Buddhists in Bhutan Offer a Lesson in Sustainability

Dzong of Punakha, located at the confluence of Mo Chhu and Pho Chhu (Mother River and Father River). Bhutan (Photo by Marina & Enrique available on Flickr)

Bhutan may be tiny, but it’s doing remarkably big things for the environment. Located in the Himalayas between India and China, the tiny Buddhist kingdom is generating loads of hydropower, protecting large swaths of forest, and safeguarding its species and its people. And now, the country is set to become a world leader in the use of electric vehicles.

Can the United States, China, and the European Union follow Bhutan’s lead to create more Shangri-Las around the world?

Developing a Government Based on Environmental Conservation

Bhutan’s approach to national development reads like an environmental fairy tale. High atop a mountain, there once lived a government devoted to sustainability. When it adopted its constitution in 2008, the government pledged to always protect, conserve, and improve Bhutan’s environment and safeguard the country’s rich biodiversity.

So great are Bhutan’s forests that the country absorbs far more carbon than its population — about the size of San Francisco — can produce. The hydropower Bhutan generates from its fast flowing rivers has the potential to offset 100 million tonnes of Indian emissions every year. The government has built a low impact-high value approach to tourism, established financial programs to protect yak-herding communities who bear the brunt of snow leopard predation, and encouraged citizens, through tax incentives, to purchase electric cars.

The country’s environmental focus is applauded around the world. Climate Action Tracker declared Bhutan a “role model” for its approach to climate change. The leader of its Climate Policy Team, Dr. Marcia Rocha, said “I think they are a country that culturally are very connected to nature, in every document that they submit it’s there, it’s just a very important focus of their politics.”

Buddhist Connection to the Environment

The giant buddha looking over Thimphu, Bhutan
The giant buddha looking over Thimphu, Bhutan. (Photo by Michael Foley available on Flickr)

We know that Buddhists don’t always care about the environment. In Afghanistan, archaeologists are uncovering an ancient Buddhist civilization that actually cleared the land of trees, so that more copper could be mined from the ground. But Buddhists in Bhutan do care about the environment.

Bhutan is the only country to retain the Tantric form of Buddhism as its official religion, which holds that the combined belief of its followers will eventually be great enough to encompass all of humanity and bear its salvation. Faith plays an important role in the cultural, ethical, and sociological development of Bhutan and its people. It encourages reverence for the land and its well-being.

Buddhism’s focus on detachment from material gain and interdependence with all species and nature, is a living practice for the people in Bhutan.

Can Bhutan’s Values Translate to Other Countries?

It may seem that countries like China, the United States, and the European Union are too set in their ways to adopt Bhutan’s progressive values. But these nations already have policies and systems in place that may make it easier to focus on sustainability.

For example, the fiercely secular country of China is actually advocating Buddhism as a way to address the country’s growing environmental problems. It wants its citizens to stop selfish overconsumption and realize that they have the ultimate responsibility to protect nature, not the government. If the Chinese adopt the Buddhism of Bhutan, industrial war zones like Wen’an, where peach trees and crickets gave way to mountains of plastic bags and bottles, may regain their majesty. The intent is there — the Chinese just need action.

And in the United States, state constitutions offer a simple way to require governments to emphasize sustainability and environmentalism. Some states like Hawaii and Illinois recognize the right of their citizens to a healthy environment. But states could guarantee those rights by placing specific requirements — like forest protection — in their constitutions. Not only would these requirements ensure a healthy environment, but states would be able to offset carbon pollution, protect water resources and wildlife habitats, and make their open spaces prettier.

Bhutan — An Unwilling Role Model

Bhutan isn’t looking to be a role model for countries like the United States and China. The country’s prime minister, Tshering Tobgay said, “I feel that calling Bhutan a role model is not appropriate, every country has their own sets of challenges and their own sets opportunities.”

But other countries should take a lesson from Bhutan’s book anyway. It is possible for governments to give their citizens a good life and protect the environment. All that’s necessary is a little enlightenment.

Bhutan (Photo by Inga Vitola available on Flickr)

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About the Author

I'm an organic-eating, energy-saving naturalist who composts and tree hugs in her spare time. I have a background in environmental law, lobbying, and field work. I believe in God; however, I do not call myself a Christian or a Jew or a member of any religion. I am merely someone who finds a spiritual connection to all humans and the environment. You can find me on Twitter, Facebook, and .