Looking at images of Beijing and other smog-choked Chinese cities, you want to hold your breath. The smog is created not only by the growing vehicle population there, but by the increasing number of coal plants.
This smog actually represents China, home to one-fifth of the world’s population, and its unrelenting march toward “progress,” which means using gross national product as the prime rubric in China’s effort to compete and prosper along with long standing industrialized nations. And if progress requires the hasty construction of coal plants lacking the more rigorous environmental regulations of plants found in Western countries, then so be it.
This growth-above-all ethic leads to a decline not only in environmental conditions, but also to an erosion of cultural stability. Sites of cultural importance are often given little consideration by developers seeking to build quickly, so these sites are razed and forgotten. Also, the Chinese mainstream is increasingly assimilating the Western emphasis on consumerism and consumption.
In contrast, neighboring Bhutan is experimenting with something potentially more profound and healthy.
The Kingdom of Bhutan is a country of approximately 800,000. Nearly 70% of its residents have no electricity and about a quarter of its citizens live on less than a $1.25 per day. But unlike China, Bhutan hasn’t idolized GDP as a rubric for development. Instead, it has adopted the idea of gross national happiness (GNH).
Before you say, “National happiness? Gross,” hear me out. Bhutan recognizes that Man is not just an economic creature, but a social, physical, emotional, and spiritual creature. Bhutan avoids worshiping the Market as if it were an idol replacing God, an ideal to which we are asked to sacrifice the well-being of the environment or the prosperity of future generations. Since adopting GNH, Bhutan’s life expectancy has marched steadily upward.
GNH is a framework through which immediate business concerns, like profit and loss, are considered along with other concerns, such as the stewardship of the environment, the Bhutanese culture and heritage, and general health.
Under the GDP regime, a business’ or nation’s bottom line is the only consideration, and left unchecked, can lead to cycles of boom and bust which further accelerates the income inequality gap. GNH, by contrast, offers a system by which factors other than profit must be considered. Consequently, the perilous lows otherwise suffered by a people can largely be avoided. Or so the theory goes.
Hopefully, the Bhutanese will be able to demonstrate the power of GNP as a useful index for a nation’s economic policy decisions. Then perhaps we’ll have a useful model to temper some of the abuses and inequities that arise when profit is valued more than people.