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For almost three decades after their monarch set the goal, Bhutan was reluctant to make any claims about GNH or even broadcast the aspiration in international forums. Moreover, Bhutan only registered on the world stage as an idyllic vacation spot. Then, in the late 1990s, King Jigme Singye Wangchuk began a transition towards democracy and opened up the country to satellite television and the internet. As more development agencies and researchers came into contact with workings in Bhutan, word began to spread about their pursuit of gross national happiness.
Sander Tideman, one of the founders of Spirit in Business, played a key role in urging Bhutanese officials and scholars to speak about the concept of GNH in international forums. This in turn led to the first ever international conference on Operationalizing GNH, hosted by the Bhutan Government in the capital city of Thimphu, in February 2004.
As the Prime Minister of Bhutan, Lyonpo Jigmi Y. Thinley, put it, the growing interest in the GNH endeavor had more to do with the state of the world than Bhutan itself:
“The threshold of a new millennium had evoked a mood for reflection, introspection and uneasy contemplation about the future. There were questions about what, amid the wonders we lived, humanity had truly achieved. All that we have sacrificed, at the alter of material advancement to appease insatiable wants, had not been in the best interest of furthering human civilization. Indeed, there were those who whispered that we had become less refined, having become less capable of peaceful coexistence in a world that compels us to live together within diminishing space and time. Since then there has been growing interest in GNH.
Yet there is little that potential converts can find in Bhutan beyond our simple belief in the primacy of happiness. They may even be amused by the unshakable faith of the government that, given an enabling environment, each citizen will find the wisdom to engage in the quiet but infectious pursuit of happiness rather than being trapped in the jungles of supposed means.”
That first international gathering on GNH became a show-case for the wide range and depth of work on defining and measuring true progress. It attracted not only researchers in quality of life indicators, but people working in the field of Socially Responsible Investing. Frank Dixon of Innovest Strategic Value Advisors was there because he saw the concept of GNH as potentially the most significant advancements in economic theory over the last 150 years.
For Dixon, GNH was an endeavor that could enhance the sophistication of human systems by emulating the infinitely greater sophistication of nature. At present, individual companies and entire countries are compelled to keep growing indefinitely. The only parallel for this in the natural world are cancer cells, which by growing exponentially destroy the host body and themselves.
Today it is widely acknowledged that the human economy cannot keep growing at the cost of its habitat. Yet even after two decades of expanding environmental regulation we are still losing the race to save the planet. This is partly because production systems and consumption patterns are out of synch with the carrying capacity of the planet. The pressure for ever higher GNP is merely one manifestation of this.
Bhutan’s move towards GNH has been more of a guiding principle, than an actual measure. In purely material terms, the ideal of GNH has produced mixed results. It has not yet fully succeeded in its effort to improve its people’s access to better food, housing and health care. Poverty still persists and the average household income in Bhutan is still among the lowest in the world. But between 1984 and 1998, life expectancy increased by 19 years to age 66. Bhutan also boasts the remarkable achievement of having expanded its network of roads and simultaneously increased its forest cover. About 26% of land area is managed to protect its astonishing bio-diversity, and 72% of the country is under forest cover, much of it pristine.
Of course, Bhutan is not in fact an idyllic Shangri-La. It has grim political problems, including ill-treatment of its Nepali-speaking minority. So its endeavor to foster a GNH model of development is as complicated and fraught with challenges as most other countries would find the task. Thus, the New York Times writer who compared the GNH ideal with the pursuit of happiness as enshrined in the American Declaration of Independence, was right on the mark. In this document, ‘happiness’ is inherently a combination of individual and community interests, not a point of ‘arrival’ (Andrew C. Revkin, A New Measure of Well-Being From a Happy Little Kingdom, New York Times; October 4, 2005)
The growing international interest in GNH has also drawn attention to numerous studies showing that increases in income (beyong a certain basic level) do not translate into greater happiness. Of course, the task of designing measurement techniques that can capture the broader concept of well-being is fraught with difficulties. Yet the purpose of the GNH / Genuine Progress Indicators concepts is not to measure personal, emotional, happiness. Rather, the core purpose is to ensure that parameters relating to actual well-being are measured and given primacy. This means focusing not merely on the amount of food bought and sold in any economy, but the actual per capita nutritional intake, and likewise for housing, health-care, education etc. This stream of thought and action is growing largely because there are now sophisticated ways of collecting and analyzing data to show the links between the material economy and actual well-being. Countries as diverse as Costa Rica, Canada, Iceland, Netherlands, Sri Lanka and Mongolia have established well-being indicators to balance out the GNP measure.
Britain has developed an index of well-being which takes into account not only inco account mental illness, civility, access to parks and crime rates. Canada is working on a National Index of Well-being. It is important to note that these indices are not intended to do away with the GNP measure. Their purpose is to provide a closer understanding of what fosters well-being and thus aid policy makers in making better legislation and regulations.
Friends of the Earth and the New Economics Foundation have worked with the Centre for Environmental Strategy at the University of Surrey to evolve the Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare (ISEW). The ISEW corrects GNP for a range of issues, such as income inequality, environmental damage, and depletion of environmental assets, to create an indicator which better measures how the UK economy delivers welfare for people. The ISEW has been criticized for being too subjective and susceptible to changes in underpinning assumptions. But its designers are confident that problems in constructing such indicators can and should be overcome.
The second international conference on GNH has put both the wider endeavor and the particular effort of the Bhutanese people at the centre of world attention. The question now is how well the GNH ideal matches the steadily rising material aspirations of Bhutan’s younger people. As the Bhutanese economy expands and global interface increases, the younger generation may well come to equate happiness with brand-name shoes and cloths. But the elders in Bhutan are hoping to nurture the indigenous cultural climate through the education system and the national media.
Meanwhile, at the other side of the world, there are campaigns to redefine consumption in more holistic terms. For example, the Center for a New American Dream works to help Americans consume responsibly to protect the environment, enhance quality of life, and promote social justice:
“The traditional American dream once focused on greater security, opportunity and happiness. Increasingly, that dream has been supplanted by an extraordinary emphasis on acquisition. The recent commercial definition of the American dream has hidden costs for the environment and our quality of life. (…) As for the ‘new’ in New American Dream, we help people live the dream, but in a way that ensures a livable planet for current and future generations. Our message isn’t about deprivation. It’s about getting more of what really matters - more time, more nature, more fairness, and more fun.”
Such initiatives are a creative response to the reality that, if each of the planet’s six billion inhabitants consumed resources at the level of the average American, we would need four additional earths. Americans consume 40% of the world’s gasoline and more paper, steel, aluminum, energy and meat per capita than any other society on the planet. The average American produces twice as much garbage as even the average European. Finally, while there was a 62% rise in per capita income in the US between 1970 and the mid-1990s, the percentage of Americans who list themselves as ‘very happy’ remained at about 30 percent [All Consuming Passion: Waking up from the American Dream by New Road Map Foundation and Northwest Environment Watch].
Concepts like Genuine Progress Indicators and GNH are vital to rectify distortions in the ways economic activity is measured and provide a more well-rounded report card of the economy and its interface with society. However, a radical application of these concepts would mean more fundamental change and a move away from the imperative of indefinite ‘growth’ in GNP.
This sheet is also available in French: Le bonheur national brut
Andrew C. Revkin, « A New Measure of Well-Being From a Happy Little Kingdom », New York Times; October 4, 2005
Rajni BAKSHI, An Economics For Well-Being, Centre for Education and Documentation, Mumbai & Bangalore, 2007
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