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'We would need multiple Earths to sustain that kind of consumption'

MATT TRINDER spoke to DR JASON HICKEL about his groundbreaking Sustainable Development Index that has seen socialist Cuba recognised at last for its low-impact prosperity

“THERE’S been next to no coverage in the mainstream corporate media. That doesn’t surprise me.”

When the Star reported on the launch of anthropologist Dr. Jason Hickel’s Sustainable Development Index (SDI) in November, the fact that Cuba was ranked as the most sustainably developed country in the world, 131 places ahead of Britain, prompted a huge reaction on social media, and the story was picked up by many media outlets across Latin America and the global South.

But it was largely ignored by corporate media at home. Why? For Hickel the reason was clear.

“The SDI is disruptive to prevailing narratives. For decades the global South has been told they’re utter failures on development. Poor countries supposedly have a deficit, and rich countries are meant to be models of success, but the SDI shows that there’s a different side to the story.

“A number of countries that we would consider poorer actually do remarkably well when it comes to achieving human development outcomes without exceeding ecological boundaries. They’ve taken heart and realised that they’ve been doing something right.

“It turns out that there are questions about countries we are used to celebrating like the US and Australia. For global-South countries that’s affirming because it many cases those countries are the ones that exploit them the most.”

What exactly is the SDI and how does it work?

It calculates its results by dividing a nation’s “human development” score, obtained by looking at statistics on life expectancy, health and education, by its “ecological overshoot,” the extent to which its per capita carbon footprint exceeds Earth’s natural limits.

Countries with strong human development and a lower environmental impact score highly, but countries with poorer life expectancies and literacy rates, as well as those which exceed ecological limits, are marked down.

Based on the most recent figures, from 2015, Cuba is top with a score of 0.859, while Venezuela is 12th and Argentina 18th.
The USA is ranked 159th out of 163 countries featured.

The SDI was created to update the Human Development Index (HDI), designed by Pakistani economist Mahbub ul Haq and used by the United Nations Development Programme to produce its annual reports since 1990.

For the first time the HDI considered life expectancy and education as well as gross national income per capita — and “developed” countries such as the US and Britain came out well, currently ranked in joint 15th place in ul Haq’s index.

However, whilst Hickel was keen to emphasise the impact the HDI initially had on development analysis, it did not consider ecological issues and he felt it was therefore “inadequate” for facing the reality of climate breakdown in the 21st century.

“The HDI relies on per capita GDP, and there’s a very tight relationship between GDP and emissions and resource use. This means that if you want to score highly on the index you have to pursue GDP growth with all that you have and that in turn raises your resource use and emissions to ecology-busting levels.

“We would need multiple Earths to sustain that kind of consumption so it’s clearly not a tenable project. We need to think about ways to achieve human development that are consistent with the principles of ecologically, rather than violating it.”

Hickel argues that the SDI points the way forward.

“It celebrates nations that are able to flourish and achieve human well-being within planetary boundaries and I think that’s the kind of approach we need in our era.”

One of those nations is table-topping Cuba, with the socialist island state managing to achieve life-expectancy rates on a par with the US, and higher rates of literary than its local capitalist rival, using a fraction of the resources after being subject to a punitive six-decades-long US economic blockade.

“Cuba’s economy has to make do with relatively little in terms of resources and energy and so on. They’ve had to find creative ways to build a flourishing society despite severe constraints on their resource and energy use,” Hickel explains.

“Even if you might disagree with the politics of Cuba, you have to take a sane and rational approach and recognise what it has accomplished here.”

How has Cuba achieved such stunning results?

“It’s quite simple really, they have a robust universal provision of healthcare and education. Time and time again it turns out the easiest way to deliver excellent results in terms of education, life expectancy and health is through universal provision.”

Costa Rica is in second place in the index for similar reasons according to Hickel.

“It is a middle-income country, with quite low levels or resource consumption, and yet it has one of the best healthcare and education systems in the world because they’ve invested their money, not in military expenditure, but rather in robust universal provision.

“This is the key to success, and it can be done with relatively little resources. That’s a really exciting finding.”

Hickel holds up the NHS as another perfect example of this reality.

In 2017, Britain spent £2,989 per person on healthcare, as compared to $10,224 (£7,808) per person in the US, but people in Britain tend to live approximately two years more than their cousins across the pond.

“The NHS has delivered extraordinary results in public health with a fraction of the resources that the US has used. It demonstrates again how extraordinary human-development results can be achieved with relatively little money.”

There’s still room for improvement though.

“What the index shows is that so far no countries have achieved the highest levels of sustainable development. Cuba has a high life expectancy, but it’s not as high as Norway’s.

“But it’s heading in the right direction. We’ve seen Cuba’s life expectancy continue to rise despite remaining within planetary boundaries, so over the next ten years it’s likely its score will continue to improve,” Hickel argues.

“But it’s also the case that if countries like Sweden and Norway manage to significantly scale down their resource use, they’ll shoot up to the top [of the SDI] as they already have high rates of education and life expectancy.”

Can they rise to the challenge?

“The SDI is an index waiting for its champions! In the next decade if we are to avoid ecological collapse, rich nations are going to have to find ways to scale down their emissions and resource use, and if they do so, they’ll rise higher and higher up the index.”

They can’t say they haven’t been warned. The race is on.

Dr. Jason Hickel is an anthropologist at Goldsmiths who serves on the Labour Party task force on international development.

The Sustainable Development Index is available at


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