Editor’s note: The following is a letter written by Dasho Kinley Dorji, the Secretary of Information and Communications for Bhutan who gave a special presentation on Gross National Happiness in Invermere on October 29.
A headliner with David Suzuki at this year’s 2012 Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival, it was Dorki’s time in Invermere that left the strongest impression. Here is his letter, which he titled “A Happy Connection.”
“I’m going to Invermere.”
“I don’t know.”
It was late October and well-meaning friends had directed my karma towards this year’s Banff Film and Book Festival in Canada. I was asked to take part in some discussions about Gross National Happiness. While this was a year I had decided to limit overseas travel to the minimum, this event was one I could not miss for a number of reasons. And, after a week in the area, it is the Invermere folder that I choose to save in my memory.
I was both excited and apprehensive about the trip, excited because this was an opportunity to discuss and get input from some insightful minds into Bhutan’s initiative to draft a “new development paradigm” and apprehensive because GNH is work in progress and I worry about the concept being seen by people as a product ready for sale. But GNH is a vision I’m happy about and I’m always ready to talk about it.
I went to Canada with no expectations, as a 54-year old man with a Buddhist perspective intuitively does. I absorbed what I could but did not look for “the other side” that a trained journalist normally does. So I don’t know the impact that decision-makers in and around Invermere will have on this spectacularly beautiful and peaceful valley where Mother Nature appears to be keeping well. But the people I met re-assured me that there is hope and also that there is such a thing as “the best of two worlds.”
We began the visit with a dinner in Windermere in a creatively designed straw bale house which was exactly the colour of my own mud house in Thimphu. A friend brought me a delicious bottle of milk that he had milked from his own goat. Another gave me a bottle of her own honey. Many people I met ate organic vegetables from their own gardens. One grew wheat in his own little field. Everyone seemed to be growing their food and keeping animals. Students taking cooking classes at David Thompson High School prepared the school lunch, which was one of the nicer meals I had in terms of the atmosphere.
The view from my friends’ house in Wilmer offered its own version of happiness, particularly the harmony of life forms that is an essence of GNH. The full glass partitions overlooked a scenic and — by Bhutanese standards — vast expanse of a valley where a rich variety of wildlife bustled day and night. It was busy along the meandering Columbia River on the valley floor as bald-headed eagles, flocks of ducks, geese, and swans, shared the habitat with otters, beavers, and as our own national bird, ravens, circled overhead. The deer, moose, bear, and elk that fill the forests around are not immediate pests that the boar, deer, and monkeys are for Bhutanese farmers.
A packed town hall wanted to know about Gross National Happiness and we were able to discuss Bhutan’s vision, our successes and, equally important, what was yet to be done. There are Bhutanese people, especially the older generation, who live GNH in a natural inter-dependent existence with all sentient beings. There are some of us who are agonizing over the clarity that we need to give GNH thinking and values, including the importance of defining happiness as the deep and permanent sense of contentment that comes from learning to need less rather than want more. This is particularly important at a time when millions of people go to Disneyland to seek the temporary “happiness” of the fleeting senses.
Invermere appreciated the GNH perspective that places responsibility directly on the government to implement a GNH-inspired development process. This meant prioritizing the sustainability of the earth’s finite resources. I gathered that Prime Minister Stephen Harper does not look at governance through a GNH lens.
The expectations of the international community, now with Bhutan spearheading the drafting of a “new development paradigm” to be submitted to the UN next year is both inspiring and worrying. As we also discussed in Invermere, Bhutan successfully proposed a UN resolution on happiness, held a vibrant international conference in April, inspired an International Day of Happiness, and then overwhelmingly lost a vote for the UN Security Council to cash-rich South Korea.
In Invermere and the neighbouring valleys, there is a haunting sense of the past when people did live in close harmony with the natural environment. Sharing a panel in Banff with native Indian leader Leroy Little Bear, I felt we were expressing exactly the same view of life in different words. I also sense that the native Indian community is lacking strong and visionary leadership and, therefore, suffering the social ills that plague aboriginal people everywhere.
Someone asked me, “Do you think that the global powers, and the capitalist world, will take to the concept of GNH?” My spontaneous answer is a resounding “NO.”
I remember last April, when we were preparing for the new development paradigm meeting in New York, I was given some alarming but realistic views: “Forget it. The powerful capitalists will write you off as leftists and socialists and even as communists. They might come and say the right things because they do not want to antagonize the growing number of people interested in happiness but they’ll go back to business as usual.”
But that does not mean we give up. With the “internationalization” of GNH, Bhutan is drawing on the high quality research and profound thinking done around the world on GNH-related concepts like sustainability, climate change, and well-being. And this diaspora is expanding. The discussions in Invermere clearly showed that we are thinking, if not heading, in the right direction.
What I would call Invermere’s “GNH population” also brings out another important question. Humankind is characterized by a short memory and the inability to learn from mistakes. Bhutan, taking advantage of its late start on the road to modernization, has the opportunity to learn from the mistakes that have been made in abundance. But the pressures of modernization are distracting people from living the traditional subsistent life. Globalization and media tell us that we do not have enough; there’s more to be bought out there.
The one question I have no answer to is: “Just as we see it happening in many societies, do we need to lose something before we truly appreciate it?” Will we forget how to milk our own cows even as Canadians are re-learning how to milk their own goats?