Hunter Lovins lectures on Gross National Happiness at Bard

(Photo by Derek Bridges)

Among the contemporary nations of the Earth, my hero is the little Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan. In 1972, the Bhutanese ruler proposed to the world the concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH) as an alternative to Gross National Product (GNP) as a way of measuring a nation’s success.

It took a while for the rest of the world to start to give that notion serious consideration; but the current sustainability-related crises of climate change, peak oil and widespread economic collapse have forced us all to start treating “happiness” – for want of a better word – as a quantifiable value that is crucial to planetary survival. “GNH guidelines are now being used in Costa Rica and Chile…and are being adopted in Brazil, India, Haiti and France,” writes one of the world’s premier sustainability experts, Dr. L. Hunter Lovins, on her Natural Capitalism Solutions website, https://natcapsolutions.org.

GNH, Lovins explains, “codifies the practice of Buddhist economics profiled in E. F. Schumacher’s landmark book Small is Beautiful…Faced with an economy that was stagnating as Western development experts exploited it, the King of Bhutan decided to focus instead on providing sustainable economic development, preserving and promoting cultural values, conserving the environment and practicing good governance.”

The GNP, argued Robert F. Kennedy as early as 1968, “measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country. It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.” A longtime go-to energy and resource policy wonk trained as a lawyer, who has specialized in recent decades on building an airtight case that sustainable practices are actually good for business, Lovins puts it this way:

“GNP is actually a very strange measure of anything. It only counts the velocity of the flow of money and stuff through the economy as they change hands in economic transactions. The more money that gets spent, conventional wisdom says, the better off we are. But are we? If you volunteer at a home for the elderly, you’ve done nothing to increase the GNP. A divorcing cancer patient who gets in a car wreck adds handsomely to the GNP as money goes for insurance, repairs and medical bills. But is she any better off? Clearly not.”

So maybe the Bhutanese weren’t the first to cotton onto this cheerfully revolutionary concept, but they are proving themselves the most committed and proactive in boosting the GNH parameter. In 2012 Bhutan’s prime minister, Jigmi Thinley, convened a High-Level Meeting of more than 600 leaders from civil society, business, governments, academic institutions and global experts at the United Nations on the subject of “Happiness and Well-Being: Defining a New Economic Paradigm.” Lovins was invited to participate, and ended up being named chair of the Civil Society Working Group that followed up on the UN meeting’s work.

She has since resigned that chairmanship to focus on her academic commitment to the Bainbridge Graduate Institute and her green business consultancy work, but she remains a member of the Working Group. Led by Bhutan, its agenda “seeks to reframe the UN’s Millennium Development goals around the achievement of GNH” and includes the creation of “a global secretariat for Gross National Happiness, and to convene in 2014 a ‘Bhutan Woods’ conference to reframe the now clearly failing economic institutions created by the world powers at Bretton Woods after World War II,” Lovins reports.

She has also taken on a new academic appointment in a much closer neck of the woods: teaching in Bard College’s MBA in Sustainability program. To welcome returning students back to campus, Lovins will give a talk titled “Can Gross National Happiness Guide the Global Economy?” on Friday, August 23 at 7 p.m. in Room 115 of the Olin Language Center.

Her progress report on the UN’s new roadmap for global economic sustainability is free and open to the general public, but early arrival would be wise to ensure a seat at what is likely to be a well-attended event. After all, it’s not too often that a Time Magazine 2000 Hero of the Planet turns up to speak in the mid-Hudson Valley. And it’s not every day that one gets to find out from the horse’s mouth about the latest doings of a high-level international group whose mission is to “create a global movement to make Gross National Happiness the world’s economic paradigm.” It’s the sort of knowledge that might make you feel just a little happier – and enrich your life thereby.

“Can Gross National Happiness Guide the Global Economy?” lecture with Hunter Lovins, Friday, August 23, 7 p.m., free, Room 115, Olin Language Center, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson; (845) 758-7388, www.bard.edu/gradsustainability/events.

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