As the environmentalist eyes of the world watch the Copenhagen climate conference, waiting for our leaders to fail us again, something truly hopeful emerges from the foot of the Himalayas, in a country with fewer people than Nova Scotia.
Bhutan, which is surrounded by India and China, has been a little-known environmental leader for decades. Leaving the north-south rich-poor blame game to its neighbours and North America, Bhutan has adopted the measurable philosophy of gross national happiness. Its decisions are guided by the principle of maximizing society's well-being; more specifically, creating sustainable development, cultural preservation, conservation and good governance.
GNH offers a viable alternative to the paper economics of gross national product, but it's more than just another measure of progress. "Bhutan has fully protected 26 percent of its land, and prevents old growth logging and export of raw lumber," notes Linda Pannozzo of Genuine Progress Index Atlantic, a think tank dedicated to measuring sustainable development in Nova Scotia.
Pannozzo is one of 10 Nova Scotian observers in Bhutan this week for its workshop on creating a national educational curriculum in line with GNH. GPI Atlantic hand-picked the workshop's 25 international (non-Bhutanese) participants based on "extensive research in holistic and contemplative education and critical thinking, with a focus on indigenous knowledge and cultural literacy."
The list is the global all-star team of people giving humanity a chance for survival. It includes Bunker Roy, whose Barefoot College graduates have brought renewable energy and clean drinking water to 100,000 people in 110 villages in five countries; Greg Cajete, whose work brought indigenous knowledge to the academic mainstream; Satish Kumar, editor of the UK's influential Resurgence magazine and founder of two schools on ecology and spirituality; Vandana Shiva, a pioneering advocate of eco-feminism, agricultural biodiversity and the anti-globalization movement as well as numerous other jaw-dropping heroes of the disenfranchised.
These world-renowned thinkers and educators will sit down and talk schooling with 25 of Bhutan's leading educators, politicians and administrators. "The real vision and hope for the future is our children," says Pannozzo. "We need to care deeply about how they are being educated."
In a GNH system, education thinks of children as more than just economic engines in training. Their ability to lead us to a better future is tied to their understanding of the natural world. As Pannozzo puts it, "Development of eco-consciousness in education is prerequisite for sustainable behaviour."
Mainstream education has been criticized by academic luminaries like David Orr for inaccurately portraying humans and our technology as rulers of nature. Bhutanese children will know better. They will learn that we are but one species in an immensely complex web of life. Some of their teachers take students into old-growth forests to learn about medicinal plants, an experience that fosters respect for the plants and passes down ancient knowledge about health.
"Bhutan has never been conquered or colonized," Pannozzo says. "So indigenous knowledge and culture have not been squashed."
Bhutanese culture is, however, threatened by globalization, the infiltration of mass-produced Western candy, clothing and ideas. The ideas, which place abstractions like money above human and natural resources, are the biggest threat. Ideologies we learn in school---left-wing, right-wing or otherwise---pay little heed to lived experience. Economics itself is based on outlandish assumptions about behaviour.
All this matters because without the grounding of lived experience, which is essential in indigenous knowledge, we tend to forget that we are completely dependent on the natural world, that money can't be eaten. "Indigenous knowledge tends to be concerned with sustainability, with linking the wisdom and welfare of past, present and future generations," Pannozzo says.
And that's why Bhutan compensates for the hope Copenhagen lacks. The so-called leaders in Copenhagen are negotiating with their minds on their money: How will these commitments affect GDP, they wonder?
The real leaders in Bhutan are trying to reverse that culture of artificial numbers, and focus on what really matters. But will GNH catch on? "It has more political buy-in at high levels and therefore a better chance of success here in Bhutan, a small place with stronger community values, than in heavily industrialized countries," Pannozzo says.
What a pity that our blindness to the small things keeps us from seeing Bhutan as a world leader.
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