By Danilo Zak
The tiny Buddhist state of Bhutan does not often appear in the list of trending stories to the right our Facebook newsfeeds. Its policies are not studied in most United States government and political science courses. Its news is overshadowed by the happenings of influential regional powers, like India and China. Bhutan simply gets no press. And yet, the rest of the world has much to learn from the goings-on of this beautiful country in the East Himalayas.
Any state government that puts more weight into “Gross National Happiness” than GDP – a policy introduced in the 1970s by Dragon King Jigme Singye Wangchuck – deserves our attention. But what is truly noteworthy about Bhutan’s past and present is its unprecedented commitment to protect and preserve the environment. For almost fifty years, leaders in Bhutan have shown remarkable prescience regarding climate issues, carefully refusing to put industry above ecosystems. These actions run counter to the prevailing trend. European countries only began sustainability reforms after focusing on and achieving industrial growth. China is only just now focusing on their severe problems with pollution, after thirty years of prioritizing massive economic growth at the expense of their environment. Bhutan, an outlier, did not wait to achieve affluence before it began to care about these issues.
Bhutan now sits as one of the most biologically diverse places on Earth, and one of a very few countries to absorb far more carbon dioxide than it emits. But how exactly did Bhutan get to where it is today? And how do the lessons of Bhutan help us in the fight against climate change on an international level?
The story begins with the aforementioned “Dragon King.” Jigme Singye Wangchuck was the state’s fourth monarch, and from his coronation in 1972 to his abdication in 2006, he was responsible for leading the country through a wide range of environmentally conscious reforms. 1974 saw the creation of a state protected national park and two wildlife sanctuaries. In 1985, the King led an initiative to emphasize Environmental Studies in schools. In 1992, while many other countries were just beginning to conceptualize the changing environment as a pressing issue, Bhutan established the world’s first environmental trust fund, setting aside 20 million USD in the name of long-term conservation efforts. In 2003, the King helped pass a comprehensive act to maintain biodiversity, and it was no surprise that the U.N. Environmental Programme (UNEP) declared Bhutan a “Champion of the Earth” in 2005, the award’s inaugural year.
It has a timeline of remarkable achievement in the field of environmental science, but even this fails to account for all the work the state has done to conserve. Bhutan was consistent in its commitment to reduce the adverse effects of industrialization and globalization on the environment. Several decrees over the last four decades criminalized and dis-incentivized logging. Hydroelectric and renewable energy were developed early, using noninvasive technology to utilize the natural flow of Bhutan’s rivers to power homes. Tourism was, and is, allowed but restricted in order to preserve the forests and protect endangered animals. The nation has shown an understanding that long-term protection of its biologically diverse ecosystems is more important than a brief influx of cash from intrusive tourists.
It is this element of clairvoyance that is most impressive when looking back at Bhutan’s inspiring environmental history. With the help and foresight of the Fourth Dragon King, Bhutan has successfully managed to ease and counteract the accepted tension between industrialization and conservation, between globalization and protection. Emulating the specifics of Bhutan’s policies may be difficult, but we can all look to the state’s prudence and foresight as a shining example of how to approach these matters. We can all try to follow Bhutan in its reconceptualization of climate conservation as a marriage between long-term economic success and environmental protection. Further, I hope these are lessons the states participating in COP21 will take to heart throughout the conference, which commences today (See: http://tinyurl.com/qjppegs ). Bhutan almost never gets any news coverage, but today, its policies must be worthy of our attention. Today, Bhutan must be newsworthy.
Danilo Zak ’18 is a sophomore in Silliman College. Danilo can be reached at email@example.com