and does not indicate all of the good things about society. In short, there are some things that are good for GDP that are bad for people, and there are some things that are good for people that are not necessarily good for GDP. This problem was eloquently described by Robert F. Kennedy in 1968. It is as relevant today as it was 50 years ago. Hopefully, this will give you some pause when you hear the latest GDP numbers as an indicator of how well a country is doing.

Robert F. Kennedy challenges Gross Domestic Product
Click Here for Transcript of Kennedy challenges Gross Domestic Product Video

Too much, and for too long, we seem to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our gross national product now is over 800 million dollars a year. But that gross national product - if we judge the United States of America by that - that gross national product counts:

  • air pollution and
  • cigarette advertising
  • and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage.

It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwoods and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and it counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities. It counts Whitman's rifle and Speck's knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children.

Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play.

It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debates or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wits nor our courage. Neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country. It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile, and it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.

Credit: ipyramid

Quality of Life

Quality of life is another one of those terms that is thrown around liberally but has no specific definition. We all want a high quality of life, but what does that mean exactly? I am not here to settle the debate, but I do like the definition from this website: Quality of life is "the extent to which people's 'happiness requirements' are met." I'd add the term "satisfaction" in there as well, as in "are people's 'satisfaction' requirements met?" Nothing is universally regarded as necessary for happiness or life satisfaction. For example, I have friends who LOVE to hunt for deer and will sit for hours in a tree stand in the freezing cold, silently waiting for one to walk by. I can think of a lot of things that I'd rather do than that. But to them, that is an important part of their quality of life. Nothing wrong at all with that, by the way - it's just not for me.

Hunting is something that is obviously not universally required for a high quality of life. But I'm sure there are thousands, if not millions, of people who count it as important. But if you think about it, there is nothing that everybody loves to do, so it wouldn't matter which activity I used as an example. So, if we want to measure the quality of life, how do we do it?


Before we move on to the discussion of how to measure the quality of life, it is important to consider the concept of development. Development refers to how well the people in a country are doing, as in "How developed is country X?" or these are the "underdeveloped countries." Please note that many people (myself included) take issue with categorizing an entire country full of people using a single western-centric, judgmental term, which is why I use terms such as "(less) industrialized" or "high/low income" countries. These terms are objective descriptors, not judgments. Regardless, GDP and/or GDP/capita play primary roles in defining the level of development of a country, as do things such as having modern economic and political systems. There is some validity to this, but as RFK and others point out, GDP is not everything! A few more aspects of development worth pointing out (some of which are described in this reading from the World Bank) are as follows:

  • GDP/capita indicates nothing about the distribution of wealth. It is possible (e.g., in Equatorial Guinea) to have a high GDP/cap but to still have a large portion of the population having very little access to resources.
  • Having a relatively high GDP does provide the potential for development - it is difficult to thrive in the modern world without some money, after all - but does not mean that all people have access to health care, education, and other things that contribute to a high quality of life. Generally speaking, having a higher GDP indicates that the people in a country are doing relatively well, but this is not always the case.
  • Related to the previous point, GDP should not be misconstrued as the goal of development. High quality of life should be the "end," and economic development is only one means to that end.
  • It is important to keep in mind that unless the economy is structured in an environmentally sustainable manner, the ability to provide a high quality of life will diminish over time.

Quality of Life Metrics

There are many possible factors that contribute to the quality of life, or lack thereof. So how do we measure quality of life? For that, we need a quality of life metric. These are often referred to as development indices. Recall from Lesson 1 that it is important to be able to measure aspects of sustainability. Development indices are one aspect of this.

There are two approaches to this:

  • On the one hand, we could try to directly measure the quality of life itself.
  • Conversely, we could try to quantify the conditions that lead to a high quality of life.

There have been many attempts to do the latter and a few that have tried to do the former. It would be impossible to research all of these, but some of the most used and/or most useful ones are listed below. The first two (HDI and Inequality-Adjusted HDI) measure things that lead to a high quality of life, the third one (Happiness Index) attempts to measure it directly, and the last one (Happy Planet Index) is a mixture of the two plus ecological footprint. Please note that even the best metric cannot create a full picture of development, however it is measured. Even the most "developed" country will have people who are living in poor conditions. Also, keep in mind that this is not a comprehensive list of development indices.

