Thursday, August 17, 2006

Who's happiest: Denmark or Vanuatu?

When two different countries can top two different happiness surveys in the same month, you know there’s something dodgy about happy stats. They are more propaganda for various politically correct viewpoints than anything else

Imagine there were competing systems for awarding points to teams in a football league. According to the first system, one set of teams was in the top 10, while judging by the other system, a completely different set of teams was at the top. Observers would probably conclude that at least one and possibly both systems were flawed.

Yet no one seems to be drawing such a conclusion from the recent publication of two sets of global happiness league tables (reproduced at the bottom of this article). In the World Map of Happiness, compiled by Adrian White at the University of Leicester, the top 10 are mainly European countries with Denmark first, followed by Switzerland and then Austria. In the Happy Planet Index, compiled by the New Economics Foundation (NEF) in association with Friends of the Earth, the top country is Vanuatu (an island nation in the Pacific), but the list is dominated by smaller Latin American countries.

Wealthy countries do much better in the World Map of Happiness than in the Happy Planet Index. America is ranked 23 in the World Map of Happiness but 150 in the Happy Planet Index, while Britain is 41 in the first and 108 in the second. Healthcare and education also help countries rank highly in the World Map of Happiness. On the other hand, Colombia, a country which has suffered a 40-year civil war, somehow makes it to number two on the NEF ranking.

Despite the vast differences between the two tables, apparently measuring the same thing, the contradiction does not seem to have attracted much comment (3). The publication of both sets of league tables in July has generally been reported uncritically. Journalists seem to take it as given that the league tables provide meaningful information for their readers.

Before unpicking this puzzle it is important to point out there is nothing inherently wrong with measuring subjective perceptions of happiness. If individuals in one country are on average happier than in another country, or if happiness varies over time in the same country, it is worth investigating. But it is important to recognise that such perceptions should be the starting point rather than the end point of a study. All sorts of factors, including social and cultural ones, can influence what people say about their levels of happiness. The job of the researcher into such data is to try to work out why people say what they do.

The first and most astonishing fact about the two happiness league tables is that neither are measures of happiness. Although they are promoted as being rankings of happiness, a glance at the small print shows that subjective wellbeing is only a component of what they measure. Both are based on various combinations of self-reported happiness combined with a variety of other indicators. In fact, the University of Leicester Study uses data from the NEF, which in turn compiled the Happy Planet Index.

Full information on how the World Map of Happiness is calculated is not provided on the Leicester University website, although it says: ‘The projection, which is to be published in a psychology journal this September, will be presented at a conference later in the year.’ In addition to self-reported happiness, it seems to include access to schooling, life expectancy and GDP per head as part of the calculation.

In contrast, the NEF gives a rough idea of how its index is calculated:

The HPI incorporates three separate indicators: ecological footprint, life-satisfaction and life expectancy. The statistical calculations that underlie the HPI are quite complex. However, conceptually, it is straightforward and intuitive:

HPI = Life satisfaction x Life expectancy
Ecological Footprint

Out of these indicators life expectancy and life satisfaction are fairly straightforward. Life expectancy is clearly easy to quantify and it is an important objective measure of wellbeing. Life satisfaction is a subjective measure of happiness and, as already argued, is worth knowing. However, whether it is meaningful to combine the two in a single measure is open to question. One is an objective measure of wellbeing while the other is subjective. In addition, there are many other objective measures of wellbeing that could be used in addition to life expectancy.

The most problematic measure, however, is that of the ‘ecological footprint’. The NEF says: ‘The ecological footprint measures how much land area is required to sustain a given population at present levels of consumption, technological development and resource efficiency, and is expressed in global-average hectares.’(7) Even assuming for a moment that this concept is useful, it is hard to see what it has to do with happiness. It is quite conceivable that people living in countries with a large ecological footprint could be happy even if it was the case that their lifestyles were unsustainable.

As it happens, the notion of an ecological footprint is a dubious one. It is usually presented as a fixed measure but, as the definition suggests, greater technological development can completely change the measure. The amount of area needed to sustain a given population at one level of technology can be completely different from that at a higher level of technological development. Better technology, as well as greater resource efficiency, means a smaller area of land can sustain a given population. Yet the discussion of the ecological footprint typically includes meaningless statements such as ‘humans are using more resources than are available on the planet’

In the context of happiness rankings, to include the ecological footprint inevitably means that countries with high levels of consumption will be downgraded. So this assumption alone means there is an in-built bias against the developed countries in the NEF’s Happy Planet Index. Therefore, middle-income nations – where individuals have a reasonable life expectancy but consumption is still relatively low – do best. In contrast, the University of Leicester Study seems to award positive points for countries with a high GDP per head, so developed countries do well in that ranking.

