HDI as a wellbeing indicator

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LUTZ Wolfgang

Mar 20, 2022, 4:49:28 PM3/20/22
to pernse...@ciesin.columbia.edu

Dear Alex,

While I agree that HDI has many merits and clearly was an important pioneering achievement in the field (and it still is the most widely used alternative indicator to GDP) it has several aspects that make it inappropriate for use as a wellbeing indicator that can serve as sustainability criterion:

  1. The income component (GNI) of HDI is still based on national accounts, which is why it can only be calculated for whole countries and not for any sub-populations of interest. It also cannot be calculated for men and women separately because national accounts do not differentiate by gender. – Since the SDGs are all about sub-populations and vulnerable groups, this is a big disadvantage.
  2. The three components of HDI (income, education, life expectancy) are combined in a way that implies some strange non-explicit trade-offs. Ghislandi, Sanderson and Scherbov (PDR 2018) write: “An important technical criticism relates to the implied trade-offs across the HDI's components, such as the amount of GNI per capita needed to compensate for one year loss of life expectancy. The value of one life year gained in terms of GNI per capita varies across countries and years. The magnitude of the trade-offs depends crucially on the formula used to combine the different components, but the value given to one additional year of life in terms of GNI per capita is generally lower the poorer the country.”
  3. HDI is hard to compare across time because the details of how HDI is computed have frequently changed. It also assesses the mortality component relative to the highest life expectancy across all countries in a given year. This makes comparison across countries in one year possible – this is what HDI had been originally designed to do – but is inappropriate for forecasting in case of increasing life expectancy.
  4. Finally, the education component is a strange mixture of input efforts (schooling measured by school expectancy) and output (resulting adult human capital).
  5. Also, HDI only reflects objective indicators and disregards subjective wellbeing.

YoGL offers better solutions for all these issues.

Finally, a word on the new Planetary Pressures Adjusted HDI. It accounts for carbon emissions and material footprint as factors reducing HDI. But this does not reflect an attempt to measure how these planetary pressures will actually affect current and future human wellbeing. It simply assumes that somehow these pressures reduce human wellbeing.

The climates on our planet have shown strong changes over its history and there is nothing intrinsically better in the current Holocene climate as compared e.g. to the mid Pliocene climate equilibrium which lasted for 700,000 years and was 3 degrees warmer (something we may be heading for) with the Sahara green and sea level significantly higher. What is the problem with such change is the possible harm the transition can cause to human wellbeing and the problems in adjusting to a new climate.

The better approach – which admittedly is very challenging – is to try to estimate the actual effects of these planetary changes on the wellbeing indicator for different sub-populations in the future. This is the specific purpose for which YoGL has been designed as a wellbeing indicator.

In the coming two years the project team will make a first quick effort in estimating such feed-backs from planetary changes to changes in human wellbeing. But a more profound analysis of this highly complex issue with many unknowns will clearly become a research priority for the coming decades.


Tom Dietz

Mar 20, 2022, 8:11:05 PM3/20/22
to LUTZ Wolfgang, pernse...@ciesin.columbia.edu
Three thoughts for the discussion:
1-The work in environmental sociology has tended to think of sustainability in terms of the efficiency with which we use inputs to produce human well-being. In that framework YoGL would be an advance over the commonly used life expectancy, and still could be complemented by subjective well-being measures.  GDP per capita, education, and stress on the environment are seen as the right hand side of the production function.  Analyses ask what institutional and other arrangements allow some nations or state or other units to be more efficient at producing well-being, i.e. get more well-being per unit harm to the environment, etc.  Some of the literature moves towards a ratio of environmental stress (often GHG emissions) to human well-being.  My own view leans towards single variable measures as creating composites raises questions about cause and effect and about the weights that should be given to components.
2-All of this is anthropocentric, although emphasizing stress on the environment does give attention to impacts on other species and ecosystems.
3-On climate change, better conceptualized as a key component of global environmental change, while 3 degrees is troubling, even more troubling is the prospect of non-linearities and tipping points, thus an argument for substantial caution.


