It is not everyday that one hears a former prime minister declare that “the conventional development or economic growth paradigm is seriously flawed and delusional.” But that is exactly how Lyonpo Jigmi Thinley, Bhutan’s current home minister and former prime minister, opened his keynote speech at the Second International Conference on Gross National Happiness held in Antigonish from June 20 to 24. “There is a general consensus that the conventional development process and contemporary way of life are not sustainable,” said Thinley. “We see Gross National Happiness as offering a more rational and human approach to development.”
In today’s high-tech, fast-paced, free-market society, calling Gross National Happiness ‘rational’ may seem counterintuitive. Most politicians don’t talk about happiness, but economic growth, as the rational approach to development. GNH considers conservation of the environment, preservation and promotion of culture, and promotion of good governance—as well as sustainable and equitable economic development—as key indicators of progress, and is turning the conventional concept of development on its head.
Thinley is adamant that Bhutan not follow the West’s “unsustainable, unfulfilling” development path.
“A good reason to begin with, as corroborated by unquestionable data, is that the manifold rise in real income in several highly industrialized countries over the last 50 years has not led to a similar increase in happiness,” he says. “It is evident that triumphs in the rat race to earn more, have more, and consume more do not bring true and lasting happiness.”
John DeGraaf, conference speaker and national coordinator of the Take Back Your Time campaign in the United States, would agree.
“Overwork has a huge impact on a lot of important things we hold dear,” says DeGraaf. “Number one is health—lack of time to exercise, reliance on fast food items and lack of sleep. All these things have a negative impact on our health. Our communities and families are being impacted as there is less time for friends and family. It can also impact the environment. People who work too much use more throwaway convenience items and are also less likely to have time to recycle.”
The costs of overwork to society are not counted by the current economic model, says DeGraaf, and the benefits of leisure time are also ignored.
“If we have time off, we might use it to take a hike in the woods with our family. This activity is invigorating and great for our mental and physical health. That hike counts for nothing in the GDP . It is considered a waste of time because nothing is being produced and sold on the marketplace,” he says. “If, on the other hand, we spend that same hour exhausting ourselves making some kind of good that will be used for a day and thrown away, that adds to the GDP. If we get sick as a result of all that extra work and have to get expensive medical treatment, that adds to the GDP. This conference is about what we count and how we count it, and GDP is just a terrible measure for wellbeing.”
GDP also fails to measure the level of poverty within a country. “Ignorance, ill health, deprivation and poverty in their most abject forms are still serious challenges faced by much of the developing world,” says Thinley. It was with this in mind that conference speaker Sanjit Bunker Roy founded the Barefoot College in India. The college aims to alleviate the suffering of the rural poor and imbue them with self-respect and dignity.
Graduates may not significantly contribute to the GDP of the country, but according to Roy, the GNH is another story. “If women don’t have to walk for two kilometers for drinking water, then that’s happiness. If babies don’t die during childbirth, that’s happiness. If people can get a land record to make sure they own the land, that’s happiness.”
The Barefoot College programs on rainwater harvesting and renewable energy not only address social issues, but environmental issues as well. The health of the environment is a critical aspect of GNH. “It is difficult to argue against the value of the environment in everyday life and hence our happiness, given that our health and aesthetic experiences depend on the quality of the physical environment around us,” says Thinley. Bhutan recently won a United Nations Environment award for placing the environment at the centre of its development policies—72 percent of Bhutan is still covered in forest with 26 percent of that forest designated protected areas.Environmental issues do not hon-our political borders however, and Bhutan is feeling the impacts of global waste and consumption.
“Climate change has already led to very visible and alarming rates of the withdrawal of glaciers, which are the sources and natural regulators of our river systems. Predictions about the definite possibility of the disappearance of all glaciers in the third Polar region, namely the Himalayas, within the next 30 to 50 years is terrifying to say the least,” says Thinley. “The world needs to desperately recognize Earth as a mortal organism that must be nourished and protected. It desperately needs to accept the mountains of evidence which prove that our finite natural resources are running out while nature’s magic of regenerating and replenishing are fading away.”
There are those in Canada who are recognizing global health and happiness depend on our actions today. David Macleod is president of WindShare, Canada’s first green power cooperative, established in 1999 to provide an opportunity for local communities in Toronto to own and direct their energy future. A giant 750kW wind turbine situated on the waterfront is now providing green, renewable energy to many of the city’s residents. Not only does this contribute to the health of the planet, says Macleod, but Torontonians are also realizing it contributes to the happiness of the city. “I think more and more people are beginning to realize the impact that energy sources have on their wellbeing. In Toronto we have many smog days and people are starting to get the message that this is having a negative impact.”
The fact that WindShare is rooted in the community—as a locally owned and operated cooperative—is key, according to Bliss Brown, conference speaker and founder of Imagine Chicago. Bliss believes local people are a community’s best resource for happiness. “The idea behind Imagine Chicago is creating an economy where everyone’s contribution matters, an economy which nothing and no one is wasted.”
Much is still being wasted in Halifax, according to conference attendee and Haligonian Dave Ron.
“Halifax has a lot to learn from a conference like this,” he says. “In terms of building community and supporting those that are disadvantaged—whether it be on an economic level, whether it be on a physical level—I don’t think there’s enough being done in Halifax to support these people. There’s rampant poverty in Halifax. Policies at the municipal level have been trying to further marginalize those who are already impoverished. An example of this is the Safe Streets Act. Essentially the Safe Streets Act is an attempt to criminalize poverty and the municipality of Halifax has ruled, with only three members opposing it from the HRM council, to pass the Safe Streets Act and take it to Province House. That’s completely unsustainable at the social level. There are so many different levels a conference like this speaks to a city like Halifax so far as the ways it needs to change to become a sustainable place—sustainable for the environment, community and economy.”
According to Bliss, progress in Halifax will not be made by focusing on its many problems, but on what is possible in the city.
“You can ask about joy and hope rather than problems and suffering. You can ask about happiness and what makes happiness possible.” These are the kinds of questions Halifax should ask itself in pursuit of Gross National Happiness, says Bliss. “Helping people focus on what works, helping people focus on what they do want. Where is hope coming alive?”