Bhutan’s experiment with happiness

By giving well-being a central role in policymaking, the tiny Kingdom of Bhutan has staged a trial that has gripped the world. Dipika Chhetrireports on the environmental impacts.

By giving well-being a central role in policymaking, the tiny Kingdom of Bhutan has staged a trial that has gripped the world. Dipika Chhetrireports on the environmental impacts.

In global discussions about climate change and environment, the word “happiness” is surprisingly rare. But in Bhutan, happiness rhetoric is uncommonly common. The phrase “Gross National Happiness” – or GNH – is peppered through all official, and many unofficial, documents and speeches, and used to frame and justify the country’s ambitious environmental-protection policies.

Adoption of the GNH concept has been credited to the fourth monarch of Bhutan, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who in the 1980s issued a royal decree to the Bhutanese Planning Commission, declaring that the success of government plans must be evaluated on the basis of how much happier the people of the country had become. GNH has since become an alternative to Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as a tool for measuring human progress.

The argument goes that a society that is increasing its happiness is making more progress than one that is simply making more money. But is this the case in Bhutan? What is the government actually doing to meet its happiness goals? And how do these actions serve the environment?

Environmental protection is enshrined in the four pillars of GNH: conservation of the natural environment; promotion of sustainable development; preservation and promotion of cultural values; and the establishment of good governance. The Bhutanese constitution, which came into force in 2008 along with the first elected democratic government, has an entire article dedicated to the environment. It declares that “a minimum of 60% of Bhutan’s total land shall be maintained under forest cover for all time.” More than 50% of the total forests have been designated as protected areas.

National records, including those with the Ministry of Agriculture and Forests, indicate that at present 72% of Bhutanese land is covered by woodland. Dr Pema Gyamtsho, the Bhutanese minister of agriculture and forests who led the delegation to last year’s UN-led climate summit in Cancún, said that it was no accident that the majority of Bhutanese land is forest. “We have increased our forest cover from about 45% in the 1960s, and this has been a deliberate effort on the part of the government, in line with the policy of GNH,” he said.

The political party that won the country’s first ever elections in 2008 – Druk Phuensum Tshogpa – is led by prime minister Jigmi Y Thinley, a vocal proponent of both GNH and environmental protection. In December 2009, when high hopes were being pinned on the global climate talks in Copenhagen, Bhutan declared that it would remain permanently carbon neutral.

Commitment to the global fight against climate change may have faltered elsewhere since then – but not in Bhutan. Speaking at a parliamentary meeting on climate change and health last year (and in many other international and national fora since) the prime minister reaffirmed these sentiments. He said: “Climate change is the result of our way of life that is driven by insatiable human greed. Our GDP-based economic development models, founded on the notion of endless growth, have promoted consumerism and materialism with little consideration for cultural and ecological costs.

“Guided by our unique philosophy of Gross National Happiness, Bhutan has so far been free of the guilt of contributing to climate change and has in fact been more successful than most other countries in conserving our natural environment.”

In a bid to match its grand rhetoric with actions, the authorities have busily promoted policies that reflect a pro-environment stance. The economic development policy and the foreign direct investment policy, both formed by the current government, strongly favour environment-friendly businesses, offering tax cuts and benefits to those who demonstrate green practices.

In an interview with Reuters, the prime minister said the government had taken a strict line on resource protection. “We have been stringent with the expansion of farmland, making lives difficult for farmers. There are growth opportunities for natural resources based industries and manufacturing, but Bhutan has been very restrictive in view of its effects on the environment.”

He cited the example of a marble mine in Paro, a district in western Bhutan, which had to be shut down – despite huge investment – due to environmental concerns and visual pollution. Similarly, a particle board factory in southern Bhutan was closed after it was deemed, under Bhutan’s environment conservation policies, to be unsustainable.

The country’s 10th Five-Year Plan, which was mapped out by the Planning Commission – now renamed the GNH Commission – and runs from 2008 to 2013, gives top priority to the environment, and suggests alternative fields for economic growth such as education, health, finance and banking, ICT, construction and consultancy, as well as hydropower. Bhutan has also been exploring the possibilities of organic farming and cultural tourism to boost the country’s economy without compromising the interests of the environment.

Not everyone is convinced by the government’s actions, however, particularly the effectiveness of legislation brought in to promote both happiness and environmental protection. Bhutan long ago banned the use of plastic bags and has passed a new “Tobacco Control Act”, which makes it illegal for people to possess tobacco products without a tax receipt, to smoke in public and to produce or sell tobacco products in the country. A law on increased taxes for import of vehicles is also proposed, but has been challenged by the opposition party and is now being considered by the Supreme Court of Bhutan.

Sceptics point to the fact that plastic bags are still used in stores despite the ban and that the black market for tobacco is flourishing. The Tobacco Act has meanwhile been criticised as too draconian – and therefore out of keeping with the promotion of happiness – by some figures, including Tshering Tobgay, leader of the opposition party in the National Assembly of Bhutan. “The overall objective of the Act, which is to discourage theconsumption of tobacco, is very good. However, the Act imposesdisproportionately harsh penalties on people who violate its provisions, and that, in my opinion, cannot be in line with the principles of GNH,” Tobgay told chinadialogue.

But even if some government actions are questioned, there seems to be little opposition to the idea of promoting happiness itself. If laws are failing, people say, it is because they are not in line with the GNH ideals (Tobgay’s position on tobacco is a case in point). There is general agreement that formulating policies based on how much happier people become as a result of them is a good idea – it is just over what makes people happy that disagreements occur.

And not all happiness promotion is top down. A new initiative from teacher and filmmaker Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche to boost living standards in Bhutan’s south eastern district of Samdrup Jongkhar has received a positive public response. The programme aims to establish food security and self-sufficiency, while protecting and enhancing the natural environment, strengthening communities, promoting Bhutan’s unique culture, stemming the rural-urban tide and fostering a cooperative, productive, entrepreneurial and self-reliant spirit. The initiative was launched in December last year, and includes a number of projects including helping farmers form organic farming cooperatives and greening schools.

To Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, as to many others in Bhutan, the link between happiness and the environment is obvious.


Dipika Chhetri is a freelance journalist based in Bhutan.

Homepage image from Bhutan-360

Also in this series:

Is earth justice possible?

How to make China happy

Growth can’t go on

Towards sustainable capitalism

Tim Jackson on restoring social balance

The dangers of happiness indices

Famine to feast: health impacts of a rising China

“China must measure happiness”