In early June, I had the awe-inspiring experience of visiting Bhutan, a small rural Vajrayana Buddhist country located in the Himalaya between Tibet, Nepal and India. Bhutan is the only country in the world that uses Gross National Happiness (GNH) instead of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to measure its progress. Perhaps it’s my idealized preconceptions, but the difference was palpable to me. The moment I stepped off the plane, I could breathe the peacefulness that emanates from the country. As I trekked across the western, more developed side of the country, snapping photos of dzongs (fortresses), fertility temples, prayer flags and lush rhododendrons, I couldn’t help but notice the many similarities between Bhutan’s governance approach and SBC’s triple-bottom-line approach. I also noticed many characteristics of rural mountain communities present in both Bhutan and the Sierra Nevada – and also many differences.
One of the first things I noticed was the large ratio of tourists to Bhutanese. The country boasts a modest population of only 790,000, and annually sees around 200,000 Indian tourists and 70,000 foreign tourists. This may not seem like a lot compared to the millions of people that flock to Lake Tahoe year round, but I noticed plenty of similarities in the tourism issues that Bhutan was facing. While we were there, Bhutan was convening a South Asia sustainable tourism conference.
The need for environmental stewardship education and resource maintenance coinciding with a lack of capacity and infrastructure to handle the flocks of tourists on windy mountain roads, are familiar headaches to people in both Sierra Nevada recreation towns and Bhutan. Both regions struggle to balance the needs of their local communities and workforce with the ever increasing demands of people coming to gawk at the natural splendor of craggy cliffs and endless forests. Both regions lack funding to upgrade infrastructure and technology, and rely on funding from larger urbanized neighbors – India and urban California – to subsidize things like roads, energy generation, and broadband internet. Like the Sierra, Bhutan exports a substantial amount of hydroelectricity and relies on timber for much of rural heating needs, and like many Sierra towns, Bhutan lacks both housing for its growing population and a local construction workforce.
There is also a noticeable tension in both regions between the spiritual nature of pilgrimage to sacred places like Tiger’s Nest Monastery and Yosemite, and the impact of those pilgrimages on the sanctity and integrity of those places.
Tiger’s Nest, the holiest Buddhist monastery in all of Bhutan, is said to be located in the exact meditation spot above the City of Paro where Buddha’s reincarnation, Guru Rinpoche, supposedly flew on the back of a tiger, subdued a fearsome demon and freed the people in the village nearby. Creation stories involving sacred animals and mythical feats like these remind me of the Ahwahnee story about a small measuring worm saving two little boys from the sudden growth of a rock that became El Capitan/Tutokanula, and the Washoe/Wa-she-shu story about a coyote bringing people to Lake Tahoe/Da.aw to the region for the first time. Endless lines of people have trekked to these locations for centuries to take refuge in the awe-inspiring shade of majestic mountains, towering trees, birdsong, and rushing rivers; both regions inspire a sense of something precious and powerful that is worth protecting – something infinite and primal and ever changing belonging to the nature of life.
This deep sense of spirituality underlies the four pillars of Bhutan’s GNH approach: Sustainable Socio-economic Development, Preservation and Promotion of Culture, Environmental Conservation, and Good Governance. Despite obvious differences, there is a clear alignment between the Bhutanese governance approach and SBC’s triple-bottom-line mission. And just as we are constantly working to figure out exactly what that means on the ground, Bhutan shares the same struggles of modernization, cultural changes, and other issues in implementing GNH that challenge the country’s glowing international reputation as a fundamentally happy country.
One of the ways that the Bhutanese government works towards ensuring GNH for all of its people is an unusual and sacred alliance between government (democratic monarchy) and spirituality (a buddhist monastic order headed by the Je Khenpo, the Bhutanese equivalent to the Tibetan Dalai Lama) that place emphasis on the region’s unique environment. The Bhutanese King and the royal family appear deeply beloved and trusted by the people. Government signs urging people not to litter often include spiritual epithets. And government-sanctioned holidays often encourage citizens to take the day off to plant trees and pick up garbage. In fact, Bhutan has a constitutional element that requires 60% tree coverage; the country actually exceeds this at 72% coverage.
Like the Sierra, however, warming temperatures are taking their toll on Bhutan. Our tour guides informed us in subdued tones that Bhutan has struggled in recent years with growing outbreaks of wildfires, some of which were caused by power lines (sound familiar?). And Bhutan’s glaciers and snowpack are receding at unprecedented rates, occasionally causing such extreme downstream flooding that sacred historic buildings have been swept away – like the recently restored dzong in Punakha, which is said to be Bhutan’s most beautiful fortress. Hearing this gave me chills – my heart aches to think of all the beautiful temples and villages along western Bhutan’s sacred Pho Chu (male) and Mo Chu (female) rivers that could be swept away by melting waters.
But it also gave me further conviction that my work here at SBC really, really matters. As California and Bhutan each pioneer (and struggle with) their respective landmark policies and governance approaches, we can only continue our work of compassion in the hopes that someday other global leaders will take note of the need for balance among community, economy and environment.