Human Development Index (HDI)

The Human Development Index is the most well-known quality of life metric. It was created by the United Nations (UN), who assesses it every year. It measures three things to determine quality of life, as you will see below: living a "long and healthy life, being knowledgeable, and hav(ing) a decent standard of living." The HDI scale goes from 0 (the worst possible) to 1 (the best possible). Feel free to read the description from the UN here, and browse through the ratings here.

A world map showing color-coded Human Development Index by country.
Figure 2.6: This map shows HDI by country. A higher HDI means a higher development score. Click here to download the CSV table of HDI values by country from 1980-2014.
Credit: Liongrande, CC SA-BY 3.0

Inequality-Adjusted Human Development Index (IHDI)

The UN also publishes Inequality-Adjusted HDI (IHDI), which takes HDI and discounts it according to how equally the individual development metrics are spread across the population. If the Inequality-Adjusted HDI is lower than a country's HDI, then there is some inequality. As noted by the UN, the IHDI represents "the loss to human development due to inequality." The more inequality, the more the HDI score drops when adjusted for inequality. Note that the pattern in the map below is similar to the HDI map above, but the raw values are a little bit lower. Feel free to read more about IHDI here.

A color-coded world map showing inequality-adjusted HDI.

Figure 2.7: This map shows Inequality-Adjusted HDI by country. Again, a higher score means a higher level of development. Click here for a table of Inequality-Adjusted HDI values by country for 2013. Note that the U.S. drops from the highest level to the third highest.
Credit: Djpalmer93, CC SA-BY 4.0

World Happiness Index/Report

The World Happiness Report asks people to indicate on a scale of 0 - 10 their quality of life now and their expected quality of life in the future (see World Happiness Report details here, if you'd like). The basic premise behind this is that if you would like to determine how happy or satisfied someone is with their life, just ask them. This is a type of self-reported quality of life and results in a score of 0 - 10. This is sometimes referred to as the Happiness Index.

Pretty simple, right? Though it does beg some important questions. For example, if someone lives a short life with little education, but they are happy, does it matter? What about someone that has very little freedom, but is happy? What if they have almost no money, but are happy? What if others in their country lead much "better" lives, but they do not know it? I do not have the answers, but they are important questions to think about.

Happy Planet Index

Last but not least, we have the Happy Planet Index. This index takes into account both well-being (they use the same metric as the Happiness Index), life expectancy (like the HDI), and inequality of outcomes. The higher your well-being and life expectancy, the higher your score. Inequality is expressed as a percentage, with a higher percentage meaning more equal outcomes. But what is unique about the Happy Planet Index is that it divides by the ecological footprint, so a higher ecological footprint will result in a lower score, and vice-versa. Nic Marks created this index. He describes it in the short (1:54) video below if you are so interested. Also, you can read more about HPI here.

Optional Viewing

Happy Planet Index
Click Here for Transcript of Happy Planet Index Video

Everybody wants to live a good life, and I presume we want people in the future to live good lives. We created that the happy planet index really to highlight the tension between creating good lives now and good lives in the future.

Because we think people should be happy and the planet should be happy, why don't we create a measure of progress that shows that? And what we do is we say that the ultimate outcome of a nation is how successful is it at creating happy and healthy lives for its citizens? Economic activity tends to be taken as a sign of the sort of strength and power of a nation, and yet all it is, is just economic turnover.

What the happy planet index does is, it takes two things really: it's looking at the well-being of citizens in countries and then is looking at how many resources they use.

It creates what we'll call an efficiency measure: it says how much well-being do you get for your resources? It's like a miles per gallon, bang per buck indicator.

Running horizontally on the graph, ecological footprint is how much pressure we put on the planet. More is bad. Running vertically upwards is a measure called happy life years. It’s like a happiness adjusted life expectancy, and the yellow dot there you see is the global average.