This shows that world happiness rankings reveal more about the prejudices of their compilers than they do about the inhabitants of different nations. This is most clear in the NEF Happy Planet Index, which, through the use of the ecological footprint, has that bias against developed nations. The conclusions that it draws – including the need for humans to restrict their consumption – are built into the assumptions of the index. It is a circular argument.

What ‘happiness’ means in this context is the happiness of the index compilers rather than that of the world’s inhabitants. As environmentalists, the NEF’s preference is for a world in which humans restrict their consumption. The implication is that it would prefer Americans or Britons to reduce their consumption levels to that of people in Colombia or Costa Rica. Therefore, it has constructed an index which reflects the qualities it sees as desirable.

Statistics can be a valuable aid to understanding society. If they are properly used they can help point to areas that demand further investigation by researchers. But those who use statistics should never forget they need to be handled with skill and care. They would do well to remember the old maxim of computer programmers: garbage in, garbage out.


Wimmin at War

It is 25 years since the Greenham Common protests began. Sarah Baxter was there, but now asks why feminist ideals have become twisted into support for groups like Hezbollah

When Ann Pettitt, the mother of two young children, and her friends set off in August 25 years ago on a 120-mile trek from Cardiff to the little known American air base at Greenham Common in Berkshire, they gave themselves the ambitious name of “Women for Life on Earth”. Their numbers were tiny but the stakes, they felt, were dauntingly high.

The cold war world was bristling with Soviet and American nuclear weapons, posing the threat of mutual assured destruction (Mad). In a dramatic escalation of the arms race between the superpowers, shiny new cruise missiles were due to be delivered to Greenham, placing Britain’s green and pleasant land in the bull’s eye for targeting by the Soviet Union.

The modest peace march was largely ignored by the media, so on arrival at the base the women decided to borrow the eye-catching tactics of the suffragette movement. They chained themselves to the gates of Greenham and dared the police to remove them. Sympathisers began to turn up bearing makeshift tents, clothing and pots and pans. Many came and went but others stayed. Thus was the women’s peace camp born a quarter of a century ago this month and a new chapter in the history of feminism opened.

“I was motivated by fear and terror,” Pettitt recalled last week. “I was the mother of a two-year-old and a four-year-old and weapons of mass destruction were the ultimate denial of the fact that I’d created life. There was such brinkmanship, I really thought that nuclear weapons might be used.”

Mercifully, they weren’t. President Ronald Reagan once blurted out in front of a live microphone that the bombing of Russia was going to begin in 15 minutes, but it was nothing more than a tasteless joke. In hindsight Reagan’s hardline negotiating stance helped to bring about the collapse of the Soviet Union. By the end of the 1980s the Berlin Wall was down and the velvet revolutions in eastern Europe were under way.

The peace movement lost a foe in Reagan but has gone on to find new friends in today’s Stop the War movement. Women pushing their children in buggies bearing the familiar symbol of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament marched last weekend alongside banners proclaiming “We are all Hezbollah now” and Muslim extremists chanting “Oh Jew, the army of Muhammad will return.”

For Linda Grant, the novelist, who says that “feminism” is the one “ism” she has not given up on, it was a shocking sight: “What you’re seeing is an alliance of what used to be the far left with various Muslim groups and that poses real problems. Saturday’s march was not a peace march in the way that the Ban the Bomb marches were. Seeing young and old white women holding Hezbollah placards showed that it’s a very different anti-war movement to Greenham. Part of it feels the wrong side is winning.”

As a supporter of the peace movement in the 1980s, I could never have imagined that many of the same crowd I hung out with then would today be standing shoulder-to-shoulder with militantly anti-feminist Islamic fundamentalist groups, whose views on women make western patriarchy look like a Greenham peace picnic. Nor would I have predicted that today’s feminists would be so indulgent towards Iran, a theocratic nation where it is an act of resistance to show an inch or two of female hair beneath the veil and whose president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is not joking about his murderous intentions towards Israel and the Jews.

On the defining issue of our times, the rise of Islamic extremism, what is left of the sisterhood has almost nothing to say. Instead of “I am woman, hear me roar”, there is a loud silence, punctuated only by remonstrations against Tony Blair and George Bush — “the world’s number one terrorist” as the marchers would have it.

