Cyberseminar on "The Demography of Sustainable Human Wellbeing" - summary of webinar's topics

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Aayushma K.C.

Mar 15, 2022, 10:40:58 AM3/15/22
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Dear all, 

Here is a bullet point summary of the topics that came up in yesterday’s webinar

  • Introduction of Years of Good Life (YoGL) as an indicator by Wolfgang Lutz
  • Very encouraging remarks by both Partha Dasgupta and Jeffrey Sachs on YoGL, stating that this is very much on the right track.  
  • Partha Dasgupta says that inclusive wealth has a positive relationship with human wellbeing. Regarding subjective vs. objective indicators, both are very relevant and hence should be considered together.
  • Jeffrey Sachs said that GDP represents the values of the 20th Century, while YoGL could represent the values of the 21st century. He supported the use of all subjective, objective and demographic indicators, showing the expected years of life satisfaction as being part of this.
  • He cautioned about using only one indicator to measure human wellbeing – because all have problems. He also cautioned that simplifying the subjective measurement of life satisfaction as a binary measure rather than a scale of 1-10, might be risky as nuanced information might be unnecessarily lost. A 10 scale as a comparable measure in itself might already pose problems across cultures as some cultures may perceive the scale differently to others (example of Japan, where giving a satisfaction scale of 10 may be perceived as supercilious unlike in the USA)   
  • David Smith presented his perspectives on the acceptability of YoGL across cultures, and the question of universally acceptable values. He urged to consider small island developing states, in particular the pacific islands, into the mix when thinking of universal values of wellbeing. He also presented perplexing findings on a positive correlation between objectively contradicting factors of homicide rates and life satisfaction.
  • A few important questions posed by David Smith, which we encourage
  • “all good lives won’t be the same across countries even if the number of years are similar”
  • Should there be another criterion added to measure how good the good years are in addition to how many good years we have”
  • Work especially on small islands, land locked developing countries and least developed countries  
  • How would one determine the right measurements outside of the country or for other countries should they be comparable or simply above the nationally determined criteria?
  • What can be universally measured above the minimum?
  • Regarding regions with high homicide, Vanessa di Lego suggested to also have a Life Span inequality YoGL – in the sense of for those individuals who don’t get to survive what would be the average lost years of good life.
  • Kathryn Grace talked about wellbeing and subjective wellbeing in the context of inequality, moving from individual level data to aggregate level data, and spatial and temporal heterogeneity in what is important and what the norm values are.
  • How to empirically engage with these measures of human wellbeing and ideas in our current data landscape?
  • Regarding social inequality, since YoGL is essentially based on individual characteristics (only the life table requires a certain minimal size of the group in order to calculate mortality rates) it is designed to measure differences/inequalities among groups. The first presentation showed the differences by gender and different education groups. However, it could also be applied to any other groups that are defined my measurable and rather stable characteristics.

Please feel free to share your thoughts and continue yesterdays discussion here. 




Alex de Sherbinin

Mar 16, 2022, 10:50:39 AM3/16/22
to Aayushma K.C., PERNSeminars - List
Dear All,

The webinar is very much worth watching if you haven't had a chance, and the PNAS article is worth reading. But it shouldn't keep participants from sharing their thoughts on this subject, since this touches (as Vanessa's piece states) on philosophy, theology, and ultimately human concerns. Can we measure what a good life is?

As someone who teaches in a sustainability science masters' program on composite indicators, I appreciate the difficulty of creating a universally acceptable indicator. Similarly, for years many of us in this community have sought to supplant higher GDP pc as the ultimate goal for societies (this was a major goal of the Yale/Columbia ESI and EPI).  So YoGL is most certainly a step in the right direction. Yet, here are some thoughts and questions of my own:
  1. Kat Grace brought up the issue of equity. I think measuring and comparing YoGL across population groups within a country could really underscore how different people's lives are in a way that simple income differences miss. So this is a potentially important advance.
  2. I worry a bit that the "rising from a chair" as a measure of physical ability penalizes differently abled individuals. My understanding is that given the application of binary yes/no criteria, someone who is paralyzed would for any given age group be classed as not having a good life. I realize that YoGL is not intended to be an individual measure but it is a concern.
  3. I wonder if the authors have considered the ratio of YoGL to life expectancy (LE) as a possible measure that could be compared across countries with very different income levels and population health?
  4. As Wolgang pointed out, the SDGs now have 200+ indicators that are being tracked, some of which are largely irrelevant to wellbeing but which were pushed by special interests or added simply because they could be easily measured. Lomborg argued that we should have a greatly reduced set. Could YoGL be the one indicator that rules them all?  What would it take politically to rally all countries (or at least the "indicator industry") around a single measure such as YoGL?
  5. I think some standardization of life satisfaction surveys would be desirable. I believe Wolfgang brought this up at the end. In a less subjective domain, the HWISE group is working with Gallup to improve measures of household water and sanitation access which better reflect lived deprivations than the standard JMP metrics. With improved data on basic services,YoGL measurement can be improved in low income settings.
  6. There is the paradox (or perhaps not) that while most metrics of human wellbeing appear to be increasing, most metrics of planetary health are decreasing, and some worrisomely so. We've highlighted this in some recent EPI reports.  One could imagine a scenario where YoGL increase consistently - at least for some decades - while the very life support system to provide the "good life" are being eroded. 
  7. Finally, CIESIN./ SEDAC is producing a new gridded (1km) Global Relative Deprivation Index (GRDI). It combines subnational data on the HDI, infant mortality, dependency ratios, night lights, trends in nightlights intensity, and built up areas. Stay tuned - it will be available by June.


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Alex de Sherbinin, PhD   (he/him/his)
Associate Director, Science Applications Division and Senior Research Scientist
Deputy Manager, NASA Socioeconomic Data and Applications Center (SEDAC)
CIESIN, the Columbia Climate School/Earth Institute at Columbia University
Tel. +1-845-365-8936ORCID and web site

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