This question arose as I was thinking about the relationship between the determinants of happiness (i.e. survey measures of subjective well-being or SWB) and human flourishing at a national level.
Recent research has been able to explain around 90% of inter-country differences in average SWB in terms of average income levels, enough money for food, healthy life expectancy, friends to count on, perceptions of freedom, corruption, charitable donations and church attendance. (See: John Helliwell et al, NBER Working Paper 14720.) It is not surprising that these factors affect well-being but it is hard to accept that items on this short list could explain as much as 90% of variation among countries in average well-being. Other factors that might also be thought likely to affect well-being include education, environmental quality, democratic institutions, and participation in cultural and sporting activities.
In the case of education, some studies have shown that while higher levels of education tend to be associated with higher levels of SWB, the effects of education tend to drop out when other factors such as health status and income are included in models. Education improves health and income-earning potential and thus indirectly contributes to SWB. Furthermore, the importance of education to individual well-being does not depend solely on its impact on satisfaction with life or happiness. Education could arguably still be good for people even if it did not make them feel good.
It is possible that similar considerations may apply with regard to environmental quality. For example, water and air pollution are detrimental to health and longevity. Furthermore, arguments advanced in favour of preserving the natural environment do not rest solely on the contribution it makes to the emotional well-being of humans.
However, there does not seem to have been as much research done on the contribution of environmental quality to SWB. This may be because of the difficulty of interpreting available survey data relating to perceptions of the natural environment.
The World Values Surveys include questions concerning the priorities that people give to environmental protection. These surveys show that the proportion of the population who consider that higher priority should be given to environmental protection than to economic growth tends to be somewhat higher in high-income countries with relatively high average SWB. These results might reflect what Ronald Inglehart has described as a shift toward postmaterialist values in advanced industrial societies rather than dissatisfaction with efforts to preserve the environment.
The Gallup World Poll asks respondents specifically whether they are satisfied or dissatisfied with efforts to preserve the environment in their country. Some characteristics of countries in which high and low proportions of the population are satisfied with efforts to preserve the environment can be compared in the chart below. The other variables shown in the chart are: per capita GDP expressed as a percentage of that in the country with highest per capita GDP (United Arab Emirates); average quality of life (data from the Gallup World Poll expressed in percentage terms); government effectiveness -perceptions of the quality of public services; and regulatory quality - permitting and promoting private sector development. (The latter two indexes are sub-indexes of the World Bank’s suite of governance indicators, converted to percentage terms such that the country with lowest rating has a score of 0% and the country with the highest rating has a score of 100%.)
The chart shows that satisfaction with efforts to preserve the environment tends to be somewhat greater in countries with higher average incomes. The factor that stands out most, however, as a characteristic of countries in which there is greatest satisfaction with efforts to preserve the environment is government effectiveness.
Countries which rate highly in terms of both satisfaction with environmental efforts and government effectiveness include Singapore, Austria, Switzerland and New Zealand. At the other end of the scale, countries which combine low ratings in terms of both of these factors include Mongolia, Ukraine and Pakistan.