Just as the world prepares to celebrate the International Day of Happiness today, Nasa bursts our bubble with a study which suggests we are on the brink of global collapse.

Normally confined to announcing discoveries of supernova or killer comets, Nasa has turned its attention back towards Earth by funding a team of social and natural scientists, who — through clever use of historical and theoretical models — suggest that in only a few decades, a breakdown of civilisation may occur.

The suggestions focus on two areas. First, we need to change the way industrialised nations consume the world's limited natural resources. Secondly, the inequality between rich and poor must be redressed.

The Nasa study suggests collapse can only be avoided with major upheaval of Western political and economic systems.


And these views are gaining serious consideration elsewhere. And that brings us to the International Day of Happiness. In its second year, the International Day of Happiness is an initiative from the United Nations. Its aim is to promote a growing awareness that money is not the exclusive predictor of happiness.

Informed in its approach by studies from the Kingdom of Bhutan, which rode out the global economic downturn of 2008 by transferring from a monarchy to a constitutional monarchy, the UN uses Bhutan as a vehicle through which it seeks to promote an alternative way of viewing the world. One that is not driven predominantly by economic models. Bhutan operates on the philosophy that Gross National Happiness takes precedence over Gross National Product. In recent years, Bhutan has become the poster child for an alternative measure of prosperity, and the UN is promoting this new way of viewing the world. According to the UN, the Gross National Happiness Index "takes the view that sustainable development should take a holistic approach towards progress and give equal importance to non-economic aspects of well-being".

What the Happy Planet Index suggests is that we can't keep growing the GDP at the expense of the environment because something has to give.

But how do we measure success beyond GDP? Consider the Happy Planet Index, which ranks countries, and gives them a grade based on the extent that they "produce long, happy sustainable lives" for their citizens. The catch is that the overall score is based not just on the life expectancy, but on the ecological footprint as well. Countries where life expectancy is high but ecological footprint is also high, receive a low score.

In other words, it's a measure of sustainable well-being. Not economic well-being.

What the Happy Planet Index suggests is that we can't keep growing the GDP at the expense of the environment because something has to give. Its proponents argue: "A society that achieves wellbeing now, but consumes so much that the same resources are not available for future generations can hardly be considered successful."

Among Western nations, New Zealand ranks 28th out of 151 countries on the Happy Planet Index, and the United States polls in at 105th.

Since complex civilisations evolved thousands of years ago, the world has constantly been in a cyclical nature of rise and collapse, but this election year let's see if we can reject being sidelined by debates about the flag and other incidental matters, and move the debate towards issues that will affect our long-term survival as an ecologically — as well as economically — sustainable country.

Dana Wensley has a PhD in law and ethics from King's College (London), and specialises in commenting on social and political issues.