Research spotlight on Matthew Branch: Gross National Happiness in Bhutan

Penn State Ph.D. candidate Matt Branch recently embarked on a journey to better understand a potentially unique approach to environmental governance. In December, Branch traveled to Bhutan, a tiny Buddhist kingdom nestled in the eastern Himalayas, to research environmental governance in the country. Bhutan has gained important international attention for developing a concept called “Gross National Happiness,” or GNH, which is an alternative to mainstream development models oriented toward GDP, or Gross Domestic Product. The concept was born in the 1970s by the fourth king of Bhutan, in response to criticisms that Bhutan’s GDP wasn’t growing rapidly enough. The king stated that he was more concerned with the well-being of his citizens than simply increasing the country’s economy.

The concept has gained quite a bit of traction since then. Bhutan has transformed GNH from a broad guiding principle to a quantitative metric that involves intensive national surveys that aim to understand the population’s happiness levels and what the government can do to improve them. Originally understood to have four pillars, good governance, sustainable economy, a healthy natural environment, and cultural preservation, GNH has since evolved to have 72 empirical indicators. In 2008, Bhutan crowned a new king and completed its transformation to a parliamentary monarchy, holding its first democratic elections. Thus, the country is at an interesting crossroads, as GNH will undoubtedly change with the shift in government.

Branch’s interests lie in GNH’s emphasis on a healthy natural environment. Bhutan’s natural environment is robust, as it lies within one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots. And despite its small size, the country ranges from less than 200 meters to peaks higher than 7,000 meters above sea level, creating a diverse habitat range. The country is roughly three-quarters forested, and the constitution pledges to maintain a minimum of 60 percent forest cover in perpetuity. Additionally, almost 40 percent of the country is protected via national parks and forest corridors, providing ample habitat for endangered species such as Bengal tigers and red pandas. Bhutan has also embarked on some novel policies to protect its environment, becoming the first country to ban plastic bags in 1999 and is planning to become the first country to have 100 percent organic agriculture by 2020.

But the question that remains for Branch is how GNH has been understood to stand in relation to these environmental policies. To understand this, Branch is living in Bhutan for the next nine months to conduct ethnographic fieldwork to better understand people’s perceptions of GNH and environmental decision-making in Bhutan. His project has two main thrusts, and the first is to interview government officials and NGO employees who are making national-level decisions about the environment and are really creating the connections between GNH and the environment. The second part is an environmental education project that will teach high school students how to make short documentary videos, through having them interview community members about environmental topics. By having these two levels, Branch is hoping to better understand how different people in different parts of the country think about GNH and environmental policies.

Branch’s research has focused on five main topical areas: conservation policies, water governance, farmer-wildlife conflict, community forestry, and the country’s push to “go organic.” By focusing on specific aspects of environmental governance, Branch is able to discuss concrete examples of environmental issues that can better define happiness. For example, Bhutan’s main export is hydropower, but building dams has significant environmental and social costs, so how and why do certain types of happiness win out and how are the different values decided upon is of major interest to his research.

GNH has gained significant international attention recently, with countries like Brazil and Bolivia, and even the city of Seattle thinking about incorporating GNH into their practices. Branch hopes that through his research, we will have a better understanding of GNH, especially in relation to how GNH impacts environmental decision-making, and how to best apply GNH to international settings.

Branch is currently working towards a dual degree in Geography and Human Dimensions of Natural Resources and the Environment. His fieldwork in Bhutan has been made possible through funding from Fulbright-Hays, the Milwaukee Insurance Foundation, and the E. Willard Miller Award. Following his time in Bhutan he will return to the US to write his dissertation and intends to graduate in May 2012.

If you would like to contact him about his research, he can be reached at mjb576@psu.edu.