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The Demography of Sustainable Human Wellbeing

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - EmpoweredLifeYears (The Demography of Sustainable Human Wellbeing)

Reporting period: 2019-05-01 to 2020-10-31

This project addresses the very core of Sustainable Development (SD) as popularized by the Brundtland Commission and politically enshrined in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and which has been the explicit focus of sustainability science.
The first part of the project focuses on the definition and empirical estimation of an indicator of sustainable human wellbeing and its constituents. The second part will study its determinants and possible feed-backs from environmental and other changes on future human wellbeing.

While there is broad agreement that the trend of human wellbeing (W) over time should serve as sustainability criterion, the literature so far has mostly addressed this in terms of its determinants and the change over time in the different capitals contributing to “inclusive wealth” rather than focusing on the trends in W itself. There is broad agreement that an indicator for W should have multiple constituents, clearly going beyond GDP. Thus, the project proposes a tailor-made indicator to serve precisely this purpose following the specification of six explicit criteria that should be met. The indicator, Years of Good Life (YoGL), is based on the evident fact that in order to be able to enjoy any quality of life, one has to be alive. But since mere survival is not considered as good enough, life years are counted conditional on meeting minimum standards in two dimensions: the objective dimension of capable longevity (being out of absolute poverty and enjoying minimal levels of physical and cognitive health) and the subjective dimension of life satisfaction. By focusing directly on W, this approach avoids some of the still unresolved problems with measuring inclusive wealth, such as discounting the future. In this first part of the project we dealt with data requirements, inter-temporal dynamics, and provided illustrations for (sub-) populations at different stages of development. In the next step we will address the determinants of YoGL.

The notion of Sustainable Development provides the lead paradigm for the broadest effort so far to define the future direction of human development considering environmental constraints, including climate change and biodiversity loss. Yet it has not been quantified in a way allowing for a comprehensive assessment of whether a development pathway can be considered sustainable or not. The most advanced literature on this issue takes an economics perspective, relying on concepts of capital and inclusive wealth to address the determinants of human wellbeing, but has hit several roadblocks. As a promising alternative, in this project we propose a demographic approach to directly measure multi-dimensional human wellbeing for (sub-) populations and its change over time.
The description below relates to the project components chart from the original work plan. So far, work on the components A (year 1-2) and B (year 1-3) has been going according to schedule.

Part A on theoretical foundations and definitions of the new indicator (which is now called YoGL – Years of Good Life – instead of ELY) has been finished and a summary paper is in the final stages or review with PNAS.

Part B concerning the empirical estimation of constituents and determinants is almost completed. The constituents have been estimated from all relevant available surveys and time series for YoGL have been estimated for many countries. Regression models assessing the relative importance of different determinants in predicting YoGL will still be completed until the end of 2020, when the three years are completed as planned.

Part C (year 3-5) on projections is still in the planning phase and will start later this year. Here we are facing some issues with the recruitment of appropriate scientists which has been made much more difficult through the current Covid crisis. – This may cause some delays in the conduct of the work.

For part D (in-depth case studies) the first historical study on Finland (year 1-2) has essentially been completed. A paper reconstructing the trends in YoGL in Finland since the mid-19th century has been published in early 2020.

The case study on Costa Rica (mid year 1-mid year 3) has begun as planned but is now interrupted due to Covid related travel restrictions. If things go back to normal by the end of the year, there may be a delay of about 6 months, otherwise possibly longer.

The same it true for the Case Studies on Nepal (year 2-mid year 4 & year 5, where we have already recruited a young scientist from Nepal who at the moment is still not allowed to enter Austria) and Southern Africa (mid year 2-mid year 4 & year 5) where the initial visit was planned for early 2020 which also had to be postponed for an undermined time.
Progress beyond the state of the art has been extensively described already above under point 1.1.

Until the end of the project we hope to have established the newly proposed indicator “Years of Good Life” as one of the key indicators in sustainability science. We also hope to have robust estimates of its determinants and future likely future trends consistent with alternative scenarios of future socio-economic and environmental trends. We hope to have land-mark publications on this new way of operationalizing sustainable human development in leading inter-disciplinary journals.