Prayer flags blow in the wind overlooking Taktsang Monastery, above the Paro valley in Bhutan. Dyed in five colours representing the elements, the prayers inscribed on such flags are thought to spread goodwill and compassion to all.
Stephen Ripley / STEPHEN RIPLEY/Winnipeg Sun
The tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan can teach Canadian politicians a few lessons on economic and environmental policy.In Canada, we’ve all become used to the familiar political battle lines as competing economic and environmental perspectives collide. Most recently, Ontario’s top court ruled that the federal government’s carbon pricing law is constitutional. The Ontario government immediately signalled its intention to appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court of Canada.Saskatchewan’s Court of Appeal came to a similar judgement in May. The Saskatchewan government immediately announced its intention to appeal to the Supreme Court.And on it goes. British Columbia and Alberta squabble over a pipeline. Justin Trudeau questions the Conservatives’ belief in climate change. Jason Kenney accuses environmental charities of being dangerous foreign interlopers. Doug Ford demands stickers on gas pumps blaming the federal government for price increases. Meanwhile, this spring saw devastating floods in New Brunswick and parts of Quebec and Ontario.This clash would be largely out of place in Bhutan, a small country tucked between India and China. On the one hand, partisan politics and competing political priorities are just as evident in Bhutan as they are here. Indeed, political differences can be as deep and petty as anywhere else. On the other hand, Bhutan has a means to navigate colliding political priorities.On the surface, Gross National Happiness sounds quirky and utopian. But as Bhutan’s national development strategy, it is also very practical.Bhutan’s fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, famously proclaimed that gross national happiness is more important than gross national product. Gross National Happiness, or GNH, is the country’s national development strategy. It is a strategy that recognizes the inherent interconnections across economic, environmental, cultural and governance issues. Economic growth is important, but not for its own sake. So, too, is environmental conservation but, again, not for its own sake. Each should reinforce the other while also strengthening Bhutanese culture and governance. When all of these are balanced and in harmony, the conditions for people’s true happiness are in place.On the surface, GNH sounds quirky and utopian. But as Bhutan’s national development strategy, it is also very practical. The country has developed a unique policy formulation protocol that includes a GNH policy screening tool.Every draft policy must be fed through the GNH screening tool. The tool systematically determines the policy’s positive or negative impacts on each of the multiple economic, ecological, socio-cultural and governance dimensions of GNH. A numeric scaling system for each GNH dimension – the higher the number, the more positive the impact – includes an overall quantitative threshold that must be reached. Failure to reach the threshold means the policy must go back to the drawing board.What does this mean in practice? In particular, what might it look like in Canada if applied to, for example, policy decisions around oil pipelines?The GNH screening tool would assess a pipeline-related policy for both its potential economic and ecological impacts. Both would require a positive impact.But it would also go much further. The GNH screening tool would assess such questions as: How will the proposed policy affect local culture and language? What will be the impact on levels of stress in the population? Will it affect the ability of people to spend time with their families? How might it impact people’s spiritual pursuits? Will it create openings for government corruption?If the proposed pipeline-related policy did not contribute positively, or at least neutrally, to each of these dimensions, it would need to be reformulated until it did.Bhutan’s GNH screening tool is no policy cure-all. But it represents a serious attempt to navigate competing political agendas to arrive at a meaningful policy balance that seeks the greater good.If we want to avoid future descents into disputes over gas pump stickers, Canadian politicians would do well to try something similar.Kent Schroeder is Executive Director of the Bhutan Canada Foundation and author of Politics of Gross National Happiness: Governance and Development in Bhutan. firstname.lastname@example.orgALSO IN OPINION:Editorial: Canada’s government shouldn’t lean on China criticsKurl: Digesting poll results means chewing over the data carefullyCoyne: Evidence grows that Harper gang had nothing on these Liberals