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Shades of Green: Gross National Happiness

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Posted October 15, 2011 by Ray Grigg in Economics
Bhutanese girls, enjoying their country's high level of Gross National Happiness (photo: Beth Whitman)

The industrialized world is in a funk these days. If it is the worrisome realization that this economic system is beginning to show some serious flaws, then maybe the time has come to give some serious consideration to the Bhutanese notion of Gross National Happiness. Even the Bhutanese must have some bad days, but nothing compared to the protracted period of down experience by the industrialized world.

America, the world’s cultural and economic pacesetter is sinking under the weight of debt and the illusion of entitlement. US pessimism is soaring and most think their country is “on the wrong track”, a sign that they are ready for insight and change. Indeed, their attitude is also shared by the Europeans and Japanese. Even the ascendent Chinese, despite their booming economy, are getting nervous about the threatening chaos around them. The world’s predominant financial structures are in a dangerous and precarious condition. The quest for endless wealth has combined with rampant greed to produce an unprecedented monetary mess – all corrective strategies have been unsuccessful and the overwhelming weight of accumulated national debt seems to be promising a future of economic gloom.

Global weather is getting more extreme, destructive and disruptive. A plethora of environmental problems continue to proliferate in both number and complexity. A soaring global population is creating resource stresses while falling populations in developed countries are causing another set of challenging demographic problems. Refugees are on the move, terrorism has created an atmosphere of tense alertness, and a spreading philosophy of materialism seems to be creating a pervasive mood of insatiable hunger. A transition from Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to Gross National Happiness (GNH) may not solve all these problems but it offers a helpful beginning.

The Bhutanese realized the shortcomings of GDP when they transitioned from a kingdom to a democracy some 40 years ago. In a recent gathering in Bhutan’s capital, Thimphu, dozens of their experts met to review their country’s progress toward GNH. Their conclusions should be instructive to the rest of the planet wrestling with escalating unhappiness.

First, they recognized that economic progress is not inherently bad. If it elevates the poor by providing clean water, food, health care, education and employment, then it serves to advance happiness (Jeffrey Sachs, Globe & Mail, Aug. 30/11).

Second, raising GDP is not synonymous with raising happiness, particularly if escalating the amount of money increases the distance between the rich and poor, creates social classes, robs people of equal power and influence, and causes environmental degradation.

Third, “happiness is achieved through a balanced approach to life by both individuals and societies,” writes Jeffrey Sachs about the Bhutanese. “As individuals, we are unhappy if we are denied our basic material needs, but we are also unhappy if the pursuit of higher income replaces our focus on family, friends, community, compassion and maintaining inner balance. As a society, it is one thing to organize economic policies to keep living standards on the rise, but quite another to subordinate all of society’s values to the pursuit of profit.”

Fourth, “global capitalism presents many direct threats to happiness.” Not only does it destroy the natural environment, causing widespread pollution and disrupting climate, but it directly and indirectly suppresses the evidence of this destruction to advance its own profitable purposes. Its monolithic presence in industry, its impersonal factory farming, its expansion into media, and its powerful advertising all contribute to a consumer society on the treadmill of materialism and dissatisfaction. The machinery of its marketing creates addicts who are compelled to purchase the products that capitalism sells: fast food, commercial entertainment, professional sports, novelty fashions, alcohol, tobacco and gambling. The result is a society stuffed and starved to death, simultaneously unhealthy, obese, socially dysfunctional and unhappy. “The mad pursuit of corporate profits,” Sachs suggests, “is threatening us all.”

And fifth, the Bhutanese advise vigilance, the importance of identifying the ideologies and practices that threaten happiness, that reduce the well-being of both individuals and society. Humans and the incredible natural world in which we live are more important than any system, particularly if that diminishes the quality of life, together with our appreciation and respect of the living communities that contains and sustain us. Economies should serve happiness, not vice versa.

The Bhutanese have discerned that we must not get lost on our journey through life. They acknowledge that we need a basic affluence to survive and thrive. But, if an unfeeling and unnatural ideology compels, oppresses and stresses us while starving us of intimacy and meaning, then we cannot be human and happy. As we lose our sense of proportion and sanity, then we begin to lose our capacity to be caring and sociable, to be judicious and wise. Compassion, honesty, trust and peace are the hallmarks of a healthy society, and an inner sense of balance is prerequisite for the outer balance we call a harmonious society and a sustainable environment. Anything that leads us away from these essential qualities is an empty and dangerous ideology.

Riches take many forms. But the most valuable – and the best measure of a life well lived – is the profound contentment that comes from engaging respectfully and happily with our natural world and with each other.


About the Author

Ray Grigg

Ray Grigg is in his ninth year as a weekly environmental columnist for the Campbell River Courier-Islander on BC's Vancouver Island. Before this column, titled Shades of Green - now appearing on commonsensecanadian.ca as well - Ray wrote a bi-weekly environmental column for five years. He is the author of seven internationally published books on Oriental philosophy, specifically Zen and Taoism. His academic background is in English literature, psychology, cultural history, and philosophy. He has travelled to some 45 countries around the globe.

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