Can Scandinavia Help to Explain the Relationship between Sustainability and Happiness?

Garbage at an Incinerator in Oslo, Norway / Photo Courtesy of the New York Times

Garbage at an Incinerator in Oslo, Norway / Photo Courtesy of the New York Times

Norway and Sweden have a major trash problem.

They do not have enough.

While this may seem as victory to those of us in the U.S., both countries burn their garbage to heat and provide electricity to the vast majority of its cities. They incinerate household, industrial and even toxic waste.

In 2013, Oslo, the capital of Norway ran out of waste for its 1.4 million residents. Compare this to the U.S., where excess waste is often transported from major cities like New York to states with greater landfill capacity such as North Carolina.

In response to their problem, Norway and Sweden created a bustling international market for garbage.

In 2012, Sweden, a country with a population of roughly 9.5 million, ran out of trash and began importing over 80,000 tons, annually. Of waste collected in Sweden, only 4 percent will end up in landfills. Compare this to the roughly 55 percent of trash that goes to landfills in the United States. Before Norway’s own trash deficit, the country was paying Sweden to remove its additional waste.

Sweden is not only a leading Scandinavian country when it comes to environmental policy but also a model for the European Union and developed countries across the world. Sweden’s sustainable beginnings go back to the 1960s when the country realized that it was rapidly depleting its natural resources. Sweden took initiative and helped create the first UN Conference on the Environment, which was conveniently held in Stockholm in 1972. Of all European nations, Sweden has the highest percentage of renewable energy at roughly 47 percent.

Let’s compare to Denmark, which year after year is claimed to be the happiest country in the world.

The conclusion on Denmark’s sustainability is quite mixed. In 2012, for example, the Worldwide Fund for Nature ranked Denmark as having the fourth largest per capital ecological footprint. How could a country so similar to Norway and Sweden possibly be this unsustainable? This report ranked Denmark ahead of the U.S., it’s reasoning –  Denmark’s coal consumption.

Further investigation reveals other issues at hand.  Despite Denmark’s low carbon emissions (half the size of the U.S.), it has a deficit of cropland.  Denmark consumes so much meat per person that the country has resorted to importing huge quantities of grain, greater than two and a half times its current land capacity.

Notwithstanding Denmark’s coal and cropland problem, the country has several redeeming sustainable policies. Denmark has the largest rate of electricity produced by wind turbines – at 22 percentThe country is often cited as being incredibly sustainable because 25 percent of the residents in Copenhagen, its capital, commute to school and work by bicycle. This cycling reportedly increases life expectancy by one to two years for Danes.

While the extensive commitment to sustainability in Scandinavia is impressive, can it explain why Denmark, Sweden, and Norway are often ranked in the top five of the happiest countries?

The OECD Better Life Index measures housing, income, jobs, community, education, environment, civic engagement, health, life satisfaction, safety, and work-life balance to determine quality of life. And while these Nordic countries rank high on the environment index, they too achieve high levels on all of these dimensions. The answer to the aforementioned question may lie in the fact that Scandinavian countries are community-based societies with incredible welfare systems.

While little research exists linking the happiness of Scandinavia with its progressive environmental policies detailed above, we can surmise that these countries value their environment just at they value the welfare of their people.

So the answer is that we cannot fully understand the relationship between the two: does increased sustainability result in greater societal happiness? Or does greater societal happiness mean increased sustainability? While no research currently exists to explain the direction of the relationship, there are still important takeaways.

One of the greatest lessons to be learned is that a tradeoff between happiness and sustainability does not have to exist. Scandinavia respects the needs of its current and its future generations while cultivating the happiness of its current population.

The UN has even recognized this knowledge and in fact celebrates it. In 2012, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted a resolution to celebrate an International Day of Happiness after a meeting in Bhutan, a country that rejects measures of Gross Domestic Product in favor of its own measure of well-being, Gross National Happiness. The international community celebrated the holiday on March 20, just 5 days ago. 

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon / Photo Courtesy of the UN

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon / Photo Courtesy of the UN

And why does the UN recognize the importance of happiness in countries ranging from Denmark to Bhutan? Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon believes that, “Happiness may have different meanings for different people.  But we can all agree that it means working to end conflict, poverty, and other unfortunate conditions in which so many of our fellow human beings live.”

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