As we continue to cut down forests to make way for urban centres with skyscrapers, in knowledge that our planet is becoming increasingly difficult to survive on each passing minute, we must ask ourselves – do any of the extensive discussions, debates and campaigns from tireless and dedicated activists and leaders alike work if no concrete policies will be implemented at the end of the day?
It has been over a year since the shocking press conference that saw Donald Trump announce the withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Agreement. Sure enough, the decision caused a global uproar, but the message was clear – America first and economic growth first. On the other side of the world, there was a country with a wildly different philosophy.
Bhutan is a tiny, landlocked country tucked away in the Himalaya mountains, with a population marginally greater than that of Washington DC, the venue of the aforementioned press conference. Economically, Bhutan is one of the lesser developed countries with a nominal GDP of just over $2 billion. On the basis of data from traditional methods measuring a country’s success, one would assume Bhutanese people have to face a lot of hardships due to their low national income. The actual situation, however, is unlike anything one might expect from a cursory reading on the internet.
Bhutanese people lead extremely peaceful lives, which has been made possible due to a simple concept known as the Gross National Happiness. This is an initiative by the Bhutanese government which tries to ensure the collective happiness of a population before everything else. In fact, in 1972 when Bhutan was a monarchy, their then King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, famously remarked, “Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product.” This ideology is beautifully aligned with a concept that has been gaining a lot of traction in recent years – sustainable development.
The World Commission on Environment and Development defined sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Basically, it encourages development that is not at the expense of rapid and harmful depletion of natural resources and deterioration of the environment. Of the 17 SDGs set by the UN, the Bhutanese government prioritises three particular SDGs among others: SDG 1 (no poverty), 13 (climate action) and 15 (life on land). The aim is to combine these goals with the country’s 11th and 12th five-year plans, which will continue till 2023. So basically, economic growth is encouraged, but not at the expense of the environment. They seem to be onto something though – if the planet itself is unfit for human habitation, it renders any and all economic progress irrelevant.
All these plans are executed with an array of policies and measures. In accordance with SDG 15, Bhutan understands the importance of the environment, which is evident in their commitment to fight high carbon emissions. Environmental protection is so deeply entrenched in the country’s fabric and culture, that even Bhutan’s constitution makes it mandatory for the country to maintain 60% of its land as forest cover. Many studies have shown that the areas around trees generally record significantly lower levels of air pollution. Ecosystems are proven to be able to act as pollution absorbents thus actively reducing global warming levels.
But climate change is not a problem one single country can take care of. Carbon emissions continue to rise and forests keep making way for rapid urbanisation in other parts of the world. Yet, Bhutan is quietly fighting battles to resist its materialistic urges in exchange for a chance for future generations to enjoy life on Earth.
There is still a long way to go, as poverty still looms large as one of the most important issues for Bhutan to tackle. Still, it continues to show the world that industrial growth that is harmful to the environment is not the only way to develop an economy. The supposed leaders of the free world shun the proved reality of global warming and continue to avoid looking at the big picture. Bhutan has been a torchbearer for sustainable practices and it will continue to be so in the future. If most other countries were to follow their example, the life expectancy of our planet would improve remarkably.