Projections suggest that two out of three humans will live in cities by 2030.1 However, emerging counter-urbanization movements challenge this trend. In the heart of South America, several examples posit a new paradigm. Among these is Samaipata, a small town in eastern Bolivia, where the Amazon meets the Andes, with a population of 4,500 including foreign residents from more than 30 countries. Historically known as the “Valley of Purification,” and home to civilizations from the Chané, to the Incan and the Spaniards, the town’s reputation for high levels of happiness and low levels of consumption inspired research into concrete data about the linkages between well-being and carbon footprint.

The driving question thus became: could hybrid towns in the Global South—instead of needing ‘western-style development’—be, rather, a models of sustainability and future-fit living? To probe this question, the research team chose measurement tools to determine levels of happiness and identify the precise carbon footprint of its inhabitants. The team applied the internationally approved Gross National Happiness Index Survey, and the Happy Planet Index. The town’s carbon footprint was calculated by the internationally recognized Servicios Ambientales S.A. Finally, the data included the GDP per capita of Samaipata. These data points allowed for a comparative analysis between Samaipata, Bolivia, and countries that, like the United States, are deemed to have obtained a high level of ‘development’ and for which data was available.

The result is startling in its magnitude: the analysis concludes that Samaipata shows higher levels of happiness than countries that have per capita income levels 17 times higher. Moreover, according to calculations of the carbon footprint, Samaipata’s environmental impact is 17 times lighter than those same countries in the Global North.

Locals on Lake Titicaca. Image: Amy Rollo on Unsplash

These findings are especially important when we consider the multidimensional crisis we face as humankind, including the intensifying climate crisis which threatens all life on Earth. Three primary conclusions of the research are critical to expand our understanding of these relationships between consumption, sustainability, and happiness levels:

It is possible to achieve high levels of well-being with low GDP levels and low environmental impact.

Models developed in the Global South, like “Buen Vivir” (Living Well) may be effective and sustainable alternatives to conventional development models.

The “re-villaging” movement (i.e. a current trend countering “urbanization”) correlates with high levels of happiness and low environmental impact.

These conclusions confirm that the village of Samaipata, in many ways representative of numerous similar demographic contexts throughout Latin America, offers powerful solutions for a planet facing grave and intersecting crises of unhappiness and environmental destruction. Samaipata sets forth a compelling case for a town in the Global South that can share clear and insightful lessons for the Global North and for industrialized nations in general.

The Climate Crisis and Urban Development

The global debate around the causes, principal drivers, and necessary response to the climate crisis remains unresolved. It is a crisis that has no precedent and that carries risks higher than any other we have known.

For decades, scientists, academics, and politicians have explored the relationship across development models, levels of human well-being, and environmental limits. Climate change has become a central theme of 21st century international politics, as reflected in the high-profile global meetings of the UN’s Conference of Parties (COP), charged with reviewing the international agreement of the UN´s Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC,) especially the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21) in Paris.

The COP21 sought to achieve agreement on greenhouse gas emissions reductions to limit a global temperature spike to 2oC (3.6 oF). Although the greenhouse gases that cause global warming exist naturally in the atmosphere, scientific research points to an alarming increase in the emission of these gases since the Industrial Revolution (IPCC, 2014). Most of the emissions are linked to the burning of fossil fuels in industrial activities and transportation.

Although cities only occupy 2.8% of the Earth’s surface, they consume around 70% of its natural resources. Considering estimates of urbanization rates, which predict that 90% of the world population will live in cities by the year of 2050,2 it is imperative that we closely consider the role of cities and their development patterns. Beyond alternative models of urbanizations—like energy efficient, “green” cities—we must seriously consider alternatives to urbanization, like the Transition Town, re-villaging, and Slow movements which promise low-carbon happiness at a human scale.

Development Models and New Paradigms

The Western development model has been the subject of extensive debate and criticism for several decades, giving rise to an alternative: post-development theory and practice. Uruguayan scholar Eduardo Gudynas asserts that the dominant Western model is based on the myth of unlimited growth.3 Development has been become a “zombie concept,” he writes, “dead and alive at the same time.” Indeed, although the conventional Western vision of development—linked to the dual environmental and well-being crises—has repeatedly been declared “dead” in the last several decades, it continues to be promoted by major institutions as the only way forward.

