Scientist, Author, Educator, Tree Canopy Biologist

Gauging national happiness

We should help our children realize that what they want in life … is happiness. We cannot stop television, we cannot stop their exposure to commercials. … But hopefully we will be able to give them a strong dose of the other kind of temptation — the temptation to be good. — Lyonchoen Jigme Y. Thinley, first prime minister of Bhutan (2011 interview)

Nature's Secrets by CanopyMegWhen it was first introduced in a postwar economy over 70 years ago, GDP (gross domestic product) was intended to measure activities that would prevent another world war — such as employment, income and physical amenities. But, 70 years is a long time, and the global economic landscape looks very different.

Today, escalating global trading has increased the metric of GDP, but also depleted nature resources, polluted air and water, and accelerated social inequities without significantly impacting the outcome of GDP.

It is apparent that this metric is not only outdated but also provides misinformation about the state of global health. An example that indicates how outmoded GDP is as a national indicator is that Hurricane Sandy was reflected as a net contribution to GDP because it boosted the economy through construction and social services. As Robert Kennedy once said, GDP measures everything “except that which makes life worthwhile.”

The United Nations is tackling this tough challenge: how to update our national economic metrics with a more relevant metric. In 2015, it hopes to launch Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) to supersede the prior set of Millennium Development Goals. The SDG aspires to create international standards for global well-being that will incorporate both economic measures and the quality of life, including environmental and social issues.

Within the United States, both Maryland and Vermont have adopted innovative new ways to improve upon GDP; they now have the Genuine Progress Indicators (GPI) that take into account income distribution (not just total income), social costs ranging from divorce to crime, and environmental expenses such as water quality and pollution. Maryland and Vermont are now moving forward with more realistic and meaningful indices for their state residents.

With regard to national indices of happiness instead of manufactured goods, Bhutan is perhaps the world’s most forward-thinking country with regard to measuring the ultimate health and well-being of its population. Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness (GNH) embraces economic development, environmental conservation, good governance and cultural priorities. Bhutan prioritizes her traditional values, and only in 1999 was the national ban on television and the Internet lifted.

One of the keys to success of GNH in Bhutan is education. Teachers are asked to infuse students with a sense of values that can override today’s consumerism and materialistic messaging. Because so many teachers are Buddhist, they have a good personal value system that inspires their teaching. But Bhutan’s leadership is admittedly concerned about the next generation of teachers, and insuring the future of GNH.

The leadership of Bhutan recognizes that one way to insure the future of GNH with its unique value system is prioritizing access to the natural world for all citizens. Green plants and healthy ecosystems are inextricably linked to the health of humans, a vital part of gross national happiness. (Of note, one of the drawbacks to America’s gross domestic product is that it does not measure natural capital, i.e., the value of healthy ecosystems).

Recently, the prince of Bhutan launched the King’s Challenge, whereby national nature-based programs are funded and launched. One of them is called BATS (Bhutan Aerial Trail System), which entails a massive canopy walkway complex, including a treetop research station.

I am honored to be the science adviser for the prince of Bhutan’s canopy project. From this experience, I not only look forward to developing one of the world’s largest canopy walkway systems, but also hope to infuse a big dose of the gross happiness index.

If we Americans can think harder about our quality of life than our bank accounts, such currency might provide the best inheritance that our children and grandchildren could ever receive.

Meg Lowman, a longtime Sarasota-based scientist and educator, is chief of science and sustainability at the California Academy of Sciences.

Originally posted in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.