Women are perfectly entitled to oppose the war in Iraq or to feel that Israel is brutally overreacting to Hezbollah’s provocation. But where is the parallel, equally vital debate about how to combat Islamic fundamentalism? And why don’t more peace-loving feminists regard it as a threat? Kira Cochrane, 29, is the new editor of The Guardian women’s page, the bible of the Greenham years, where so many women writers made their names by staking out positions on the peace movement. She has noticed that today’s feminists are inclined to keep quiet about the march of radical Islam. “There’s a great fear of tackling the subject because of cultural relativism. People are scared of being called racist,” Cochrane observes.

Whatever the merits of unilateral nuclear disarmament, women were a lot braver a quarter of a century ago. Pettitt remembers how “we tried to crash the top table at Greenham. You had to be rude to interrupt because you’re never going to be invited to speak”.

I had just left university in the early 1980s when I got swept up in the peace movement. My Saturday afternoons were often spent marching from Hyde Park to Trafalgar Square and on the day when cruise missiles arrived in Britain, I rushed to a protest outside the Houses of Parliament, was arrested by the police, dragged into a black maria van and shoved overnight into a south London police cell. It was nothing compared to what the women of Greenham Common endured, but I felt like a heroine when the next day my male boss at Penguin Books, where I worked as a junior copywriter, paid my fine.

I was a bit sniffy about the all-women’s peace camp because I was partial to men and disliked much of the mumbo-jumbo surrounding it. In her forthcoming memoir, Walking to Greenham (published by Honno), Pettitt writes about the “delightful irony” of liberated women using “emblems of conformist democracy” such as knitting needles and wool to protest against war, but I used to see the ghastly spider webs and children’s mittens tied to the razor wire on the perimeter fence and shudder.

Nevertheless, I attended several “embrace the base” demonstrations in support of the women who had put the issue of nuclear disarmament so defiantly on the map. I went on to get a job at Virago, the feminist publisher, and marvelled at the way the “peace wimmin” had energised the brand new field of women’s studies, sparking lively debates on the virtues and vices of separatism from men and the extent to which nuclear weapons were “boys’ toys” (a tricky one in the age of Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s first woman prime minister).

Later, as a journalist, I broke into the base with a group of Greenham women, stood somewhat pointlessly on top of the silos where the cruise missiles were stored and went on to become friends with one of the peace campers, who had been abused as a child and had found comfort in the new “family” she had made living in the rough and ready “benders” constructed of branches and plastic sheeting.


Four decades of loss: The reality of the Wave Hill walkout does not pass muster

Leftist fantasies about a real-life disaster

The story of how Northern Territory Aboriginal stockmen were robbed of their future by well-meaning but misguided thinking is an abject lesson that the road to hell is indeed paved with good intentions. As Nicolas Rothwell has reported in The Australian, 40 years after the watershed walkout by black stockmen at Wave Hill - who were demanding equal pay for blacks and whites - the first glimmer of economic self-improvement is only now apparent. There is no guarantee it will succeed and it in no way compensates for four decades of loss.

In the end, the walkout served only to help incubate living conditions among indigenous communities that are a national scandal and an international embarrassment. As explored in the book Distance, Drought and Dispossession, by horse-breaker-turned PhD Glen McLaren, the plight of the Territory's Aboriginal stockmen was sealed by impatience and a fatal miscalculation. Impatience because the walkout followed an arbitration commission ruling in favour of a sliding pay scale over time, with the best black stockmen paid well for their labour. And miscalculation because the equal-pay campaign ignored the fact that in addition to paying wages, the pastoralists were also providing for large extended families, effectively providing an economic lifeline through which an association with traditional lands could be preserved.

After walking out, Aboriginal stockmen were effectively left out in the cold. The commonwealth, through welfare, was forced to pick up the financial burden and, without work, the remote communities spiralled into the tragic circumstances brought about by too much time and too little money or productive opportunity. These are the stark realities not readily acknowledged in urban celebration of the land rights struggle, epitomised by former prime minister Gough Whitlam's symbolic 1975 pouring of soil into hands of Vincent Lingiari, the man who led the walkout.

It is the same sentiment in which Lingiari is immortalised in the pop ballad From Little Things Big Things Grow, by Kev Carmody and Paul Kelly. But symbolic gestures and catchy tunes have never been enough. There is still no evidence of the "big things" that are supposed to have grown from the walkout. The Daguragu cattle property set up for the strikers has been deserted for 15 years. The delivery of land rights was never dependent on the walkout. And instead of self-determination, a succession of well-meaning but misguided government policy has left the former stockmen and their children stranded.

That a small number is now showing an interest in joining the cattle industry is cause for optimism. So too are belated efforts to kick-start a viable indigenous cattle industry. But as the land rights warriors of the 1970s meet to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the walkout, they should acknowledge the unnecessary loss suffered to satisfy the stubborn idealism of others.


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