Why the U.N.'s Development Index is destroying the future

Every year the U.N. releases its Human Development Index, a widely-respected ranking of nations based on levels of health care, education, economic growth, and other factors. But now, says one analyst, the long-respected ranking system has to be overhauled. Its definition of "development" is outdated because it doesn't take into account whether any of that development is sustainable from an environmental perspective. So which nations would rise to the top of the HDI if sustainability were taken into account? Chuluun Togtokh, a Mongolian environmental scientist and development policymaker, decided to find out.

In an op-ed in Nature, Togtokh writes:

I recalculated the index using the UN's published methodology, but taking per capita emissions into account. The resulting [Human Sustainable Development Index (HSDI)] gives some interesting results.

Australia, the United States and Canada fall straight out of the top 10: Australia slides from 2nd place to 26th, the United States drops from 4th to 28th, and Canada falls from 6th to 24th. Cultures that value moderation do well in this sustainability index: Norway remains in the top position, Sweden rises from 10th to 2nd and Switzerland moves from 11th to 3rd. But anyone who has visited the Nordic countries will recognize that moderation need not compromise a high standard of living. And for the first time, an Asian state appears in the top ten. Hong Kong rises from 13th place to 4th. Japan and South Korea, originally just outside the top ten, move down by only one or two places.

Noticeably, oil-producing countries and those with intensive oil use drop the most. The United Arab Emirates, Brunei Darussalam, Qatar, Luxembourg and Bahrain are no longer listed in the ‘Very High Human Development' quartile.

Using the HSDI, Mongolia advances slightly. My country is likely to become one of the fastest growing economies in the world, but the current HDI offers no encouragement for it to grow sustainably. Ulaanbaatar is already one of the worst capital cities in the world for air pollution. The country's water, forage and forest resources are depleted. Mongolia is at a turning point in environmental, social, economic, political and cultural development. We urgently need international collaborations to preserve our natural and cultural systems and introduce green technologies.

He raises an interesting point. When we measure "development," shouldn't that take into account whether that development can be maintained without depleting other resources that can't be replaced? Maybe development that can't be sustained is sort of the junk food version of growth, where you get some energy for a while and then crash hard soon afterward.

You can check out the full rankings, of HDI and HSDI, here.