Gudynas and economist Alberto Acosta have developed a new approach focused on alternatives originating in the Global South. They have extensively analyzed Buen Vivir (“living well”), a concept which places value on the worldview of indigenous Latin Americans, and which provides the underlying foundation to both the Bolivian and Ecuadorian national constitutions. According to Aymaran researcher Fernando Huanacuni, “Vivir Bien is life in a state of fullness. It is to know how to live in harmony and balance…with the cycles of Mother Earth.”

New paradigms are emerging in the Global South that offer nuanced interpretations about the human-nature relationship. These proposals break from conventionally anthropocentric and individualistic development models and instead parallel Western holistic and bio-centric worldviews such as deep ecology, which understands the Earth to be a living entity.

Indeed, Gudynas´ wise conclusion that “living-well is only possible when living in community” may be the most important lesson the Global South can share with its Northern neighbors given the likely necessity for profound adaptation measures in the face of climate change.

Samaipata kids, humans and nature balanced in community. Image: William Powers

The Road to Happiness: The Western “Good Life” or the Amer-Indigenous “Sweet Life”?

How does a given society articulate the path to happiness? The answer to that is shaped by how it defines the basic concept of well-being. According to Bolivian philosopher Javier Medina, an expert in indigenous American intercultural studies, there exists a radical contradiction between the Western “good life” (i.e. the American Dream) and the Amerindian “sweet life,” by virtue of their origin in distinct worldviews.4 The former promotes the individual, progress and development through increased urbanization and modernization, whereas the Amerindian “sweet life” emphasizes “the balance and sufficiency of the good,” through austerity and respect for diversity.

Urban life is linked to the Western notion of the individualistic “good life.” The search for happiness in modern cities—where marketing and publicity are most pervasive, and where there is a marked absence of nature—is essentially consumeristic. Through consumption habits, based on “good life” assumptions about individualism, urban dwellers become accomplices to major corporate actors and the economic and political trends that are the primary driving forces of the climate crisis. If sustainability is defined in basic terms as the capacity to meet present needs without compromising the well-being of future generations, we are faced with a dilemma when we ask ourselves: “What are our true needs?” and “What is necessary to achieve well-being?”

Our Ecological and Carbon Footprints

Tools such as ecological and carbon footprints provide concrete measurements that help identify human impact on the environment and can inform policy decisions to address the discrepancy between overwhelming demand for natural resources and the actual availability of these resources.

The ecological footprint “is a resource accounting tool that measures the extent of nature that we have, how many resources are used, and by whom.”5 Research indicates that industrialized nations generate a much larger ecological footprint compared to countries in the Global South. A simple hypothetical situation reveals a somber conclusion: If the average global citizen consumed the same quantity of natural resources and emitted the same amount of greenhouse gases as the average citizen in the Global North, several planets of resources would be needed to sustain humanity. Herein lies the dilemma: The unsustainable development model of the so-called First World— based on the myth that unlimited consumption will lead to the “good life“— who, within an unbalanced power relationship, tend to adopt those destructive models. In this way, both the environmental as well as the happiness crisis are further deepened.

Measuring Happiness

GDP, Human Poverty Index, and Happiness Indices

Traditionally, “happiness” levels have been measured by the world’s key economic standard: Gross Domestic Product (GDP), an indicator of the amount of goods and services produced annually within a country. Dividing the total GDP by the population of the country yields per capita GDP. This approach is rooted in a capitalist logic that equates higher income per capita with greater well-being. Indeed, according to the World Bank, the five countries with the highest levels of “well-being” as defined by GDP would thus be the United States, China, Japan, Germany and the United Kingdom.6 In other words, the “developed” countries of the Global North.

A second conventional way of determining the well-being of a given population has been the Human Poverty Index (HPI), replaced in 2010 by the Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI). These indices focus on quality of life based on the probability of survival until the age of 40, literacy levels, and the percentage of the population´s access to drinking water. The development of the MPI expanded these measurements to 10 different indicators, but is still limited. While these factors are closely linked to dimensions of happiness, they do not encompass the full scope of well-being, and they distort the results to favor “developed” countries over “underdeveloped” ones.

As the debate has deepened around competing understandings of well-being, it has become clear that neither the GDP nor the HPI/MPI measurements are adequate. Consequently, measuring happiness has become fashionable, and a dozen new indices have already been developed. In the Kingdom of Bhutan, for example, Gross National Happiness (GNH), first introduced in 1972, forms an integral part of national politics. Other countries, like France, claim to follow Bhutan’s example7 and countries like the Australia and the United States have committed funds to investigate “alternative indicators” to GDP, but those indicators are far from entering the realm where they would influence policy.

