Bhutan leads the way in sustainability
Nestled within the eastern end of the Himalayas, the small, unassuming country of Bhutan is gradually emerging as one of the foremost models of sustainable livelihoods and ecological ethics in the world.
After 4,000 years in relative isolation — partially self-imposed, partially due to geographic inaccessibility — Bhutan has recently undergone drastic changes in social and economic governance, adopting an official constitution and holding its first democratic election in 2008.
Economic and historical textbooks will likely recall 2008 as the year much of the global economy was nearly brought to its knees. The Bhutanese, however, in stark contrast, saw this time as the advent of their own unified democratic identity and burgeoning economy based on values that seem far removed from many industrialized nations West or East.
The unique quality of Bhutan’s governmental platform is supported by the four pillars of Bhutanese society: economic self-reliance, preservation and promotion of culture, good governance, and the preservation of a pristine environment.
Rather than adopting the otherwise ubiquitous policies of unencumbered consumption — largely at the expense of the natural environment — Bhutanese leaders sought a “middleway,” informed by their predominantly Buddhist religious identity, balancing social welfare and environmental sensitivity with pragmatic material growth and more pronounced global economic participation.
One of the distinct aspects representing this novel (though, arguably far more historically conservative) approach to governance is Bhutan’s emphasis on Gross National Happiness (GNH), a simple, yet profound contrast to the growth indicator used by most modern economies, Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
GDP measures a country’s total economic productivity and consumption, and is widely hailed as a primary indicator of a country’s growth and success. GNH, on the other hand, emphasizes the positive effects the economy may have on the outlook and livelihood of its citizens. In short, for the Bhutanese, happiness trumps money.
To the fully Westernized observer, GNH may seem a purely whimsical and idealistic proposition; entirely divorced from “realistic” economic and governmental viability. The Bhutanese, however, express sincere desire to emphasize the value of happiness and its many contributing factors in the cooperative governance of their daily lives, indicated by the popularity of their former king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who has promoted GNH since the early 1970s.
Critics of GNH point to the subjective nature of happiness and the subsequent difficulty in measuring its tangible value as reasons for the impracticality of its implementation, particularly in larger economies.
While the emphasis on personal happiness is unlikely to take fervent root within economic superpowers whose wealth and prestige on the global stage is so heavily reliant upon the primacy of wealth and material productivity, many studies have indicated the pitfalls of such value systems, and hint at solutions that GNH, in many ways, seems to directly confront.
A 2004 study by the University of Colorado found that workers who suffered from depression and were subsequently more likely to miss work or contribute poorly. Those same workers showed an increase in productivity and fewer work absences after receiving specialized depression treatment. In other words, happiness, or at least the alleviation of depressive tendencies often associated with the plight of low-income workers in industrialized societies, appears to act as a lubricant to the overall economic engine.
The dichotomous nature of wealth itself also displays potential hazards inherent to a GDP-centric socioeconomic model. Money is, of course, morally and ethically ambivalent — it can, to be sure, go a long way toward providing happiness and well-being to its population; however, its acquisition and expenditure can just as easily be motivated by nihilistic greed and decidedly destructive tendencies, as evidenced by prominent political ideologies in which environmental sustainability and social welfare are considered obstacles, rather than boons, to economic growth.
In fairness, western capitalism, particularly in the United States, has proven to be a remarkably effective vehicle for economic growth, having created an economy that is today wealthier and more materially prosperous as a whole than any in history.
A 2003 World Values Survey, however, indicates that not only has happiness remained stagnant in countries which have seen surging incomes since WWII, but that the prominence of hyper-materialism has acted as a happiness suppressant.
Cultural traditions are often upheld with firm conviction and are rarely changed without reluctance — one of Bhutan’s four pillars — emphasizes the importance of cultural pride and conservation. A country such as ours, whose constitution theoretically allows for regular intervals of fluidity of policy with the ever-shifting needs and circumstances of its electorate, could find our own “middle-way,” cultivating our unique cultural identity but electing to embrace sensible aspects of Bhutan’s model of governance; this is possible if we do determine as a society that amassing wealth for wealth’s sake — particularly when it is distributed so inequitably — is not necessarily a sustainable enterprise.