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What Bhutan Can Teach Everyone at Rio+20 About Ecological Economics

| Monday June 25th, 2012 | 3 Comments

It was the last day of the International Society for Ecological Economics 2012 conference taking place in parallel to the UNCSD Rio+20 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and many of the big names of this relatively young and vibrant academic discipline were lined up to talk in the final plenary sessions.

First, we heard from the dual winners of the 2012 Kenneth E. Boulding Award, the world’s top honor in the field of ecological economics, Dr. Mathis Wackernagel and Dr. William Rees. Together, they formed, in the early 1990s, the idea of the ecological footprint. That simple conceptualization of the amount of resources we consume and the waste and pollution we emit as compared to the carrying capacity of the earth, has been so effective in conveying the conundrum of modern consumerist paradigm that it became one of the most popular indices to describe and evaluate sustainability.

In their talks they described a crystal clear picture of the deep mess we are in. Wackernagel talked about our resource overshot, or how many planets would be required in order to sustain the amount of resources we consume. Rees discussed the evolutionary, genetic, environmental and social conditions that make us predisposed to such self-destructive behavior as a human species. While lucid and fascinating, the message and outlook ended up being pretty gloomy.

In stark contrast, next on the stage was Robert Costanza, another founder of the discipline, with a very short but important message. For the most part, we know the gravity of the situation, however, explaining how bad things are has not been working too well as a method of affecting change. To affect change we need to create positive cycles of action and reflection. And with that, he gave the stage to prime minister of Bhutan.

His Excellency, Jigmi Y. Thinley, offered a speech that might have been the most positive message coming out of this entire frustrating, and for the most part, fruitless (if not destructive) process that Rio+20 has become. He said his country has decided some three decades ago to get rid of neoliberal economics that focus on maximizing short term economic gains measured by growth in GDP in favor of enhancing a more holistic framework of human well being.

The catch phrase is, of course, their Gross Happiness Index, but the approach is much more than that. To measure progress, they look at indicators such as education, access to health, employment rates, well being in rural setting and the list is much longer. And yes, he replied to a question, they do have a voluntary policy encouraging responsibility in reproduction rates, and no, they don’t think they necessarily need economic growth per se to do well for their people. Wow. While there is much room for improvement, Bhutan is doing well on many of these indices.

The caveat is, that if the rest of the world keeps measuring success in terms of GDP growth, these great achievements are lost in the all-encompassing picture of economic growth. His entire speech is well worth reading. So, why should we care about Bhutan? It is after all a tiny country at the Eastern Himalayas of about 700,000 people. We should care because Bhutan is a great example of a catalytic positive cycle Dr. Costanza and many others suggest is our way forward. It teaches us that when we make the good choices like balancing material development with cultural, ecological and spiritual values, positive change happens fairly quickly.

Bhutan’s approach is pretty simple, don’t consume more than what you have (in economic and environmental terms), and make sure your people have what they really need (food, education, health, freedom of speech, religion etc.). How hard can this be?

[Image credit: ClausNehmzow, Flickr Creative Commons]

Peleg Kremer is a Post Doctoral Fellow at the Tishman Environment and Design Center at The New School. Her research focuses on urban social-ecological systems, ecosystem service and urban food systems and she teaches at the New School’s Environmental Studies program.


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  • http://twitter.com/subanthore Aswin Subanthore

    Not sure if Bhutan is a good yard stick for other nations to emulate. This landlocked Tibetan Buddhist kingdom has had a lower ecological footprint to begin with owing to its restrictive immigration policies and its relatively new entry into globalization. Cable television, for instance, entered Bhutan only in 1999. So yes, Mr. Thinley has the luxury to use happiness as an indicator of progress, but to apply this model, lets say, even to nearby Bangladesh or Myanmar with all their ecological and population challenges will remain daunting, if not impossible. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/peleg.kremer Peleg Kremer

    Aswin makes a very good point, but I think in some ways it also supports my argument here. I wasn’t trying to  suggest that Bhutan’s pathway would be appropriate for everyone, but that they made some political and ethical choices that put them on a very different path from their neighbors. Without the policies Aswin mentions Bhutan could easily end up like its neighbors. Making these ethical choices about creating a political and economic system that promote sustainability and well being is unfortunately not too common. The application to other places would have to come out of their own social processes, but for that we need to create the political and ethical spaces that will support this conversation. I think Bhutan is at least on that path.

  • Russell Galt

    “To affect change we need to create positive cycles of action and reflection.”

    Absolutely! …and such cycles need to be self-perpetuating and up-scalable. Our current model of development puts us on a trajectory to social and ecological ruin. Without overlooking the many short-term benefits it has afforded to us (well, primarily to an elite strata of society), there can be no denying the obscene inequities, short-termism and institutionalised thievery (intra- and inter-generational), which it manifests. We desperately need to change our ways and to ditch our ‘growth fetish’. Bhutan offers us hope and inspiration and do exactly that.