Economist Amartya Sen helped develop the new well-being metrics on which another index, that of the World Happiness Report (WHR), was based. Though the WHR is a well thought out index, it continues to use an individualistic and economics-heavy basis for “happiness.” More recently, the academic world has undertaken an effort to understand and measure happiness by considering a broader set of indicators linked to Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness index. A handful of universities in the U.S., including in Illinois and Oregon, along with British Columbia in Canada now use the Gross National Happiness Index Survey, which measures subjective parameters about well-being. This subjective approach is now widespread, and is especially common in the United States.

It is within this context that the current study was conducted to determine levels of happiness, economic throughput, and climate impact in the Bolivian town of Samaipata.

An Index for Samaipata

Samaipata is a town of 4,500 inhabitants located in central Bolivia, a country that sits in the heart of South America, at an altitude of 1,650 meters. Its population is 97% Bolivian, who represent a diversity of regions and ethnicities. Approximately 3% of current inhabitants are foreigners who hail from over thirty countries. Samaipata, which means “resting place in the highlands,” is nestled in a valley with a temperate climate and diverse natural landscapes. The region´s principal economic activities are agriculture and tourism.

Samaipata was chosen as the site of this study principally because its size—both in terms of demographics and income level—is that of a typical village in the Global South. However, it is important to note the factors that make Samaipata unique. The town receives an active migration flow from various Bolivian cities and from the rest of the world. As a result of this diverse migration and the fact that Samaipata is situated at the intersection between the Amazon and the Andes, it is a converging point of many cultural and developmental practices from across different communities.8 Several local economic activities seek a more friendly relation with nature and ways in which to maintain local supplies of food and goods. Moreover, many of the town’s models of social organization are based on traditional examples that are communitarian in principle.


The Research Indices

Two indices were used to collect data: the Happy Planet Index (HPI) and the Gross National Happiness Index (GNH).9 The former is calculated through subjective judgments of happiness in tandem with the society’s level of regard for the environment. The latter is an adaptation of Bhutan’s index, and is meant to be universally applicable. Like the HPI, GNH it is based on subjective parameters of happiness, which seeks to address several spheres of life. The questionnaire is thorough, measuring the level of satisfaction with life in relation to various social, political, economic, and environmental factors.

The relationship between happiness and income level was determined by comparing the happiness index with the GDP per capita. The analysis also included a measure of the carbon footprint in order to account for the interconnectedness between human beings and their environment. Data on Samaipata was collected through interviews, reviews of public-sector institutional documents, estimates of demography, geography, tourism development and the size of the village in comparison with national figures.

The HPI is determined by a combination of objective (measurable) data and subjective (satisfaction) data and relies on transparent and comparable data from 151 countries. It is calculated using three components—well-being, life expectancy and the ecological footprint:

The table below shows results for the five countries with the highest HPI scores:

Figure 1. HPI Top Five

Thus, the index integrates key internal and external factors, addressing the personal “inner world” as well as an individual’s environmental responsibility to the “outer world”. In this way, the index is directly compatible with the Bolivian constitutional concept of Vivir Bien (Sweet Life).

Evidently, this index yields results that depart sharply from those of GDP-based calculations. The index based on GDP results in a list of the more “developed” countries, while this index shows that the countries ranking the highest in HPI are ones with lower levels of income. According to the HPI authors: “The success of Latin American countries demonstrates that it is possible to build a strong economy that delivers high well-being, and long life expectancy, without having a large ecological footprint.”

In fact, nine of the top ten countries in the HPI ranking are located in Latin America. Bolivia is 64th on this list, and the United States, 105th. The ranking of the U.S. according to this metric may be surprising, especially considering the World Bank’s assessment of the U.S. as the most developed country in the world, with the highest GDP, and the leader of various development projects in countries across the Global South. Yet, when we transcend the strictly economic parameters of traditional assessments to include measures of environmental responsibility, levels of consumerism and the use of natural resources (or, the ecological footprint), the resulting sustainable happiness level of the U.S. is, in fact, very low.

Figure 2. HPI, Bolivia and U.S.

Figure 3. GNH Comparison

Figure 4. Carbon Footprint Comparison


Result 1: The Sense of Happiness

Below are the results of the field study in Samaipata compared to the responses of 50,000 mainly North American survey participants. The United States is used as a point of comparison not only because the same questionnaire has been applied to various North American cities and towns, but also due to the fact that the U.S. is the highest GDP country in the world.

