May 7, 2012 | By Ryan Marsh
Who better to give a keynote address at a conference focused on sustainability, security and happiness on a finite planet than a leader from Bhutan? With its alternative economic measure of "gross national happiness," the small Himalayan kingdom has been showing the world how to grow sustainably and how to monitor success based on happiness rather than finances.
The Doris Duke Fellows had the honor of speaking with Lyonpo Yeshe Zimba, Minister of Works and Human Settlement and former Prime Minister of Bhutan, following his address at the sixth annual Nelson Institute Earth Day conference April 16.
Speaking in a metered tone, with a diplomatic presence, his statements were straightforward and clear. The things he said made so much sense that it was easy to miss how the development he is enacting is so profoundly different from the path most of the world’s nations are on.
When speaking with such an esteemed leader, it’s only natural to ask about leadership. Having visited Sen. Gaylord Nelson’s beautiful hardwood desk in Science Hall prior to the interview, Zimba said visionary leaders, with a “serious sense of commitment” like Nelson, are what the world needs.
He extrapolated this idea of leadership further, to nations and the world. Activism is necessary in a democracy. Still, he says, the government must lead the way because we have to bring the whole nation together on these issues.
“Government should lead but if the people are not happy, if people are not satisfied in a democracy, I think it’s not a bad idea for activists also to make their views felt because that is the feeling of the people or some segment of the people,” he said. “I think that is very important.”
He goes further to tell us that the United States must lead on environmental issues – we are the leader that the world is looking to. We cannot succumb to short-term financial and political strivings. Not only rich countries like the United States, but poor countries as well, have to get beyond short-term thinking.
He uses a boat metaphor: There is a hole in our boat and it doesn’t matter whose part of the boat – the rich countries’, the poor countries’, China’s or the United States’ – the hole is in; we need to plug it or we all go down. Bringing it full circle, he says this is only possible in a democracy if our politicians are visionary and able to see beyond the election cycle.
That’s all well and good, but what kind of vision does the world need now?
Zimba describes the clear vision of sustainable development that he and others in Bhutan are working to manifest. At the bedrock of this vision is the fundamental underpinning that we are not separate from the environment and environment must be primary.
Bhutan is experiencing 9 percent gross domestic product (GDP) growth (yes, they do measure money too) and rapid urban-rural migration such that before the decade is out Zimba thinks the majority of people in Bhutan will live in towns.
He has a simple recipe: protect the forest; protect the water; control the pollution; and build energy-efficient structures. Simple. If you have a smart development plan from the beginning, it’s possible.
Bhutan has maintained 70 percent forest cover and they are committed to developing micro-hydro and other energy resources that don’t require them to construct massive dams or rely on fossil fuels.
“Conservation of the environment is actually top priority,” according to Zimba. “Therefore everything we do, whether it is construction or policy, has to fit in with the environmental criteria we have.”
Environmentalism is still a relevant concept, he says, because of the simple fact that we are all in the environment. Environmentalists want sustainable development that will last, endure and be equitable.
If environmentalists are worried about political marginalization, they should call themselves “concerned citizens” instead. This might require a cultural shift on our part, to really internalize our respect for the environment. It works in Bhutan because of how deeply their environmental concerns are entwined within their religious stories.
Zimba is hopeful. He was encouraged by the large number of attendees from all age groups at the Earth Day conference, and as he travels to speak he is seeing larger and larger groups paying attention.
It is through education and outreach, he says, that awareness of the environment will continue to grow. At the level of the people, we are getting it. Still, it has yet to come out in the governmental policies – that is the work ahead of us.
Bottom line: Carbon emissions are the most pressing issue today, he said, and we as a world need binding regulations or we will sink, rich nations and poor nations, together. But Zimba sees a sea change. And with education and visionary leadership, we will keep this boat afloat.
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