Sustainability as a Quality of Life Indicator

By Brad Lufkin, Education and Research

Quality of life (QOL) has a number of definitions that can include factors such as healthcare, employment, politics, and development. Sustainability, however, is also inherently linked to QOL; in order to have healthy, productive residents with meaningful lives, the environment must be cared for. The degree of environmental pollution, for instance, is a product of sustainability efforts, and has a clear influence of QOL. Even when viewed from a product perspective, however, the continued production of goods and services that maintain life functions is reliant upon the natural ecosystem. There is a certain level of natural capital that is simply necessary for the continuation of human life. Sustainable practices help protect that natural capital.

Here is a back-of-the-napkin, down and dirty regression, plotting countries’ quality of life against sustainability.

Quality of Life regressed against Sustainability.
Quality of Life regressed against Sustainability, using a sample size of 67 countries.

The R-square value suggests that 63.26% of the variation in quality of life is due to sustainability.

Quality of life is estimated using the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Where-to-be-born Index, which aims to quantify which countries have “the best opportunities for a healthy, safe and prosperous life in years ahead” [1]. Sustainability is estimated using the Energy Sustainability Index from the World Energy Council that includes energy and environmental sustainability metrics [2]. When discussing QOL, the larger, existential questions of “What are human needs and how are they satisfied?” come up. Are we truly satisfying human needs if that satisfying comprises the ability of future humans to satisfy their needs? But that’s a discussion for another day.

Granted, there is an obvious flaw in this logic — sustainability is still considered to be a secondary issue in many countries where there are human rights issues or violent crime, for instance (and rightly so). If a country does not suffer from many of these more fundamental issues, then more of it’s resources can be dedicated toward environmental and sustainability efforts. This points to the fact that not all cultures value QOL in the same way — it’s extremely situational. What is the direction of influence in this relationship; does sustainability affect QOL or does QOL affect sustainability? It would be surprising to find that sustainability begets national happiness, but it’s an interesting thought exercise, nonetheless.


Further reading: Bringing together the concepts of quality of life and sustainability


3 thoughts on “Sustainability as a Quality of Life Indicator

  1. As someone interested in policy, this is an extremely intriguing analytic concept. Identifying significant, corresponding QOL factors will always be highly important, and I personally find the indicated correlation with sustainability very relevant to current trends.

  2. It’s surprising to see how strongly these two topics trend together. More research should definitely be done to determine if the relationships are causation (and which direction) or merely correlation. I’d be interested to see what other metrics can produce strong relationships with the Environmental Sustainability Index (ESI).

  3. Wow, Brad. Awesome post! If you are interested in this, have you seen Nic Marks’ TED talk? It’s one of my favorites, and focuses on how GDP is a poor metric for comparing progress between nations. His organization created the “Happy Planet Index” which your post reminded me of 🙂

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