Have you ever wondered which is the happiest country in the world? Many could fit the bill, but only one seeks to make its people truly happy, adopting a holistic approach to development that entails free education, healthcare and electricity, and aims to preserve nature: Bhutan.
Small and virtuous
This tiny state, wedged between two giants (China and India), extends on the eastern edge of the Himalayas and, with a population of about 754,000 people and a territory of 38,394 square kilometres, aims to be an example of good governance in accordance with the UN sustainability goals. As Tshering Tobgay said during a 2016 TED Talk, “My country is unique, not only because men and women dress in similar clothes, but because it’s a zero-emission nation where economic growth, social development and environmental sustainability go hand in hand.” It can certainly be said that today Bhutan has one of the most stable ecosystems in the world and has never suffered from environmental damage –also owing to its long seclusion. Its forests occupy about 75% of the territory and its constitution states that 60% of the total area should remain so.
Proud and protective of its traditions, this small nation opened its doors to tourism only in the 1970s and the only Western concept it has adopted is the Gross National Happiness Index, whose premise is that the true progress of human society occurs when material development and spiritual growth evolve together, complementing and strengthening each other. This translates into good governance, a sustainable socio-economic development and the ability to preserve culture and the environment.
Economists all over the world have always maintained that material goods are the key to happiness, whereas in Bhutan material wealth does not necessarily lead to individual gratification –something that king Jigme Singye Wangchuck had already pointed out in 1972, when, in an interview to the Financial Times, he stated, “Happiness is more important than GDP.” This is a doctrine also embraced by the UN, that acknowledges that gross domestic product does not adequately represent people’s happiness and well-being, and that “the pursuit of happiness is a fundamental human goal.” For the citizens of Bhutan, this means trying to meet the criteria leading to a good life, lived in harmony with nature and all its creatures.
Predict climate change
In more concrete terms, the government aims for the kind of development that won’t leave anyone behind and is particularly focused on environmental protection. Indeed, climate change is upsetting Bhutan’s fragile ecosystem: the glaciers are melting, leading to flash floods, and the rainy seasons have become more erratic, which means scarcity of water during the dry seasons. To help reduce greenhouse gases globally, the country is intensifying its –already quite strict– environmental laws, fearing that the Hindu Kush Himalayan region, containing the largest amount of ice in the world after the North and South Poles, could suffer irremediable damage. Indeed, if the current melting rates increase, two third of the glaciers could unfortunately disappear within the end of this century. This is why Tshering Tobgay, today a politician and active environmentalist, shared in his Ted Talk his fears for the consequences climate change could cause and launched an urgent appeal for the creation of an intergovernmental agency to prevent the glaciers –also known as Asia’s water towers– from melting, which would cause catastrophic repercussions to nearly two billion people on earth.
The people of Bhutan and its government bodies were the first to understand the importance of intervening with actions aimed at reversing the course of climate change. Among these actions we find the Biological Conservation Complex initiative, supported by WWF Bhutan and launched by the Division for Nature Conservation, Department of Forestry Services, Ministry of Agriculture. A programme that deals with landscape conservation, in order to preserve the country’s ecosystem and species. In Bhutan, hydroelectricity is the main source of energy, as well as the primary driver to expand electricity access. However, the mountainous terrain makes it difficult to extend the network to remote rural areas, inhabited by about 4,000 families. As a result, the government started promoting off-grid renewable energy projects, a major development effort included in the nation’s five-year plans, providing approximately 2,000 rural households with solar-powered homes and repairing 1,000 more.
A few other interesting facts: Bhutan produces and exports renewable electricity from its fast flowing rivers, its cities have no traffic lights, the purchase of electric cars is promoted, and using public transport is recommended. The country aims to reach carbon neutrality and, thanks to its extensive protected forests, absorb more carbon from the air than it releases. Moreover, Bhutan seems to have found the perfect balance to thrive, and although in recent years the internet, cable television, mobile phones and many other modern technologies have become widespread, the desire to preserve its cultural values and protect the environment remains prevalent. The nation’s goal is to adapt to globalization in order to strengthen its economy, while safeguarding its centuries-old traditions.
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