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Loss and Damage - Adverse Impact of Climate Change
Mask dance at Dochula Drukwangyel Festival ©Karma Ura

Along with the increased material wealth that accompanies our affluent society, there has been discussion recently on seeking a new index for "happiness".  The Kingdom of Bhutan introduced Gross National Happiness (GNH)  in 1972 as a national strategy in contrast to the Gross National Product (GNP). GNH has since been gaining attention from the world. This month, we hear from Dasho Karma Ura of the Centre for Bhutan Studies on happiness and sustainability.
Dasho Karma Ura
Dasho Karma Ura
President, The Centre for Bhutan Studies (CBS)

Was born into a family of high altitude farmers. Undergraduate degree (PPE) from Oxford University and Masters in Philosophy of Economics from the University of Edinburgh.  Worked for the Ministry of Planning before becoming Director of the Centre for Bhutan Studies (CBS) until 2008 when he became its President. Member of the Drafting Committee of Bhutan's first Constitution, enacted in July 2008. In 2006, he was made Dasho by the Fourth King of Bhutan. Member of the Chief Economist’s Advisory Panel, South Asia Region, World Bank. Member of Expert Advisory Group of UNESCO’s Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education for Peace and Sustainable Development.

Related Link:
Centre for Bhutan Studies.

April 2013

Be Happy and Sustainable:
Gross National Happiness (GNH)

Dasho Karma Ura
President, The Centre for Bhutan Studies (CBS)

Brief of Bhutanese People and Natural Environment

---Why do the people of Bhutan so strongly believe that "without conserving its natural environment or taking care of the well-being of its people, a prosperous nation can’t be born"?

Ura:
The well-being of human beings ultimately depends on the natural environment in which many renewable resources, like plants and animals, are self-reproduced. All other goods and services are derived from the natural environment. However, more money is now made globally from financial services than from the real economy. Speculative gains create more wealth than production. But financial wealth has no intrinsic use; it must be translated into goods and services created out of the natural environment. If the quality and quantity of the natural environment is decreasing, at a certain point in time, all goods and services must also similarly deteriorate. For the moment, the Bhutanese people are in a positive relation with the natural environment because this self-reproduction is continued.

Until the early 1960s, Bhutan was a traditional society with little contact with the Western world; it was self-sufficient. Bhutanese people’s exploitation of natural resources was limited by simple human muscle power, devoid of technology. Technology has now increased man’s power over nature and has made it possible to stimulate and satisfy unsustainable wants. When the idea of development and modernisation took hold in the 1970s in Bhutan, His Majesty the 4th King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck (reign 1971-2006) proposed that "Gross National Happiness (GNH) was more important than Gross National Product (GNP)", and guided Bhutan on the path of good development. The 5th King, HM Khesar (reign 2006 onwards) continued these good influences on the Bhutanese development policies.

Three policies have been, and are, prominent during their reigns. Let me briefly explain each of them.

The first major policy is hydro-power development to finance development as a means of environmentally compatible harnessing of natural resources. I shall not elaborate on this. Bhutan has generated substantial income from this green sector. But it does not free Bhutan from the ‘rebound effect’. That is, the income made from sustainable practices might still be used to consume products that contribute to unsustainability. Production of goods within Bhutan can be done sustainably but people can still spend their growing income on imported goods which may not meet sustainability criteria.

The second major policy focus is human development in terms of improving basic needs including free universal health and education coverage. Bhutan went beyond convention by recognising that psychological and emotional well-being needs are vital for happiness. Bhutan’s policies for good development addressed usually neglected aspects such as culture, community and values. For example, the relationship of belonging and support within and between households members must be deep. A person envisioned in GNH is embedded in values and visions of a fulfilling society. Psychologically, a person’s basic good nature of kindness, generosity, forgiveness, contentment and compassion should be freed from repression by blinding negative emotions like anger, jealousy, and selfishness. We should note too that selfishness and greed are increasingly organisational, involving institutions and corporations, rather than the individual. Education, whether formal or informal, is the key for both sustainability of material resources and sustainable happiness. Education of the Bhutanese population, through Buddhist learning as well as through secular curricula of the schools, in broader elements of well-being is being carried out. Education is the most important long term means to reach any end, including well-being and sustainability.

