Bhutan leads the way in sus­tain­abil­ity

Bhutan Times - - Editorial - ( Cour­tesy : The western Courier)

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.

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