Politics, Ecology and Social Change at the Top of the World

Eric Zencey, State University of New York, Empire State College Mentor, went to Bhutan to take part in the ongoing work of a UN group convened and chaired by Bhutan’s prime minister, Jigme Thinley.  We are pleased to publish the story about his trip to the top of the world, written by himself.

The morning of Monday January 28th , 2013 found me in a window seat on a Drukair flight from Delhi to Paro, Bhutan, enjoying the view of the craggy, snow-capped Himalayas as we flew over them. Then began the descent:  the mountains slowly rose up as we made our way into them. As the plane continued to descend it began banking this way and that, following a series of valleys as it traced its way to a landing. The plane came down, finally, on a strip of concrete that ran between two mountain ranges and was backstopped by a third.

Bhutan is a tiny mountain kingdom between India and Tibet, and the country simply doesn’t have that many places in which a jetliner could find enough room to land.  Word has it that the Paro landing is so difficult that only eight pilots in the world are qualified to fly the route.  The pilot can’t even see the runway until a minute before landing, as the approach path sweeps from one valley to another—turns a corner—and is suddenly upon it.

I had gone to Bhutan to take part in the ongoing work of a UN group convened and chaired by Bhutan’s prime minister, Jigme Thinley.  The group’s task, as described in the General Assembly Resolution empowering it, is to articulate a New Development Paradigm, one that aims not at increasing the monetary income (and resource use) of the peoples of the world, but at increasing the sustainable happiness and well-being enjoyed by humans.  By that standard, the old categories of “developed,” “underdeveloped,” and “undeveloped” have to be swept aside.  No nation on earth is ecologically sustainable; every nation faces a daunting development challenge.  The work began with a Special High Level Meeting at the UN in April of 2012, which was attended by more than 600 delegates, scholars, theorists and activists.  It had continued with a meeting of the thirty-some members of the Working Group in New York in November 2012; and now the same group was meeting in Bhutan to continue the work of defining what the new approach to development could be. 

We met in Thimphu, the national capital, with the Prime Minister presiding over our sessions. The Prime Minister is an unusual statesman, as befits a man who serves a Buddhist nation that has rejected use of standard economic measurements, like Gross Domestic Product, in favor of an alternative measure, Gross National Happiness.  That name is a bit of a misnomer, and unfortunately it is misunderstood by many who hear it for the first time.  What the Bhutanese measure is not the short-lived hedonistic state that many of us think of when we hear the word “happy,” but a deeper kind of life satisfaction.  “What we want to measure is not happiness, directly, but the capacity of our social and economic system to offer our citizens the opportunity to be happy,” is how Karma Ura, head of the Center for Bhutan Studies and one of the chief architects of GNH, puts it.  And it helps to keep in mind that “happiness” means something very different in a Buddhist nation than it does in a commercial culture that has long been exposed to advertising that aims to convince us that our happiness depends on what we purchase, own, and consume. “Wellbeing” is probably a more accurate translation—but “Gross National Wellbeing” doesn’t have the same kind of ring to it that “Gross National Happiness” does.

And besides, “Gross National Happiness” is the actual phrase that Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the fourth King of Bhutan, used in his coronation speech in 1972, when he said that his monarchy would take it,  rather than Gross National Product, as the value it tries to maximize. 

What started as an interesting and casual turn of phrase in a speech was eventually given actual policy weight, as Karma Ura and Michael Pennock (a Canadian health-care epidemiologist) collaborated to design a survey research instrument that would gather information about the wellbeing enjoyed by citizens of Bhutan.  The survey asks questions in nine large categories—“domains”—only one of which, “living standards,” relates to economic wellbeing. The others:  Physical Health; Psychological Health; Community Vitality; Cultural Vitality; Good Governance; Time Use; Education; and Ecological Diversity and Resilience. 

Since the inception of GNH just a decade ago, Bhutan has generously shared its work with the world, primarily through a series of international conferences, including the Fifth International GNH Conference in Brazil in 2009, which I attended, and the sixth International GNH Conference in Vermont in 2011, which I helped organize.  Lately, though, the Bhutanese have shifted their emphasis from international conferences to the Working Group convened through the auspices of the United Nations.  Behind that move lies a sense that the concepts are ready to be taken out of the realm of talk and into the realm of broader policy application—and a sense of urgency that as the world faces the results of a burgeoning consumer society that is neither ecologically sustainable nor especially effective at bringing greater wellbeing to a majority of the human population, the world needs what Bhutan has to offer. 

The first three days of the meeting in Thimphu consisted of a smaller group-within-a-group:  just twenty of us, each of whom had prepared draft materials for various parts of the final report.  I’d written a draft of the chapter on “Ecological Sustainability, Happiness, and Wellbeing” and on the second day of the meeting I made a short presentation of its major points.  The main one:  survey research that asks residents whether pollution is a problem, as the GNH instrument does, can tell us what people think about the status of the environment, but it can’t tell us what the actual status of the environment is. Survey research in this area needs to be augmented by objective markers of ecosystem health, which the field of ecological economics has been developing as it measures ecosystem services.   A broad sampling of those measures find their way into the Genuine Progress Indicator, an alternative indicator that is finding increased adoption (including in my home state of Vermont; I’m coordinator of the Vermont Genuine Progress Indicator Project at the University of Vermont).  A blending of methodologies, combining both GNH and GPI, would be stronger than either indicator is separately.

Others who were there for this pre-meeting had written on such topics as the scientific basis for distinguishing between needs and wants, the psychological literature on happiness and stages of emotional development, the distribution of income around the world and how income does or doesn’t relate to other measures like maternal mortality, life expectancy, and ecological footprint; measures of good governance, of time use, of community and civic vitality.  Our task was to clarify the fundamental assumptions of the new paradigm, so that these could be communicated clearly to the larger group that would join us on Thursday. 

As it turned out, that group was also interested in clarifying fundamental assumptions. Rather than taking the small group’s work as a given, the larger group spent quite a lot of time hashing over a very fundamental issue:  to what extent would the new development paradigm rely on the ideas and categories of GNH, and to what extent would it be built on the assumptions, terms and categories of ecological economics?  My proposal—for a blended methodology—figured in some of these conversations.

I’m happy to report that the days we spent discussing the differences and areas of overlap between these two visions were fruitful, and produced a shared understanding that represents a blending of the two approaches that is satisfactory to the group as a whole.  The next step in the work is to polish the draft material for communication to the UN group that is working on updating the Millenium Development Goals.  In the past, those goals have been shaped by traditional assumptions about development—assumptions that I’ve been encouraging people to think of as “infinite planet” assumptions.  The traditional assumptions include some that are demonstrably wrong. These include the idea that environmental quality is a luxury good that nations can purchase more of, after they develop and raise their GDP; that it is possible to have infinite economic growth; that debt-driven development financed by sale of raw materials to developed nations is the path out of poverty.

As I see it, the task of the New Development Paradigm Working Group is to get real about development—to articulate a set of design principles and development goals that work, and that are suited to the planet we have, which is most definitely finite. 

Stay tuned!

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