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Road to Shangri-La


Thimphu is the capital city of Bhutan, a small Himalayan kingdom wedged between India and Tibet.

Bhutan's capital

In the late twentieth century, Bhutan tried to give up on 'Gross Domestic Product', or GDP, as the primary measure of the nation’s well-being and replaced it with a thing called 'Gross National Happiness', or GNH. The four pillars of GNH are:

(1) sustainable development,

(2) preservation of Bhutanese culture,

(3) preservation of the natural environment, and

(4) good governance.

These pillars, the Bhutanese leaders say, are more directly related to human happiness than any measure of finances and economics—so all new projects in Bhutan must be judged against these four pillars.

Many GNH supporters feel that, by using GNH, Bhutan will one day reach full Green Utopian status whereby everybody lives in a state of happiness with each other and with their environment. This utopian impulse is advertised and promoted by Bhutan’s leaders at home and abroad.

When doing so abroad, it’s common for allusions to be drawn between Thimphu and the fictional Shangri-La. Shangri-La was a hidden Himalayan paradise dreamt up by the British novelist James Hilton in the 1930s. It was a place where everybody was happy and they lived forever.

City of the clouds

Since then, Shangri-La has become a part of pop culture, seen in various movies and TV shows as well as at holiday resorts, festivals, and theme parks.

However, there are many problems with the real version of this fantastic place. In the 1990s, a full sixth of Bhutan’s population was forcibly expelled from the country because they were “not Bhutanese enough.” Those expelled, the Lhotshampas, were descendants of Nepalese immigrants who arrived in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to farm the lowlands of southern Bhutan.

Bhutan's wooded cities

For many decades, these new Bhutanese lived in peace with the old Bhutanese, who themselves had migrated to Bhutan from Tibet about a thousand years before.

In the late 1980s, the Bhutanese government enacted a “one nation, one people” campaign, making it illegal for the Lhotshampas to speak their own language or wear clothes associated with their heritage. Those who stood up against these biased laws, and many who did not as well, were either harassed into leaving Bhutan or forcibly expelled by the Bhutan army. For these refugees, the international fame of Bhutan as the “Land of Happiness" is a bitter pill to swallow.

Even for the citizens of Bhutan — the ones who are happy to dress in traditional Bhutanese costume every day of the year — there are many problems that detract from their happiness. Thimphu, for example, has poor educational standards, dilapidated housing areas, inadequate health facilities, and a woeful social welfare system—along with an overbearing, ethnically uniform, elitist, and authoritarian type of government.

To aspire to be happy under these circumstances, and to celebrate “happiness” over all material concerns, has been highlighted by some social scientists as a ploy to make Bhutanese people content with their very modest lot in life and pacify political resistance.

Maybe, also, this focus on “happiness” signifies a resignation that Bhutan can never truly develop sufficiently to be economically or financially strong. Like hippies in 1960s America, Bhutan seems to have given up competing and decided to “drop out” from the international economic rat race.

In a place long insulated from the seductions of consumer society, GNH could perhaps be fully embraced by unwary citizens. The government of Bhutan had banned TV and the Internet until 1999.

Nowadays, though, that isolation is breaking up quickly as more and more people have access to international broadcasts and electronic media, and there seems to be a rapid change in the desires and expectations among Thimphu’s citizenry. The reality now, according to some Westerners who’ve conducted research there, is that the vast majority of Bhutanese are only paying lip service to GNH and “happiness criteria” as they vigorously pursue the goods, services, and lifestyles they’ve seen on TV and the web.

So where does Bhutan go now? In our depiction of the Bhutanese capital as an super-ecofriendly Shrangri-La, ecotopian ideals are achieved by devoting time and resources to ensure the wholesale realization of the practice of GNH not just giving it lip service.

Thimphu 2121


The current GNH framework, though, is problematic from many angles, and it needs adjusting. For instance, it must be made measurable in some way through the drawing up of democratically agreed-upon standards and criteria.

The “preservation of Bhutanese culture” aspect of GNH has the tendency to encourage and support ethnocentrism. This theme is best abandoned so that individuals of Bhutan from different ethnic groups can decide for themselves what they value rather than having it prescribed by an ethnically homogeneous elitist government.

Ecotopia in Bhutan


To make GNH stronger, more inclusive, and more worthwhile, we suggest the following additions and alterations in the theory and practice of GNH in Bhutan:

A) - A commitment to reserve a proportional number of parliamentary seats for each ethnic group, and for young people, and for women.

B) - An expanded construction of a real version of the Shangri-La idyll through social evolution (since it serves as an eco-friendly and utopian way to raise needed revenue from tourists that can then be used to fund GNH projects). If the Shangri-La theme is so endearing and useful to the leaders of Bhutan, then they should be encouraged to go full throttle with it. Instead of using it as an advertising slogan that pretends to describe present-day Bhutan, use it as an ideal future possibility that Thimphu’s citizens can work toward achieving.

C) - An introduction of a 'tree law' to promote total forest cover. At present, 60 percent of Bhutan’s land is forested, down from some 74 percent in 1980. For Thimphu 2121, however, the forests are encouraged to recolonize just about all of Bhutan, and they are also re-introduced into Thimphu, to become part of the capital’s cityscape as well.

D) - A diversity and reconciliation treaty should be drafted to invite the expelled Lhotshampas back to Bhutan and to compensate them for lost land, and then include them in democratic governance, the reforestation effort, and the construction of a multicultural Shangri-La.

Alan Marshall's rendering of Ecotopia


So, the primary change in the Thimphu social fabric, then, should be the abandonment of the promotion of any idea of “authentic Bhutanese culture”. In its stead, there’s an elevation of an open and evolving Bhutanese “forest nature” concept. From this, the citizens of Thimphu are allowed to construct their own identities within an ethnically diverse and malleable Shangri-la fantasy and to connect this identity in myriad ways to the forests that surround them.

Cultural Utopia



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Book of Utopia

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