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Wheel of Fortune

A New Development Paradigm?

‘Development’ might be a fuzzy concept, but it is essentially concerned with fostering conditions that are socially desirable. Despite the interventions of such scholars as Amartya Sen, with his focus on human development, for too long the concepts of ‘development’ and ‘economic growth’ have been used interchangeably – economic growth has remained development’s proxy

Whilst economic growth might be one means to development, it is not the end itself. Industrial ecologist Robert Ayres notes that it simply “reflects increasingly frantic activity, especially trade, but little or no progress in terms of human welfare”[1]. Growth is the universal barometer in the current economic paradigm – the single bottom line. But it does not necessarily make us flourish nor happy.

However the reclusive Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan is in the business of happiness. If you are not familiar with the idea of gross national happiness (GNH) then you had probably better take your pulse. It was introduced by Bhutan’s king in the 1970’s as an alternative to the more hackneyed GNP. This concept usefully focuses our attention on the ends of development and allows critical space to then contemplate the means.

Bhutan was the sponsor of a 2011 UN resolution recognizing that “the pursuit of happiness is a fundamental human goal”. And it has convened an expert working group who are attempting to articulate a new development paradigm based on a more holistic understanding about what it might mean to ‘develop’ (here is their 2013 report). Although we risk plunging back into the realm of fuzziness here, the picture above provides us some clarity. By showing the economy embedded within society, which is in turn confined by the earth system, it illustrates a basic (and to most of us rather obvious) concept: The economy must serve society – who must exist within the limits imposed by the environment.

It is worth noting that there is nothing really new about Bhutan’s intervention. It is just an emphatic call for the integration of economic, social and environmental domains – in other words, for sustainable development. Bhutan’s innovation is the framing. Focusing on ‘happiness’ highlights the goal of development. It is hoped that this might produce a cognitive shift at the societal level which can create the space for questions to be asked about the notion of infinite growth on a finite planet. It is here that we see the synergies between the new development paradig and life cycle assessment (LCA).

Ever since the invention of the double entry book-keeping method in the European Middle Ages, accountants have been quite competent in tracking economic flows. And for last 40 or so years practitioners of LCA (like the dear sponsors of this blog at ifu hamburg) have been modelling environmental flows. More recently they have used this experience to map social impacts. The missing ingredient is the unification of these three spheres within what might be conceived of as a cultural framework. This has been referred to as sustainability’s missing fourth pillar. Bhutan’s innovative framing offers the potential for its realization by challenging the efficacy of a single bottom line for society.

And by way of a postscript I offer a cautionary tale. The new development paradigm that emanates from the Himalaya should not be confused with the so called “new paradigm of sustainable development”. This sweet sounding concept represents a collaboration between Chevron Corporation and the venerable US cold war institution, the Centre for Strategic and International Studies. Their union is dubbed the “partnership for growth” and it is “focused on leveraging all US assets – the private sector in particular – to promote economic development” (here is their recent report). Perhaps they are concerned about the sustainability of US corporate profits in an epoch of environmental awareness.

[1] Robert Ayres, ‘Commentary: Limits to the growth paradigm’, Ecological Economics, 19, 1996, pp. 117-134, p.117.

Article image taken from Griggs et al (The Anthropocene Journal) and squished out of shape by Dave Lisle.

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