Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Gross National Happiness and Environmental Status in Bhutan

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Gross National Happiness and Environmental Status in Bhutan

Article excerpt

  There are in the heart of the vast Himalayas some strange marketplaces
  where one can barter the whirlwind of life for infinite wisdom.
  --Buddhist master Milarepa, 11th century

The philosophical underpinning of life in Bhutan is upheld by Buddhist precepts that emphasize the pursuit of emotional and spiritual fulfillment, prosperity to meet essential material requirements, and a respect for the natural order. These concerns are made explicit in the kingdom's approach to development, which focuses on enriching people's lives by meeting basic needs, enlarging economic and social choices, preserving cultural traditions, and promoting environmental conservation. The basic tenets of the strategy were first articulated in the late 1980s by His Majesty King Jigme Singye Wangchuck as the concept of "gross national happiness" (GNH). The practical outline was developed in the Bhutan National Human Development Report 2000:

  Ultimately, a happy society is a caring society, caring for the past
  and future, caring for the environment, and caring for those who need
  protection. Establishing such a society will require a long-term
  rather than a short-term perspective of development. Much will depend
  upon how well the country's environmental resources are harnessed and
  managed. Happiness in the future also will depend upon mitigating the
  foreseeable conflict between traditional cultural values and the
  modern lifestyles that inevitably follow in the wake of development.
  (RGB 2000, 22)

The pursuit of happiness as a development policy is, of course, fraught with complexity. It suffers from a universal ideal and contends with the rhetoric of paradise. Problems exist in how progress and success might be assessed; happiness, after all, is a hard thing to measure. And in the case of Bhutan, serious contradictions exist between the explicit goal of equality and the rigid, hierarchical nature of Bhutanese society. Moreover, ethnic conflicts, including the expulsion in the early 1990s of 95,000 Lhotshampa (generally characterized as Bhutanese of Nepali ancestry living in southern Bhutan), suggest deep societal divisions in Bhutan that may preclude the universal application of GNH policies (Hutt 2003). Bhutan's commitment to alternative development is appealing, but its darker side must be acknowledged lest we fall victim to a gross simplification of life in an idyllic kingdom. Not everyone in Bhutan is happy.

This essay examines the status of the natural environment in Bhutan in light of the policies stemming from the kingdom's practical and moral pursuit of happiness. It seeks to understand how the holistic concern for achieving human contentment, made explicit in Bhutan's development approach, reflects on the conditions of the landscape and natural environment. (1) The societal dilemmas of the GNH concept--for example, the hierarchical social structure and ethnic relations--are considered insofar as they impinge on the transferability of Bhutan's development model and its efficacy for environmental management. At issue here is how the pursuit of happiness, embodied in Bhutan's development approach, registers in the lay of the land and whether it has relevance outside the political boundaries of the kingdom.


In the language of Bhutan--Dzongkha, derived from the Tibetan--the country is known as "Druk yul," the "Land of the Thunder Dragon." This appellation stems from the Buddhist school, the Drukpa--founded at the monastery of Druk in western Bhutan--which reigned supreme in the region beginning in the fifteenth century and unified the inhabitants within the current territory of the kingdom. The origin of the modern name "Bhutan" is debatable but most likely is an Anglo-Indian misnomer derived from the Indian term Bhotanta, referring to the territories bordering Tibet (Aris 2005). Bhutan has existed as an independent state, albeit in fragmented form, since the mid-1600s, when a high-ranking Buddhist lama from Tibet established theocratic rule over the region and loosely governed it through a coalition of territorial representatives or district governors known as "Penlops. …

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