What marked the beginning of my journey in Bhutan was a 250-page book, entitled Interconnected: Embracing Life in Our Global Society. In one of the last emails we received before leaving our usual posts as college students in the U.S., our upcoming professor recommended us to read this book. Far from my usual choice of books, this one was written by one of the current Karmapas (a leader of a Tibetan Buddhist School), Ogyen Trinley Dorje.
Through no fault of the book itself, I was unable to totally finish it. The excitement of going to a new country combined with the intangibility of “interconnectedness” as a concept left me uninterested after the first few chapters. The idea that each action affects not only yourself, but every other person, was unfathomable. However, interconnectedness continued to be impressed upon us in almost every class, every activity that we attended. (This type of repetition, unlike that in a book, was hard to avoid.) Now, one thing I can say for sure after my time in Bhutan is that “interconnectedness” tangibly existed in many instances and should not be ignored.
Government policies may not seem tangible in the context of U.S. politics. However, unlike the bipartisan nature of U.S. politics, there is little division at the government level in Bhutan, especially considering the real power of His Majesty Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck. In addition, the legislative branch of the national government oversees local governments as well, theoretically making the policies passed through the national government easier to implement at the local scale.
The third GNH survey made its way through every dzonkhag, or district, in the country in 2015, with questions such as “Please think deeply and tell me, what are the most important things (sources) that will make you lead a truly happy life?” (Refer to picture below)
The nine sections of this questionnaire touch on spirituality, environmentalism, financial status, community safety, and other considerations which are then linked to an overall psychological assessment. These results are used to then allocate government funds towards institutions that will promote the country’s well-being. While tools such as cost-benefit analysis are used by legislators to evaluate policies in the U.S., the GNH survey and its ability to influence Bhutanese policies can be considered examples of how interconnectedness is tangible.
Interconnectedness is challenged sometimes, too.
A topic recently at the forefront of government policies is tourism. As mentioned in my previous entry, during the last month of my semester, I, along with nine other program students, worked with my Political and Socioeconomic Dimensions of Environment professor, Dr. Kuenga Wangmo, to achieve a basic understanding of people’s perceptions of tourism in the Paro Valley. This valley is especially important to tourism because it is home to the sole international airport and is a relatively developed center of economic activity.
Part of our project included a general policy and literature review. What I found was that the Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB) has a specific vision in mind for the country’s tourism policy, which famously includes a daily “tariff” and standards upholding quality of a tourist’s experience. However, few specific nationwide efforts have expanded upon this policy. The only two policies I have found that deal with tourism are: 1) Bhutan Tourism Rules and Schedule of Tariff for International Tourists of 1995 and 2) Trekking in Bhutan Rules and Regulations of 1996. While I am also aware of regulations that uphold certain standard for tourism operators and tour guides, it was hard to find conclusive evidence regarding these regulations.
Under this seemingly under-regulated state of tourism, Bhutan has seen a rise in tourists every year, according to the TCB. The TCB’s annual report, “Bhutan Tourism Monitor,” states that in 2018, there were 274,097 tourists who visited Bhutan. And this figure has been increasing at least since 2013, when the earliest report was published. So, personally, my initial thought was that particularly because of the lack of comprehensive policies regulating the growth of the tourism industry, was that there must be some socioeconomic disparities between occupations who are involved in the tourism sector. For example, farmers may not benefit from the increased demand of food for the growing tourist population, if tourists mainly prefer processed foods that are imported. Hotels and restaurants, on the other hand, may stray from catering to the local population and switch to purchasing cheaper, mass-produced foods from outside the country, which decreases costs for them.
To address these theories, my group was able to interview government officials of various agencies and survey community members of various occupations to see what their perceptions of tourism were and if, at all, they were benefiting from the increase in tourists.
What I was personally interested in was whether the government’s interest in GNH could keep up with the growth of a specific industry. Was the idea of shared responsibility, the idea that each person is responsible for everyone’s wellbeing, what the whole concept of interconnectedness leads to, threatened in light of a fast-growing economic sector?
Maybe the answer is yes, interconnectedness is constantly being threatened by individualism, especially as globalization is in a positive feedback loop with the exploitation of natural resources at a global scale. However, like tourism in Bhutan, globalization might also be reclaimed as an opportunity for the world to be recognized as an infinitely complex community that cannot be sustained without emphasizing how each of our actions are interconnected.
