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Which Countries Are Actually Sustainably Developed?

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Havana cityscape, 2010. The upside of not fixing crumbling buildings? Less carbon emissions.

This century, nine billion of us humans are going to have to try to figure out how to maintain the basic material comforts of modern life without totally wrecking the planet we live on.

There’s still a lot more economic growing to do, and one group of scientists has identified four key ways in which we are already undermining the planetary systems that sustain us: we are emitting too much carbon, driving too many species to extinction, causing too much nitrogen runoff, cutting down too many trees.

In the rich world, no country has figured out how to deliver prosperity while at the same time using the earth’s resources sustainably. We would need more than two Earths worth of resources even if we all consumed like Norway, among the greenest of European countries.

Lately I’ve been asking myself: which of the world’s nations has the highest sustainable quality of life? If we define sustainability in terms of hectares per capita biocapacity usage, what countries provide realistic examples of how humans can thrive within environmental limits? I used data from the Happy Planet Index and Global Footprint Network to try and find some contenders.

Not Costa Rica?

Like the forward-thinking European countries, Costa Rica has earned some deserved praise for its progress toward sustainability. Its bounty of hydropower even allowed Costa Rica to power its entire electric grid with renewable sources for three months this year. Costa Ricans also live long lives and are among the happiest people in the world.

But similar to countries like Norway, we tend to conflate Costa Rica’s relative enlightenment with actual environmental sustainability. Costa Ricans each need 2.5 hectares of land to neutralize their impact on the planet, well above the sustainable threshold of 1.8 hectares of biocapacity.

Vietnam, etc

The World Bank considers Vietnam a “lower middle income” country. Its residents each earn about $2,000 per year, and can expect to live to be 76. Vietnam’s citizens each use 1.4 hectares of biocapacity, well below the per capita sustainable share of about 1.8. Vietnam’s future is uncertain though, as the nation’s booming capitalist economy has meant a steadily increasing environmental footprint since the 1990s.

A number of countries have similar profiles—Albania, Syria, Sri Lanka, Tunisia, Armenia, Nicaragua, Colombia, Georgia, Jamaica, Guatemala. These countries are not quite as wealthy or as healthy as we in the West are, but deliver relatively comfortable lives to most of their citizens. In general, the greatest sustainability challenge these countries face is that their economies and populations are growing rapidly. In a few decades they are likely to enjoy much more of our affluent and unsustainable western lifestyles.

Cuba?

The United Nations considers Cuba a country with “very high human development,” due to health and education indicators that in many cases best those of the US. The UN Human Development Index suggests that Cubans enjoy a quality of life higher than any of the countries mentioned above, and they do it at least in the ballpark of sustainable limits at 1.9 hectares per capita biocapacity usage. Cuba’s uniquely sustainable development has been noticed by at least a few academics.

The downsides of life in Cuba are pretty well known, and are reflected in the data that suggest Cubans are less happy than many of the other countries listed in this post. But because of the nation’s success with the raw numbers, I’m planning on doing some more research on the implications Cuba has for sustainable development in the rest of the world.