The challenge really is to pull the global average up here. That's what we need to do. And if we're going to do that, we need to pull countries from the bottom, and we need to pull countries from the right of the graph, and then we're starting to create a Happy Planet.

You can download the report, you can check out your own personal HPI score. That’s the first global index of sustainable well-being.

Credit: New Economics Foundation

Social Justice

 There is no single definition for social justice, but take a moment to think about the definition of social justice from the National Association of Social Workers, who provide a good, concise definition:

Social justice is the view that everyone deserves equal economic, political and social rights and opportunities.

Ultimately then, social justice is about equal rights and opportunities, which is a near-universal ideal of democratic and moral societies. Not so bad, right? But let's unpack that definition a little before we move on.

First, it is important to point out that they use the word, everyone. This seemingly innocuous word actually lies at the core of social justice! I'm sure you can think of many historical and contemporary examples of unequal rights being granted to groups of people. Examples abound of discrimination against people of certain ethnicities, races, religious beliefs, sexual orientations, income levels, genders, and more. Social justice requires such characteristics and qualities have no bearing on rights and opportunities. Let's take a look at each of the "types" of opportunities indicated in the definition above.

  1. Having equal political rights and opportunities refers to everyone having equal ability to participate in all political processes. The most basic aspect of this is the right to vote, but also entails equal opportunity to vote (e.g., by not being subject to voter suppression or intimidation), equal ability to run for office, equal ability to influence political decisions (e.g., by money not being very influential in politics), and more. 
  2. Equal economic rights and opportunities essentially refers to everyone having reasonable access to rights and opportunities that can result in economic security and stability. This includes things such as access to jobs with livable wages, access to good education and training, and fair lending practices.
  3. Equal social rights and opportunities overlap significantly with economic rights and opportunities. Social rights include things like education, safe neighborhoods, health care, legal protection, access to transportation, access to healthy food, freedom to practice religion, and more.

Please keep in mind that social justice requires equal access to these rights and opportunities. If someone has access to a good education but does not take advantage of it, that is on them. But if they do not have access to it in the first place (e.g., by college being too expensive or public schools in low-income areas being underfunded), that would be considered social injustice. Conceptually, this is straightforward, but practically speaking it can be difficult to determine where injustices occur because the lines between having opportunities and taking advantage of the opportunities is not always clear. 

Environmental Justice

Environmental justice is very closely related to social justice. It is the notion that everyone should have equal rights and opportunities to access a reasonably clean environment. Things like clean air, a safe water supply, and natural areas to enjoy are not available to all. In short, environmental "goods" and "bads" are unevenly distributed. The short video below does a great job of illustrating this phenomenon.

Optional Viewing

Environmental Justice
Click Here for Transcript of Environmental Justice Video

Where we live in society plays a huge role in the environmental benefits and risks that we're exposed to. And, I'm gonna actually draw in different parts of society by using this line which represents a spectrum of society. On the right hand side, I'm gonna draw part of society that experiences higher poverty and also incorporates the often disadvantaged racial and minority groups. On the left hand side, I'm gonna draw a much wealthier part of society. One of the things that we know is that living areas that experience high poverty and have a lot of racial minorities often have few environmental benefits compared to the wealthier part of society. What do I mean by environmental benefits? I mean green spaces, parks, recreational areas. What does that look like? Well, let me draw it for you, using this triangle. This is supposed to represent environmental benefits. And one of the things we can see is that the wealthier part of society has much higher benefits than the high poverty and racial minority part of society. And as I mentioned, those benefits include things like parks, bike paths, and other green spaces. So one part of society seems to be getting a lot of benefit while another part of society seems to not be getting as much benefit. But what the high poverty and racial minority part of society does get, it does get something, and what it does get, it gets a lot of environmental burden.