These figures reveal that the participants based in Samaipata score higher than their U.S. counterparts in nearly all categories of the survey, a fact which is reflected in the 16% difference. The contrast is especially notable in the areas of psychological well-being, time balance (freedom) and work satisfaction.

Result 2: Samaipata’s Carbon footprint

According to 2011 data from the World Bank, Bolivia’s CO2 emissions—its carbon footprint—are at 1.6 metric tons per capita.

The internationally accredited agency, Servicios Ambientales S.A., calculated Samaipata’s carbon footprint specifically for this study.10 The organization relied on data about the following components of consumption: electric energy, fuels (including firewood), transportation and tourism, natural gas for domestic use, and the generation of waste and its disposal. The resulting carbon footprint for Samaipata was 4.453 tons of CO2 in the year 2015, or 0.99 metric tons per capita.

In order to make a comparative analysis, the above diagram illustrates the carbon footprints of various countries along with that of Samaipata. The graphic allows us to discern, for example, that Samaipata’s per capita footprint is 17 times smaller than that of the United States, at 17 tons.

Figure 5. Cantril Scale Comparison

Result 3: Happy Planet Index

Result 3: Happy Planet Index

We recall that the HPI is determined by three factors: subjective well-being, life expectancy and the ecological footprint. As to the first, the first question of on the survey distributed in Samaipata regards subjective well-being, for which HPI uses the Cantril Scale. Samaipata scored 7.7, placing it among the highest of those measured. Figure 5 depicts the different countries’ scores on the Cantril Scale in comparison to Samaipata.

As evidenced from this graphic, the sense of happiness does not differ significantly across the countries included.

In terms of the second HPI component, life expectancy in Samaipata in 2005 was 71.7 years.11 The estimate of life expectancy in 2013, following the general trend of growth in the country, is 75.7 years. Interestingly, this figure is similar to life expectancy in the United States (78.5 years), despite the significant gap in economic “development”.

Finally, in 2008, Bolivia had an ecological footprint of 2.6 global hectares per capita (gha), according to the Happy Planet Index.12 The 2015 estimate for Bolivia was 1.58 gha per capita.13

Samaipata central square. Small is beautiful. Image: William Powers.

The carbon footprint forms 54% of humanity’s ecological footprint and is its fastest growing factor.14 Samaipata’s ecological footprint can be determined by collecting and synthesizing data through a directed investigation, or by following the relationship between both footprints. The result of the calculation is as follows (Figure 6).

Figure 6. Calculation of Samaipata’s Ecological Footprint

As Figure 7 on the following page shows, Samaipata scores an 81.9 on the Happy Planet Index, on a scale of 0-100, beating out the top-ranked country, Costa Rica, which scored 64 in 2012. Indeed, it is perhaps surprising that a “poor” town in the Global South would contain inhabitants that are significantly happier than their counterparts in the 151 countries listed by the HPI.

Figure 7. Samaipata HPI comparison

These results confirm an observation of post-development theory: people are generally happier in rural areas, where communities have neither succumbed to high levels of consumption, nor to the pressures more generally generated by city life.15 A second important observation to highlight is that Samaipata is the only one in the ranking that has reached a green score in all three evaluative categories (well-being, life expectancy and ecological footprint), an achievement not yet registered by any country included in the HPI until now. While it is obvious that the comparison of a town’s measurement to that of a country’s is not the most precise, it does nevertheless point to some critical conclusions.

Samaipata Town Hall. A few musicians gather. Image: William Powers

Result 4: Annual per capita income (GDP).

In 2014, Bolivia had a GDP of US $33 billion and a population of 10.56 million people,16 making the GDP per capita US $3,125. This same figure is used in the case of Samaipata.

As demonstrated by the Figure 8, Bolivia’s GDP per capita is the lowest among this set of countries from across the Global North and South. In fact, Samaipata’s per capita income is 17 times lower than that of the United States.