International and community efforts go beyond individualism
In my previous blog posts I have mentioned how community and international efforts portray the acknowledgement of interconnectedness. Hydropower, community forestry, international aid in agricultural machinery, environmentalism, spirituality, and a host of other efforts by Bhutanese people are not products seeking financial gain or individual respect. None of these efforts are possible with a totally selfish mindset, as I mentioned in the previous blog post.
I reemphasize this idea because I believe it addresses a major shortcoming of traditional economics and how it evaluates winners and losers. Environmental harms and services are currently externalities, not reflected in the global economic system by currency. This is also true for countless non-environmental efforts, like the ones listed in the previous paragraph. Economic value, legitimacy, and respect have often been attributed to material items and services that have kept the same people in power who continue to perform exploitative acts.
My time in Bhutan was filled with observations and participation in activities that showed me that there is another way to move (sustainably) forward. For the U.S., economically rooted government policies may be one way, but community efforts at a geographically smaller scale, must be recognized as well. I have been challenged unforgettably, and hopefully graciously, by the Bhutanese way of life, to maintain hope in voluntary efforts that will move us forward.
Carbon Footprint Reflection
Emissions including flights, compared
My carbon footprint to study abroad: 4.73 metric tons of CO2 emissions total (which is about 17.51 metric tons/year)
Bhutan average carbon footprint: ~1.29 metric tons of CO2 emissions/year
My carbon footprint in the U.S.: 7.08 metric tons of CO2 emissions/year
U.S. average carbon footprint: 16.49 metric tons of CO2 emissions/year
Using the Carbon Calculator on the Carbon Footprint website, I found that I was responsible for a total of 4.73 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions throughout my time in Bhutan, and if that were applied to an entire year, my footprint would be 17.51 metric tons. The country average is 1.29 metric tons of emissions per year. Of course, this was largely due to my emissions for a round trip flight to Bhutan, as well as emissions from my tuition for college, which provides many material goods that produce many “secondary” emissions.
On the other hand, my carbon footprint in the U.S. as a college student, which is about 7.08 metric tons of emissions per year. The country average is 16.49 metric tons per year. Again, the most CO2 emitting actions are flying to and from home and the cost of my tuition.
Essentially, my carbon footprint for the three and a half months I was abroad was almost four times higher than the average Bhutanese person’s YEARLY carbon footprint. Meanwhile, if my study abroad carbon footprint were extrapolated to the entire year, it would have been about the same as the average U.S. resident’s annual carbon footprint. Also, my carbon footprint to study abroad was more than half my yearly carbon footprint if I had stayed at home. This didn’t surprise me because of the 24-hour plus traveling I had to do to get to Bhutan.
Emissions without flights (aka day-to-day), Compared
Isolating my house, car, and bus & rail emissions specifically, which make up my “day-to-day” activities, the results are a bit different.
Day-to-day in Bhutan: 0.72 metric tons of CO2 emissions total (which is about 2.67 metric tons/year)
Day-to-day in the U.S.: 1.54 metric tons of CO2 emissions/year
These results are far less distant than my total carbon footprints from my time abroad and my usual carbon footprint. However, My day-to-day emissions in Bhutan were still more than my day-to-day emissions in the U.S. This was surprising at first, but there are a few reasons that explain the discrepancy.
- My study abroad program was based on group traveling and we traveled at least 2,500km from our main campus to other major cities in Bhutan and back. (One thing to note is that I inputted travel time in our group bus, which held about 20 people, as my individual emissions, which may have skewed the results)
- At school, I rarely travel to and from my campus. This was probably a large reason my car emissions category was so low.
- Because I was in Bhutan for a couple of cold months, we burned a lot of firewood and used a lot of electricity for heating as well.
I would like to thank everyone who helped me function throughout my time in Bhutan, including School for Field Studies (SFS) and Amherst College advisors and staff who helped me get to Bhutan in the first place. Thank you also to the Global Education Office (GEO) and Office of Environmental Sustainability (OES) for the opportunity to reflect so deeply on my time. Finally, thank you to you! Thank you for taking the time to read this blogpost. Please feel free to reach out if you have any questions at all. Kadrinche-la.