Thursday, February 24, 2011

What can America learn from Bhutan?

In their recently released budget proposal, the GOP threw some mean punches to the environment--and ultimately to Americans, who depend on a healthy environment. Here is some of the potential damage it could cause, according to NRDC, Climate Progress and Repower America:

And the list goes on.

America's budget may be in the red, but that does not justify jeopardizing the health and safety of its people and environment. Without them, there will be no economy.

While we can still hope either the Senate or the President will put a stop to this frightening bill, it is quite disheartening to be affronted with such shortsightedness and blatant disregard for the health of Americans and our environment. The paradigm of putting profit before people and the planet (apologies for the harsh alliteration) is clearly not working, and it frustrates me that we seem to remain trapped in it.

This made me wonder, how does a country go about making the environment a budget priority? Is there an existing alternative?

Thankfully, I found one in the tiny Kingdom of Bhutan.

Located in the Himalayas, Bhutan is considered a "developing" country. However, its governing philosophy seems more advanced than that of any developed country, to me. When faced with development pressures back in the 1970s, its then-king declared that Bhutan will not measure its success by its Gross Domestic Product (GDP), but by its Gross National Happiness (GNH). In other words, the country determines its development based on the long term well being of its people--a philosophy no doubt driven by its strong Buddhist tradition.

And to the Bhutanese, happiness includes a healthy environment. As one of the four pillars of the GNH index, the environment is at the core of its national planning; sustainable development, good governance, and the preservation of cultural values are the remaining three. The country recognizes that the well being of its people rests on the conservation of its natural resources, which are, after all, the foundation of its economy.

Haa Valley. Photo: Douglas J. McLaughlin

Half of Bhutan's national revenue is provided by hydroelectricity, which it sends to India. Tourism makes up another large chunk. And the tourists go to Bhutan to bask in its unique natural splendor. In fact, the country is designated as one of the world's biodiversity hot spots, and more than a quarter of its land is a national park or other protected area.

Bhutan's environmental leadership is also evident in the measures its government has taken to explicitly protect its environment. For example, in 1991 the country established the Bhutan Trust Fund for Environmental Conservation--the first of its kind in the world--to ensure financial sustainability of its conservation efforts. Also, its constitution mandates that 60 percent of its land remain covered by forest, and it is one of the few places in the world that has actually increased its forest cover over the years.

Here's a PDF that gives an overview of the environment and economic situation in Bhutan.

Photo: Thomas Wanhoff

Before you begin thinking this might be a utopia, Bhutan struggles with balancing environmental conservation and poverty alleviation, like so many developing countries. In an attempt to solve this dilemma, the country has teamed up with the United Nations' Poverty Environment Initiative. Together, they are achieving some impressive progress:
  • The development of Poverty-Environment Mainstreaming Guidelines to "green" economic development
  • A budget analysis of environment-related public investments, helping to improve their accounting
  • The establishment of participatory local planning and development based on the sustainable use of natural resources
Read this case study to learn more about this effort.

And Bhutan, like any country, has not escaped the everlasting pressures of resource extraction and modernization. For example, while not a significant part of their economy, mining is causing environmental destruction and, yes, unhappiness. Dolomite mining in the southwest of the country is not only leveling mountains, but eroding soils, contaminating water (and thus killing thirsty wildlife that rely on that water), damaging nearby tea plantations, and angering locals.

(Insert heavy sigh)

Shortcomings aside, what I think is most remarkable about Bhutan is its courage to defy a paradigm that it recognized as detrimental to the health and happiness of its people and its environment. Instead of allowing the iron fist of capitalism to swoop in and take advantage of its social and natural resources, it rejected it and came up with a bold alternative. Bhutan certainly presents an amazing model I hope America and other countries can someday emulate.

Excuse me, GOP, don't you like happiness?

Want to learn more about GNH? The Center for Bhutan Studies has a very comprehensive explanation of their GNH Index, and this video, while a little dated, provides an interesting glimpse into the culture.


  1. This is an inspired post, Jenny. The comparison with a tiny, developing country not only of budget but of moral lessons is outstanding. And I really like the conversational tone of it - sometime I'd like to encourage you to continue - there's a real feel of talking to the reader. Congratulations!

  2. Scary stuff, I've been following the EPA defunding debate among others up for review in the budget cuts. Sounds like some gridlock until Dems back down like usual. Maybe they'll stick up for us this time? They might be preoccupied with saving social programs first.

  3. Excellent report.

    I studied the soils of Bhutan in one of my college soil science classes. This class focused on interpreting challenging soil conditions for agriculture, and exploring ways to address them. It was my favorite class.

    I came away with such a heart commitment to helping farmers dealing with figuring out crop problems, especially those related to soil.

    There is something about Bhutan that is both entrancing and compelling. I admire the efforts the government of Bhutan makes to address their soil-science and related cultural issues.

    I'm Buddhist, and I'd like to think that Bhutan's thoughtful budgeting choices have to do with the religion of the country. However, I think it probably has more to do with Bhutan's maturity of culture.

    An older culture sometimes is able to see things on a more macro, especially time-wise, scale. I also think it is because the people value what they already have as a country, perhaps have lost it in wars throughout the millennia.

    I also admire those who, as did the author of this article, wrote such a clear and easily accessible synopsis of both the issues Bhutan faces. These issues are similar to the issues many countries are facing.

    Fortunately, Bhutan seems to be really doing what is so difficult: fixing urgent problems that were created over the long-term, with limited budgeting.

    Perhaps Bhutan will serve as an example to my own country. One can always dream.

  4. @Professional, Innovative, Dependable. Thank you for reading and for your thoughtful response!