Understanding the environment: Problems with the way we think
Understanding the environment: Problems with the way we think

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Understanding the environment: Problems with the way we think

2.2 Quality of life

Unlike non-living systems, all living systems have behaviours that have evolved to achieve a certain purpose. Charles Darwin was able to crystallise the key purpose of living systems through his theory of natural selection. This stated that the aim built into every living organism is to 'leave offspring in the next generation'. For the human race the results of this are startling. In just under 200 years, from 1804 to 1999, the human population has increased from 1 billion to 6 billion (United Nations, 1999). This success implies that the human species has moved beyond immediate survival concerns and has developed other criteria to judge success in their lives. Yet, this advance is not equally distributed. According to The United Nations Children's Fund, 10.6 million children died in 2003 (UNICEF, 2005), and things have changed little since. Some families are therefore still very much concerned with leaving offspring in the next generation.

Contrast the child mortality rate experienced by many families in developing countries with what is happening in British families. In its May 2007 issue, the Ecologist magazine published the startling facts under the headline 'Happy families?':

  • One in every four households no longer has a table that everyone can eat around.
  • Britons put in 36 million hours of free overtime each year, with one in three refusing to take all their holidays, fearing a backlog of work once they return.
  • Parents are splashing out more than £100 a month on treats for their children to compensate for a lack of quality time with them.
  • Three-quarters of Britain's 11 to 14 year olds have a television in their bedroom, almost two-thirds a DVD player or a video recorder, a quarter have a computer in their room, and 80 per cent have their own mobile phones.
  • There is one acre of play space for children for every 80 acres of golf course in the UK. In the past eight years, playing fields have been lost at the rate of one a day.
  • As many as 30 per cent of children never play outside without an adult watching over them.
  • In 2005, around 359,000 children were prescribed Ritalin and 130,000 children were prescribed SSRI antidepressants.

This data raises many issues, for example if you described these as 'quality of life' indicators for families in the UK, you might consider that they show a significant improvement on the high child mortality experienced by many families in developing countries (see Figure 3.1). Yet, the last item of information indicates that many of these children do not necessarily get a lot of satisfaction from their DVDs!

Figure 3.1
Figure 3.1 Quality of life indicators, the contrast between a malnourished child in a developing country and an obese child from a developed country (source: Flickr Photo Sharing and Image Source/Rex Features)

The Economist magazine's research arm (The Economist Intelligence Unit) proposes that consumption and its primary indicator, income, is not a good measure of a person's quality of life:

It has long been accepted that the material well-being, as measured by GDP per person, cannot alone explain the broader quality of life in a country. One strand of the literature has tried to adjust GDP by quantifying facets that are omitted by the GDP measure — various nonmarket activities and social ills such as environmental pollution. But the approach has faced insurmountable difficulties in assigning monetary values to the various factors and intangibles that comprise a wider measure of socio-economic well-being.

(The Economist Intelligence Unit, 'The World in 2005')

They go on to describe a set of nine determinants which they consider as significant in determining people's quality of life:

  1. material well-being, measured using GDP per person;
  2. health, measured in terms of life expectancy;
  3. political stability and security, combining a number of measurements;
  4. family life, measured in terms of divorce rate;
  5. community life, measured in terms of church attendance or trade union membership;
  6. climate and geography, measured in terms of latitude to distinguish between warmer and colder climates;
  7. job security, measured in terms of the unemployment rate;
  8. political freedom, combining a number of measurements;
  9. gender equality, measured in terms of ratio of male and female earnings.

The research unit combined these indices to rank 111 countries. Although incredibly simplistic, it is interesting to note that the UK and the USA are two of the worst countries when comparing their quality of life ranking (29th and 13th respectively) against their GDP per person ranking (13th and 2nd respectively). The research unit goes on to say that 'over several decades there has been only a very modest upward trend in average life satisfaction scores in developed nations, whereas average income has grown substantially.' (The Economist Intelligence Unit, 'The World in 2005').

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