Figure 8. GDP Comparison


In order to simplify the comparative analysis between the eight countries included in this study, the following figure summarizes the relevant research data:

Figure 9. Summary Results

Based on the research cited above as reflected in this summary table, three general conclusions are:

1. It is possible to achieve high levels of well-being with relatively low income and a low environmental impact.

Although the inhabitants of high-income countries attest to being “happy” (Cantril Scale), their consumption habits generate a very large carbon footprint, thus reducing the population’s comprehensive happiness. From a holistic perspective it becomes clear that the environmental impact of a given lifestyle influences happiness levels. As this study ultimately suggests, the environmental crisis is linked to the dominance of traditional development models, which in theory—but not always in practice— have the ultimate goal of ensuring the “well-being” of communities. The results of the study demonstrate that the most developed countries of the industrialized world are not, in fact, happier than “developing” countries. Meanwhile, the former generates a significantly higher negative impact on the planet.

This research confirms that classic development models warrant scrutiny, as do the values they uphold and the tools they use to promote well-being. Given the extremity of the environmental crisis, this research suggests that individualistic notions of happiness do not justify extractivism and the overexploitation of natural resources. In this sense, it is critical that the Global North consider other forms of happiness which have been the foundation of cultures for thousands of years in the Global South.

A vital part of the overall survey was the last question, which asked respondents to define what made them happy. The resulting responses showed that 100% of the participants find happiness in relational moments with family, friends, in nature and in relaxation, which corroborates the notion that well-being is determined by affective and natural bonds as opposed to material goods.

2. Proposals from the Global South, such as “Buen Vivir” o “Vivir Bien” (Sweet Life) may be effective and sustainable alternatives to the classic models of development.

New paradigms such as the indigenous concept of Buen Vivir emerge in a genuine search for alternatives to classic development theory, offering a roadmap toward profound structural changes. The results of this research confirm one of the basic principles of Buen Vivir: happiness is only possible if it exists in harmony with Mother Earth and with all of her living inhabitants. In other words, Buen Vivir upholds a “biocentric” worldview in which happiness is achieved by caring for the environment. This philosophy promotes the values of reciprocity, complementarity and community life, and offers an alternative to the competition, separation, and individualism of models from the Global North.

The re-villaging movement has demonstrated high levels of happiness and a low environmental impact.

It is imperative to pursue alternatives to urbanization and the individualistic vision which accompanies it. Cities foster high levels of resource consumption to satisfy the demands of their inhabitants, exhausting environmental as well as social resources in the process. In the face of this reality, we can observe worldwide re-villaging movements, especially in the Global South. In those examples, people seek more intimate contact with nature and experiment with various economic, productive, social, ecological and collaborative forms of life.

The results of the study support the importance of re-villaging movements. According to the research, life in a rural village like Samaipata can yield higher levels of happiness than life in industrialized cities. Moreover, the smaller ecological and carbon footprints generated by living in a village rather than a city are linked to higher levels of happiness, likely due to the stronger interconnection between humankind and its environmental surroundings.

Samaipata, Bolivia. Pedro Henrique Santos on Unsplash.


  1. Flores, V. Proyecto Huella de Ciudades: Resultados Estratégicos y Guía Metodológica. (Banco de desarrollo de América Latina, La Paz, Bolivia, 2016
  2. Ibid.
  3. Gudynas, E. Buen Vivir: Today’s tomorrow.   Development 54, 441–447 (2011). Huanacuni was named Bolivia´s Foreign Minister in early 2017.
  4. Medina, J. Suma Qamaña: Por una convivialidad postindustrial. (Garza Azul, La Paz, Bolivia, 2006).
  5. Global Footprint Network [online].
  6. The World Bank [online].
  7. Burns, GW in Positive Psychology as Social Change (Biswas-Diener R. (eds), Ch. 4, 73-87 (“National Happiness: A Gift from Bhutan to the World”) (Springer, Dordrecht, 2011).
  8. Powers, W. Dispatches from the Sweet Life. (New World Library, San Francisco, 2018).
  9. Happiness Alliance [online].
  10. Servicios Ambientales S.A. [online]. In addition to Samaipata, the agency has defined the ecological footprint for Latin America cities such as La Paz, Quito and Lima.
  11. Statistics available from Bolivia’s INE allowed us to extrapolate, using national level statistics, to draw conclusions about Samaipata’s precise figures. Since there is no data at all about this topic at the municipal level, we applied the same trend of growth from the national level, which is cited as follows: 63.9 (2005) to 68 (2013), a growth of 6.4%.
  12. Global Footprint Network [online].
  13. Bolivian Research Center PIEB [online].
  14. Global Footprint Network [online].
  15. To butress these observations, we recommend conducting further research in other villages with comparable conditions to Samaipata.
  16. The World Bank [online].

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *