Happiness before economic growth

- through Sophie Solere

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The Covid-19 pandemic has achieved what no one thought possible: shutting down the global economy for several months. And if we take advantage of this parenthesis which has revealed the extreme fragility of our capitalist economies to look into a little-known alternative: the Buddhist economy, a guarantee of moderation and harmony, which strives to achieve data with minimal resources.

Many people have taken to dreaming, at the height of the Coronavirus crisis, of a "world after" that would reverse the dominant orientation of the past four decades. To a "next world" more respectful of people and living things that would mark a break with a globalized and financialized capitalism, which drives global warming and causes the collapse of biodiversity. At a time of deconfinement, when stimulus plans are multiplying, betting on a rapid return to economic growth and to "business as usual". At a time when lobbying companies, indifferent to ecological reconstruction and the imperative of a deceleration of our consumption – particularly energy consumption – are firing on all cylinders to put the economy before ecology, there is no interesting to look at a radically different economic model: Buddhist economics.

Invented in the 1950s by the economist Ernst Friedrich Schumacher (1911-1977), the formula for everything is an oxymoron. It combines what may, to some, appear to be contradictory, the spiritual – the Buddhist values ​​of impermanence, interdependence, simplicity and limitation of needs – with the material – the administration of the house, and by extension a country, according to the Greek etymology (oikonomia) of the word. Buddhist economics attempts to strike a balance between the needs of the body and the aspirations of the soul.

“Today, our societies are only concerned with physical constructions: building ever larger cities, giant shopping malls, sprawling international airports. They have left metaphysical constructions aside. Schumacher thought that it was necessary to operate a real metaphysical reconstruction. He wanted to remind men that they are more than their body, more than the money they have, more than their job, more than their success. That they are above all spiritual beings", insists Satish kumar, a former Jain monk, founder of Schumacher College and editor-in-chief, for almost fifty years, of the British magazine Résurgence.

The Middle Way

An atypical economist, very critical of the Western mode of development, Schumacher was among the first to point out that unlimited economic growth was impossible in a finite world.

He evoked, for the first time, the term "Buddhist economy" in 1955, on his return from a trip to Burma, accomplished on behalf of the United Nations, where he led a mission to advise the U Nu government on its development policies. His book Buddhist Economics, first published in 1966, was taken up in 1973 in his bestseller Small is beautiful, a company on a human scale.

What would be the fundamental principles of a Buddhist economy? It is a "very different economy from that of modern materialism since Buddhism conceives the essence of civilization not as a multiplication of needs, but as the purification of the character of man", writes Schumacher. It is an economy that privileges “the Middle Way between materialistic recklessness and traditionalist immobility in order to find how to earn an honest bread”. It systematically studies how to achieve given ends with a minimum of means. The emphasis is therefore placed on the fact that the satisfaction of needs can be ensured thanks to a minimum of consumption, contrary to the dominant economy, which postulates that a man who consumes more necessarily lives better. The frugal consumption that she advocates makes it possible to live without great tension. It is also an economy that privileges local resources to satisfy local needs. An economy based on simplicity and non-violence, which requires using only renewable resources whenever possible. "The growing exploitation of non-renewable energies (coal, oil and natural gas) is an act of violence perpetrated against nature, which must almost inevitably lead to violence between men", insists Schumacher.

Buddhist economics, based on the principles of moderation and cooperation, is therefore an alternative to the religion of GDP growth. “Do few things, but make them wonderful,” adds Satish Kumar. The Buddhist economy tends to create a more beautiful, more harmonious living environment, because it favors quality over quantity. While GDP growth, which has only quantity and profit as its objectives, is in no way concerned with the happiness of man and the blossoming of beauty,” he continues.

Happiness at the heart of public policies

Le Bhutan, laboratory of an alternative development model, where the king and the elites decided in 1972 to dethrone the GNP to replace it with the GNP (Gross National Happiness), is undoubtedly the only country in the world to come close to what could be a Buddhist economy. “It is the primacy given to the material over the spiritual that has led humanity into chaos. A Buddhist economy tends, for its part, to balance in a harmonious way the material and the non-material, the economic and the non-economic, to satisfy the needs of the body while respecting the spiritual aspirations”, underlines Thakur S. Powdyel, former Minister of Education of Bhutan.

The quite remarkable uniqueness of this small Himalayan state of 760 inhabitants, wedged between India and China, is due to its development model. It is undoubtedly the only country in the world to have placed the happiness of its inhabitants at the heart of public policy. "If the government does not manage to create the happiness and peace of its inhabitants, it does not deserve to exist", insisted, as early as 000, the legal code of the Kingdom. It was in the early 1729s, during the reign of King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, that this philosophy was truly embodied, thanks to the creation of specific institutions and a BNB index.

The fundamental principles of a Buddhist economy? It is a "very different economy from that of modern materialism since Buddhism conceives the essence of civilization not as a multiplication of needs, but as the purification of the character of man", writes Schumacher.

The purpose of this index? Model an alternative vision of development, provide indicators to guide public policies and measure the different states of happiness. A person is thus considered happy when they reach a threshold of sufficiency in six of the nine areas that make up the BNB index: standard of living, health, education, use of time, ecological resilience, psychological well-being, community vitality, good governance and cultural resilience.

“The originality of this indicator lies in the existence of sufficiency thresholds. What threshold must be reached for the societal conditions for happiness to be met? “, emphasizes Isabelle Cassiers, professor of economics and researcher at the Catholic University of Louvain (Belgium), who has made several study trips to the country.

In Bhutan, no project, no law can be adopted without the approval of the Gross National Happiness Commission, an institution created in 2008 which plays a key role. All the texts are thus sifted through this multidimensional index. It is by referring to this that the Bhutanese government refused, for example, to join the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Can a country develop while having as its line of sight, as its ultimate goal, the happiness and well-being of its inhabitants? “Bhutan is a kind of laboratory for me. As in a laboratory, research and work are done on a small scale. But the lessons learned can then be extended and used around the world. But be careful not to project on Bhutan an ideal fantasized image of a small paradise on Earth. It is a country which has its problems, like all the others. On the other hand, the effort that has been made there to initiate and formalize an alternative development model to the dominant model focused mainly on economic development, is quite interesting", maintains Ha Vinh Tho, former coordinator, in Bhutan, of the Center for Gross National Happiness, an organization he led from 2012 to 2018, which promotes an alternative vision of development.

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Sophie Solere

Sophie Solère is an economic and social journalist who has been interested for years in the environment and interdependence. She works for Buddhist News, a media platform dedicated to Buddhist spirituality and wisdom. By practicing yoga and meditative dance, Sophie discovered the power of spiritual journeys, which offer so many paths to (re)find yourself. She is dedicated to sharing inspiring stories and valuable advice on spiritual practice and the environment with Buddhist News readers.

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