Natural resources, such as materials, energy or water provide the physical basis for our well-being and quality of life. However, the prevailing strategies to satisfy the needs of the affluent share of the global population is highly resource intensive. A wide range of environmental problems are the consequence, such as climate change or biodiversity loss. It is therefore important to understand to what extent well-being is coupled with the use of different types of natural resources and whether there are options to achieve high quality of life with reduced resource footprints on our planet.

Relating material footprints, happiness and human development

There are many indicators to measure human development and quality of life. However, only few of them are available for countries worldwide. Therefore, only a few measures of well-being can be combined with indicators on material consumption as presented for a large number of countries in our Visualisation Centre. This story builds upon two indicators that are widely applied and compares them with data on material footprints. First, the Happiness Index as presented in the World Happiness Report by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN). And second, the Human Development Index (HDI) established by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

For more than 150 countries worldwide in the past 15 years the global development of these indicators has been compared, in order to better understand the relationship between raw material use and quality of life (for more detailed results see a study in the journal ‘Sustainability’). The figures below show the material footprint indicator (also termed ‘Raw material consumption’ in tonnes per capita) of each country, illustrated as the average value between 2006 and 2015, and compare it with the average values of the Human Development Index (upper graph) and the Happiness Index (lower graph). In order to allow direct comparison between the two indicators, the HI and HDI are scaled to the same range, i.e. between zero and one.

Material footprint plotted against the Human Development Index (above) and the Happiness Index (below). All values are averages for the period 2006 to 2015. The dashed lines indicate the linear trend, the dotted lines refer to a saturation pattern.

The figures indicate that there is no linear relation between the material footprint on the one hand and human development and well-being on the other hand. Instead, both indicators show a saturation pattern that levels off after a certain degree of development or happiness. In the case of the HDI in the upper graph, a steep increase in HDI with material footprints growing between 1 and 10 tonnes per capita can be observed. However, at values beyond 10 tonnes, the curve begins to flatten. A high average HDI value of above 0.8 is therefore achieved at very different levels of average material footprint, ranging from 11 tonnes per capita in the case of Argentina to more than 40 tonnes per capita in the case of, for example, Australia, Kuwait or Singapore.

The saturation pattern is also visible for the Happiness Index (lower graph), although less pronounced. An increase in material footprints at low levels of material consumption leads to significant improvements of the Happiness Index. At higher consumption levels, the resulting numbers for happiness diverge. For example, Colombia and Costa Rica reach high levels of happiness with a material footprint below 7 tonnes per capita. Many European countries have similar happiness levels with three times or more the material consumption. For instance, in Austria and Finland the Happiness Index is at around 0.9 with per-capita material footprints of 25 and 36 tonnes per capita, respectively.

Well-being generated per material footprint

To further illustrate the relationship between happiness and raw material use, a composite indicator that shows the amount of happiness generated per material footprint in each country can be used. This index is comparable to the “Happy Planet Index” that illustrates the happy life years per unit of resource use. Using happiness data from World Happiness Report by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network and material footprint per capita data from our Visualisation Centre, the global map illustrates the value of the index in five country groups for the year 2015.

Global map of an index of the happiness per material footprint in countries worldwide. Hover over the countries to receive the respective values for the happiness indicator as well as the material footprint.

Countries with a light colour have the lowest index values, indicating that the amount of well-being generated by each unit of material footprint is comparatively lower than in the other country groups. Many high-income countries are found in that group, including the US, Australia and many European countries. These countries achieve higher levels of happiness compared to the rest of the world, but also their material footprint is up to 20 times larger compared to countries in the other groups. Also emerging economies such as China are found in this first group. However, these countries show a material footprint above the global average paired with a comparatively low happiness value.

On the other end of the spectrum, in general there are countries characterised by comparatively low levels of happiness, but even smaller material footprints, resulting in high index values. Example countries are Madagascar or Afghanistan. But some of the countries in that group deserve special attention, as they have happiness values comparable to those of much richer countries, but a material footprint that is still below one third of the global average. Examples for that types of countries are Cameroon or Guatemala. These countries indicate that it is possible to achieve a comparably high level of life-satisfaction with a low level of material footprint, i.e. two tonnes per capita in Cameroon and four tonnes per capita in Guatemala.