So what does that look like? This line is actually supposed to represent increasing burden. So compared to the high income part of society the high poverty and racial minorities get increasing burden. And this includes things like waste facilities, manufacturing and factories, energy production, and transportation facilities such as airports. And one of the things we have to consider is that these are disadvantaged populations, they are really at risk because they're disadvantaged in many ways. They often have few alternatives in terms of where they work and where they live. They may have little awareness of the risks they may face being exposed to various environmental risks or pollutants or chemicals. They may also have other pressing issues, meaning that environmental issues are low on their agenda and let us contrast that to the wealthier population. The wealthier population may very well be more politically powerful, they can also be economically powerful, literally being able to demand that the environmental beneficial facilities are placed close to them, and the burdensome facilities are placed far away. And being able to control things like laws and regulations to benefit them more so than the other communities. And they can also be better represented in environmental groups or lobbying groups. Now this is all of significance when we consider that the high poverty groups and racial minorities may have health problems such as asthma or obesity, because we know conditions like asthma have got strong correlations to environmental issues such as pollutants, particles and ozones, and these are part of the environmental burdens that these populations face. And also when we consider obesity, obesity can be thought of as a lack of access to safe recreational facilities where people can exercise. So a lack of access to environmental benefits, and lack of access to affordable grocery and shopping facilities. The big concept here, that I want to write down is the concept of environmental justice. And what this concept really looks at is that there is a fair distribution of the benefits and burdens, of the environmental benefits and burdens within society, across all groups. And as we can see here, that is clearly not happening at the moment, and much action still needs to be taken.

Credit: Khan Academy

You may have caught the narrator's definition of environmental justice:

A fair distribution of environmental benefits and burdens across all groups.

This sums it up quite well, though it does leave the door open for some wiggle room in what it specifically means. Take another look at the definition. Do you see anything that might be open to interpretation? How about the word "fair"? This is most definitely open to interpretation, but perhaps that is done on purpose. Similar to the economic aspect of social justice, it is not reasonable to think that everyone will have equal access to all environmental goods and equal exposure to all environmental bads. But what we can strive for is to try to provide equal opportunities to access for as many people as possible.

Final Note on Social and Environmental Justice

You would think that establishing societies that provide equal rights and opportunities to all would not be controversial. The thing about it - this is is widely considered one of the (if not the primary) core values of American society. Yet, social and environmental justice are often some of the most controversial aspects of sustainability. Though there are, unfortunately, many that do not believe that everyone should have equal rights, more often the controversy arises as a result of the application of solutions to social and environmental injustice. There are many reasons for this, but some important ones are as follows:

  1. By their very nature, fixing social justice issues requires altering the power structure of a given area or society. When women and black Americans were given the right and opportunity to vote in the U.S., it reduced the power of white males. If lobbying activity is restricted, the companies they work for would have less influence, and so on. Those with power tend to try to hold onto it, and because they are already powerful, it can be difficult to stop them.
  2. There is often a strong ideological resistance to new regulations. Regulation is often posed as solutions to address social and environmental injustice, e.g., by taxing companies and wealthy individuals to subsidize those of lower incomes, taxing companies that pollute or otherwise damage local environments, and so forth. 
  3. The root cause of many of these problems cannot easily be fixed, even with the best-intended policies. For example, urban and rural poverty - both in the U.S. and abroad - is a complex, deep-seated problem that does not have an easy solution. There is no "magic bullet" to fix them. It's difficult to blame businesses for wanting to locate in wealthier areas where people have more money to spend, for example.
  4. Finally, it is very important to note that providing equal opportunity sometimes requires what some would consider "unequal" treatment. For example, many social and environmental justice organizations provide more resources to low income individuals than those with higher incomes. This can seem unfair to those not eligible for benefits. ("Why won't the government subsidize my housing and childcare?" "Why do pay more taxes, just because I've made more money through my hard work?") 

The goal of those concerned with social/environmental justice is to provide equal opportunity for all people, and there is wide recognition that many people are born at a disadvantage through no fault of their own. In general, social justice advocates err on the side of providing extra assistance and/or helping empower all who might need help, regardless of how they got into their circumstance. We live in a VERY unequal world, and those concerned with social justice want to change that.