The Double Bottom Line: How Rich We Really Are
Inaugural Address by Jigmi Y Thinley,
Former Prime Minister of Bhutan,
International Leadership Symposium on Ethics in Business,
at the European Parliament, Brussels.
20th November, 2015
Your Holiness Shri Shri Guruji, Hon’ble members of the European Parliament, President Kulkarni, moderator Glaser, distinguished ladies and gentlemen.
I am most honoured and privileged to be sharing the stage with HH for whom I have the greatest admiration and respect.
Are we rich or are we, having impoverished ourselves, becoming hopelessly poor? The answer will depend on what we mean by being rich and how we measure it.
Having endured the pains of the Great Depression and the threat of losing our freedom 70 years ago, we have been obsessed with the pursuit of material wealth and individual freedom both of which, we think, can be promoted through economic growth. Accepting this as our primary purpose, every thing else became secondary from the moment we adopted Simon Kuznet’s GDP as our goal and yardstick for success despite the author’s caution on its limitations. GDP has become our universal religion and obsession. Our unshakable faith in it has been reaffirmed at the ongoing UN general Assembly, this September, as 193 nations adopted the 17 sustainable development goals. These, in effect, validate the GDP based development paradigm. The goals are clear about how we must pursue sustainable development but do not address the deeper question, why and to what end?
GDP convinces us that human society has prospered by leaps and bounds in the last 7 decades. Living standards have definitely improved and material possessions from basic survival needs to all kinds of so called goods are immensely more.
But do these numbers tell the whole truth? Do they tell us about the nature of the wealth, debt-laden ephemerals as most of it is, for which we so covetously strive and care little to share? Do these numbers speak of the social and ecological costs, not only to ourselves, but to future generations as well?
If by the notion of wealth, we mean the acquisition of and access to those conditions for wellbeing, that make life secure, meaningful, fulfilling and happy, then it would seem that we are becoming poorer and less happy now as individuals than our supposedly far poorer ancestors. The growing rate of depression, suicide or extreme violence in society are signs of emptiness that people feel, not wealth. Could it be that all this is happening because we care less and less to reflect on the why of life ? Could it be because we have forgotten that wealth is only a means to a far higher and meaningful state of being in which economic condition is just one of the many dimensions that make up its totality?
Numbed by too many shocks and consumed by flames of desire for more and more of the less we actually need and can afford, we refuse to face the truth that, in our pursuit of the illusion of endless wealth, we have made ourselves poorer? Yet, I believe that it will take only a moment of honest reflection to open our mind’s eye and ear to see and hear the unmistakable signs of a deeply troubled and impoverished society desperately begging our good heart to feel and act.
The vessel that holds the nectar of infinite economic growth in a finite world is fractured and leaking. Japan is struck by a second recession, the miracle of China is fading and Europe is faced with a multiplicity of crises and a grim state of siege. Others are relying on GDP figures to maintain favourable illusions. Yet we are unprepared to accept that the ill founded, ill conceived and inequitable global economic structure and its financial systems need to undergo fundamental changes.
The noble aspiration for freedom, rights and security are a far cry from the reality of a raging world war against the backdrop of numerous conflicts that have caused the loss of homes and hope for 60 million refugees. No one is safe anywhere any more.
Our natural life support system is in a dire state as water, air, soil and forests are losing their vitality and capacity to support life with changing climate and depleting resources. Our physical health is on a downward slide even as life span is enhanced while an energy crisis is never far away with unfolding geopolitical implications.
As for our mental wellbeing, the poverty of spirituality and poor state of our psychology amid lack of emotional support from weak bonds with family, friends, peers and community are making life so much more difficult in our fiercely competitive and turbulent world.
All these are happening in the face of an unprecedented level of Leadership crisis within family, organization, institutions, business and nation. Parents, schools and governments are failing and international law is being undermined with impunity and consequences of the most brutal and macabre kind. We are failing our youth and have made them vulnerable to terror groups that succeed where we have not: to connect, inspire, radicalize and drive our disillusioned youths to commit the most violent forms of extremism.
Where then is the basis to think we are rich except in the illusion that is flashed by the GDP projector on the screens of our delusional mind? How do we explain our persistence with denial, despite the knowledge that the window of opportunity is closing before we cross the point of no return from our suicidal trajectory?
As long as we allow wrong indicators to continue to mislead and guide the life of nations, business and citizens, we will go on believing our own false narrative of growing prosperity even as everything around us falls apart.
We urgently need to re-examine our evolving values, values that condition our mind and guide our action and shape society – values that we have allowed the market to dictate and promote – values that are devoid of ethics. Humanity needs to take charge and relegate the market to serving society. We need to realize that what is good for the individual and society can only happen within the bounds of ethical intent and action.
What we need is an ethical vision that will guide us in rediscovering true human values to promote and share real and durable wealth. The Secretary-General of the United Nations, Mr. Ban Ki-moon, recently spoke of the urgent need for “a revolution in our thinking” and for “a new paradigm.” He said:“The old model is broken. We need to create a new one…founded on solid rocks of an ethical vision.”
The GDP defined development path that has served us well has now become a dangerous super highway for economic beasts that profit from hit and runs on their way to propitiate the omnipotent goddess of the market. Extricating ourselves from the tenacious clutches of this goddess that thrives on unrestrained consumerism, our new vision must arise from an understanding of what constitutes true human development, personal wealth and societal prosperity for a kind that has the sacred responsibility of stewardship over all other interdependent life on earth. Only then will we gain the sagacity and inspiration to imagine and agree on the best way out of the poverty into which we are sinking.
It was an ethical vision that inspired my former king into realizing that development must serve a greater purpose than the promotion of just one aspect of a nation’s change and that a flourishing market is not always a a thriving society. Guided by the philosophy of Gross National Happiness, the people of Bhutan have pursued development since the early ‘70s, as a means to improve their wellbeing and happiness. We are using a multidimensional GNH index built around nine interdependent domains to guide and monitor our holistic development. It does not reject GDP but limits it to the purpose intended by the Nobel Laureate Kuznets himself. I am pleased to inform that the 2015 GNH survey indicates that 91.2 % are happy and that our happiness level is rising.
Ladies and Gentlemen, as the most powerful transformative force in society, business must go beyond what is now a largely commercially motivated symbolic gesture in regard to social responsibility. After all, it is in a flourishing society that business will best thrive. Success and profit for business must therefore, mean benefit and true value for society and therein lies the wisdom of The Double Bottom Line the very theme of this discourse. Unless business provides the much needed leadership in the search and adoption of an ethical vision and way of life, political leadership will neither dare nor succeed. It is business that can and must lead in the creation of genuine and sustainable wealth for the wellbeing and happiness of the individual and society.
I wish everyone boundless Happiness.