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

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.

Peleg Kremer

I am an environmental scholar, social scientist and geographer studying urban sustainability, social-ecological urban system, urban food systems, and socio-spatial aspects of environmental planning for sustainability. My current research includes conceptual and empirical quantitative investigations of urban ecosystem services (UES) as they interact with the urban social-ecological system. In particular, I am interested in questions of scale, thresholds, tradeoffs and synergies in the supply and demand of UES, access to and the distribution of UES, the relationship between urban structure and the provision of UES as well as the influence of land change and development policies on UES. I earned my PhD from the Center for Energy and Environmental Policy at the University of Delaware working on local food systems as a strategy for urban sustainability and recently finished my post-doctoral fellowship in Urban Ecosystems at the Tishman Environment and Design Center at the New School University in New York City.