The third prominent policy is the focus on environmental preservation, with respect to forests and biodiversity. Bhutan has forest coverage of 72%, and 36% of the land area is managed as parks and sanctuaries. Happiness of the inhabitants in such wild, beautiful and rugged landscape arise from nature’s economic and aesthetic benefits. Like other peoples, Bhutanese also need reminding that the natural environment belongs to all creatures; it is not only for human beings. Due to myopia, current generations can overlook the fact that there are infinite numbers of future generations who will need the natural environment. Buddhist education has helped remind Bhutanese people that other creatures are subjects in their own rights by being born in this cosmos and unfolding according to certain moral dynamics, ultimately towards self-liberation. People can learn the skills to be lucid enough to moderate their powerful compulsion to have, to own, to dominate, and to expand materially. People can be brought back from their alienation from nature which tips them deeply towards material wealth and ‘unnecessary’ needs. Many people in cities now do not have direct, close experience of nature in the midst of man-made technology and industrialisation. This alienating experience too can be reversed.


Secret for Happiness and Well-being

---What is the secret of good communication between Bhutanese and nurturing social wellness?

A village in Western Bhutan
A village in Western Bhutan
Ura:
There is increasing doubt cast on modernism and its linear narrative of progress (Therborn 2011, p.102) from the platforms of environment, climate, inequality, intergenerational inequality, happiness etc. At the same time consumer marketing by media, manufacturers, and transnational corporations are shrewdly skillful in keeping unsustainable aspects of their productions and processes hidden from common knowledge. Ultimately, goods and services are sold with an appeal to consumers’ happiness, status and security. Happiness is the first order goal for all human beings and sentient beings. Other things are means to happiness. This clarity is the strongest point of "communication".

People's behaviour is broadly influenced by two factors. The first is the relative prices of goods and services. Unfortunately, prices do not always reflect the real environmental and social costs, resulting in people making biased choices. The Bhutanese government is considering estimating full-cost national accounting to find out the real cost of certain goods so that fiscal measures can be calibrated towards sustainability.

Tongsa dzong in Central Bhutan
Tongsa dzong in Central Bhutan
The second factor affecting people’s behaviour is media and the way it portrays norms, ideals and status, which are sometimes contrary to achieving happiness and sustainability. The right approaches include audio-visual materials, multi-lingual documentaries, conferences and journalism. Bhutan has been successful with its coverage of GNH because of conferences, TV and news interviews. The pronouncements from His Majesty the King and the Prime Minister have contributed to the credibility of the message. Bhutanese people pay great attention to the speeches and writings of His Majesty the King because he is a selfless leader devoted to the welfare of his people.

I can give one concrete example of a minor change with major consequence.

The Education Ministry of Bhutan started a short daily session of meditation in every class. This contemplative method supports our mental well-being and improves our learning abilities. Our happiness should not be completely dependent on external influences. It should be balanced with inner contemplation as a source and technique of contentment.


Future of Bhutan and Borderless Environmental Problems

---Although Bhutan has been successful in developing the GNH concept,  it is now facing unstable climate change and borderless environmental problems. How would you persuade developed countries to follow real "sustainable" environmental or living policies?

Ura:
We live in an age of cross-border and borderless pollution and only the future can tell how far Bhutan can be immune from environmental collapse in the long term: we do not know. For example, the snow on the Himalyan mountains is disappearing. Increasingly, Bhutanese well-being and sustainability are also linked by trade and investment and other ways of globalisation. Bhutan is not isolated from the larger forces and problems of the world. Therefore, international movements are needed while Bhutan does what it can at home in terms of sustainable development.

Globally, the present generation since the mid-1980s is a debtor to future generations because the global population has consumed more than the earth could produce sustainably.

An eminent sociologist, Therborn, aspired that "Some time in the future, capital accumulation and economic growth will probably be superseded by a means of livelihood geared to other ends – say, to human security and happiness, to social and environmental harmony and to cultural development" (Therborn  2011, p.218). He noted Japan as a possible place for this shift, not a less wealthy place like Bhutan. He further said that "In a longer perspective, capitalist relations of production may turn out to be in fatal conflict with ecologically sustainable forces of production."  Bhutan is already in dialogue with many people and institutions, and has formed an International Expert Working Group on how to avoid this fatal conflict and to propose a path of development that defines happiness (within GNH framework), as an objective. GNH can be a humble platform for Bhutan, to offer a positive influence beyond itself to the world. The very fact that Bhutan is on the periphery of the mainstream means it can contribute more.

---Thank you very much.



About "Monthly Asian Focus: Observations on Sustainability"

Until 2010, IGES released "Top News on the Environment in Asia" on a yearly basis. For over 12 years since its establishment of IGES in 1998, "Top News" collected and organised information about environmental issues and policy trends in the region.

In January 2011, IGES launched the new web-based series "Monthly Asian Focus: Observations on Sustainability" in which leading environmental experts deliver their take on latest trends of sustainable Asia.

 

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