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No country in the world is sustainable, although some are close to sustainability, according to an analysis of the state of the world released on 11 October.

The analysis, which ranks 180 countries by human development and environmental conservation, finds that only 37 countries are close to striking a good balance between a healthy population and a healthy environment.

In The Wellbeing of Nations, Robert Prescott-Allen, a consultant in sustainable development based in Canada, also shows that countries with the same standard of living have different levels of impact on the environment. This suggests that environmental degradation is not a necessary consequence of development but is caused by the way that development is pursued.

Even the countries that come off well in the ranking — Sweden came top, followed by Finland and Norway — are placing undue pressure on the environment, Prescott-Allen says.

Most nations surveyed were described as ‘double deficit countries’ — combining poor human development with weak environmental performance. A minority of countries — mostly in Africa — have fairly low demands on the environment but are ranked low because they are ‘desperately poor’.

“Nations with a high standard of living impose excessive strains on the environment, and the ones with low demands on the ecosystem are trapped in poverty,” says Prescott-Allen.

But the finding that human well-being and environmental stress are not directly coupled gives grounds for hope: “Attaining a high quality of life for a low environmental price is difficult to do, but possible,” he adds. “The key conditions for combining high human well-being and low ecosystem stress are freedom, good governance, and education.”

Prescott-Allen measured human and environmental health using the Wellbeing Assessment, developed with the support of Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC) and the World Conservation Union (IUCN).

The Wellbeing Assessment measures human development using a broad range of indicators, including wealth, education, freedom, governance, peace, order, communication infrastructure and basic services. Similarly, measures of land, water, air, biodiversity and resource use are combined to give a broad view of the state of the environment.

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