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Thomas Dietz


-University Distinguished Professor of Environmental Science and Policy, Sociology and Animal Studies

Member: Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability, Center for Global Change and Earth Observation, Great Lakes Integrated Sciences and Assessments Center

Michigan State University

-Gund Affiliate, Gund Institute for the Environment, University of Vermont








Michigan State University occupies the ancestral, traditional, and contemporary Lands of the Anishinaabeg – Three Fires Confederacy of Ojibwe, Odawa, and Potawatomi peoples. The University resides on Land ceded in the 1819 Treaty of Saginaw.

Bilsborrow, Richard E

Mar 21, 2022, 3:45:51 PM3/21/22
to Tom Dietz, LUTZ Wolfgang, pernse...@ciesin.columbia.edu

i totally agree with all three of your points, Tom.


dick bilsborrow


From: Tom Dietz <tdie...@gmail.com>
Sent: Sunday, March 20, 2022 5:02 PM
To: LUTZ Wolfgang <lu...@iiasa.ac.at>
Cc: pernse...@ciesin.columbia.edu
Subject: Re: [PERN Cyberseminar] HDI as a wellbeing indicator


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LUTZ Wolfgang

Mar 21, 2022, 4:13:49 PM3/21/22
to Tom Dietz, pernse...@ciesin.columbia.edu

Dear Tom,

Thanks for your good points.

As to the first point, just for clarification: YoGL does explicitly include subjective well-being. A year is only counted as a good year, if the person is above minimum levels in subjective life satisfaction, physical and cognitive health and not in absolute poverty. This specific design based on Boolean algebra avoids giving weights to different components. You are either above the minimum threshold on all four dimensions or this year of life is not counted as a good year of life. There also cannot be any trade-offs, such as compensating with higher income for lower life satisfaction.

In this sense it is not really a composite indicator, although it reflects longevity conditional to four conditions being met simultaneously.



From: Tom Dietz <tdie...@gmail.com>
Sent: Sunday, March 20, 2022 10:02 PM
To: LUTZ Wolfgang

Cc: pernse...@ciesin.columbia.edu
Subject: Re: [PERN Cyberseminar] HDI as a wellbeing indicator

Tom Dietz

Mar 21, 2022, 4:37:48 PM3/21/22
to LUTZ Wolfgang, pernse...@ciesin.columbia.edu
Thanks for clarifying.  As you know, many governments are developing SWB reporting systems, and I think these have promise.  And I very much like the logic of YoGL and will promote it with the environmental sociology community.

Some of us with an historical bent might look at the literature on social indicators that was very prominent in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and, at least in the US, then seemed to become a specialty not well connected with other literatures.  But I may misunderstand the history.


Dawn Marsden

Mar 21, 2022, 8:37:37 PM3/21/22
to LUTZ Wolfgang, Tom Dietz, pernse...@ciesin.columbia.edu
Greetings all,

Thank you for the conversation on wellbeing indicators so far. At the risk of being off-topic, I thought I'd add a few thoughts from the margin for consideration. 

I appreciate the objective/subjective focus on YoGL (and accessibility of the data) and hearing that SWB reporting systems are being developed by governments, in addition to SDG, after decades of reliance upon GDPs. I'm currently exploring Indigenous principles and practices for eco-social/wholistic wellbeing, which fit the "flat" and environmentally sustainable conditions for the longest lasting societies in human history (HANDY Model, Motesharrei et al, 2014). Consideration of eco-social principles and practices (or generation of more succinct ones) as community planning indicators and scalable measures, might add to the YoGL constituents by including indicators at the nexus of human-environmental wellbeing (as well as the good life years and happiness measures). Of course this might overcomplicate the design of the YoGL measure. The ideal is to support eco-social wellbeing and relationships at the community level, to foster both individual and community resilience, cohesion and environmental sustainability in the face of both natural and human caused perturbances. The rationale is that the greater the awareness and eco-social relationship building within community ecosystems, and the more integrated the feedback loops, the greater the wholistic wellbeing of individuals and their ecosystems, from local to planetary levels of organization.

Best wishes,

Dawn Marsden, PhD
Member, Mississaugas of Scugog Island First Nation
Adjunct Professor, First Nations University of Canada

I acknowledge the unceded territorial rights of the Coast Salish Nations where I live and work. I aspire to work in good relationship, towards mutual benefit, while I am here.

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