The Second International Conference on Gross National Happiness
Local Pathways to Global Wellbeing
St. Francis Xavier University, Antigonish, Nova Scotia, Canada
June 20 to June 24, 2005
|June 23, 3:30 pm||
Good Governance as the Key to Gross National Happiness
His Excellency John Ralston Saul
|Synopsis||Discussion of fundamental futility of seeking major changes in society without significantly altering terms of public discourse. Requisite changes: drawing on full range of human capacities to chart policy, rather than relying solely on reason; understanding the nature of true reason, to which “instrumental” reason is antipathetic; understanding happiness as a public, not private good; adopting an “animistic” world view such as that traditionally held by First Nations.|
Good afternoon everyone. It’s my absolute honour and pleasure to introduce His Excellency John Ralston Saul.
Mr. Saul is a political philosopher, a novelist, an engaged public intellectual, and a committed Canadian. He’s won an international readership for both his novels and his contributions to political philosophy while at the same time enlivening our domestic public discourse by challenging Canadians to think anew about ourselves and about our country.
Among his many academic credits, he earned a PhD at King’s College, University of London, studying the modernization of France. And we are very proud to have him among the honorary doctorate recipients of this university, St. Francis Xavier.
Between 1977 and 1994 John Ralston Saul wrote five novels; these works have been translated into more than a dozen languages. His non-fiction deals with weightier subject matter but is also very widely read. With the publication of Voltaire’s Bastards: The Dictartorship of Reason in the West, Mr. Saul offered a major of rethinking of western political philosophy. Voltaire’s Bastards, now widely translated, proved to be the first in a trilogy which includes The Doubters Companion: A Dictionary of Aggressive Common Sense and The Unconscious Civilization.
With the publication of the latter volume, many people around the world, and not just in Canada, began to think of John Ralston Saul as the leading proponent of a new philosophical approach—a philosophical approach that we’ve all been grappling with over the last few days at this conference. The Unconscious Civilization won both the 1996 Governor General’s Literary Award for non-fiction and the 1995 Gordon Montador Award for Best Canadian Book on Contemporary Social Issues.
Mr. Saul reflected further on the implications of his trilogy in a new book 2001’s On Equilibrium, in which he laid out a fresh approach towards human qualities and how they can be used. All these works provoked wide discussion, all proved best sellers. In his most recent, very provocative book, The Collapse of Globalism and the Reinvention of the World, he targets the assumption that economics is the main determinant of a society’s civilization.
What sets John Ralston Saul apart is not merely that his books provoke discussion and debate, something that we certainly encouraged here over the last days, but that he has gone well beyond the printed page to engage in direct discussion with the public. In this he is joined by his partner in life, Her Excellency the Right Honourable Adrienne Clarkson, the Governor General of Canada.
Please join me in welcoming His Excellency John Ralston Saul.
|John Ralston Saul||
Bhutan is truly a remarkable country and it is not an accident that it has come up with the highly disturbing concept of Gross National Happiness—“disturbing” because it upsets completely what’s in place.
It’s also a wonderful revelation of the Bhutanese sense of humour, which is laced with irony. When faced with the boring certainty of Western economists it isn’t at all surprising that His Majesty the King of Bhutan did not simply put them in their place but actually knocked them off their chairs by coming up with a theory that they couldn’t even understand.
The people of Canada’s north also have a great sense of irony and in order to put us properly in our places came up with a term to define traditional Inuit knowledge: IQ. This stands for “Inuit” and then a very long word which I’m not going to attempt here because I haven’t got it written down in front of me.
I recently attended the commencement ceremony for the first cohort of lawyers graduating in the Arctic. There had been only one lawyer in Nunavut—the Premier, Paul Okalik, who got his law degree in Ottawa; there are now 12 lawyers in the territory. One noteworthy point is that aboriginal elders were involved throughout the degree program so that it incorporated traditional Inuit concepts of justice and law. Also interesting is that, of the dozen lawyers in Nunavut today, 10 of them are women. And I think that this will have a very important impact on the shape of the future society.
We are here to talk about good governance and its connection to happiness. And it’s no accident that Bhutan is at the centre of this discussion, nor is it an accident that it’s taking place at St. Francis Xavier, because this is the home of the Coady Institute. Father Coady was right for his time—and, though many believe he is now outmoded, I think he is also very much of this time. His thinking is closely mirrored in the conversations that you’ve been having today.
The Enlightenment theory of happiness has absolutely nothing to do with the 20th century theory of happiness. The former views happiness as an expression of the public good, of the public welfare, of the contentment of the people because things are going well; the latter reduces to: “Smile! You’re at Disney Land!” One should not confuse these two ideas. Moreover, it’s very important to keep reminding people that in the phrase “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” happiness refers to the public good; it does not mean that you can go away and look after yourself and make yourself happy.
Moses Coady said: “In a free society we can recognize no other force but the force of ideas.” This sort of statement sounds easy coming from a religious figure. Is this really true, one wants to know, and what’s the utilitarian application of such an assertion?
Well the fact of the matter is that it’s a very tough statement about reality. It is ideas that determine the directions in which civilizations go. If you don’t get your ideas right it doesn’t matter what policies you try to put in place.
For 30 years—and I would say, increasingly for the last 15–20 years—we’ve had a growing number of people going into public life with a series of ideas which are extremely interesting, extremely important: and you represent many of those ideas. But we have not succeeded in doing the essential thing; and I assume that’s why this conference is taking place. We have not succeeded in changing the central discourse about the nature of the public good; the nature of democracy; the nature of citizenship; the nature of economics; the nature of what we ought to be doing. Thus far, it is a failure. While not yet a decisive failure, if we do not make progress soon we will lose this engagement. So I think we have a rather narrow window of opportunity to change the central public discourse.
I hear many of my friends say: “I have to write a certain way. I have to fill out the grant application using words like ‘client’ and ‘stakeholder.’” They know the sentences they’re expected to fill in; the expected vocabulary; the questions that they’re expected to answer in a certain way. I hear my friends using that language, thinking that it will get them to the reality of what they want to do, once they’re past the barrier. But because they accept that central language—which is the wrong language—they fail. They may succeed a little bit but, at the end of the day, they fail because they have not changed the central discourse.
And this will drive us back in. Just when we think we’re making progress—we’re getting somewhere with micro-credit or we’re doing quite well with redefining education—suddenly we find ourselves being reeled in. And you look around and wonder, “How did that happen?” It happened because you didn’t win the essential battle of the central discourse. And I think this is a tough message but it’s very important.
I terminate meetings when the discourse is nonsense. People don’t like it when I say: “We can’t have this conversation using these words; these words make no sense at all.” But I insist that either we use no such discourse and end the meeting or we discuss the way we’re going to talk about our subject. I really, really encourage you to do the same. You can interrupt as many meetings as you want. After you do so about three times they stop using the language—and maybe even come around to your language if you’re annoying and consistent and coherent enough.
Gross National Happiness is a brilliant trick. What it does is go “Snap!” and changes the discourse. Suddenly you’re talking about something else. You’re not trying to amend the old discourse—you’re introducing a new discourse from the core; that’s what’s so important and clever about GNH.
This taps into a statement that Lyonpo Jigmi Thinley made in his speech at the beginning of this conference. He said, “The conventional development or economic growth paradigm is seriously flawed and delusional.” Note that he said delusional: he did not fear to use a term as strong as that because it’s only by using words that mock ridiculous language that you can knock it off its pedestal. And it is delusional, he’s absolutely right. Why be polite? He’s very, very polite but in intellectual matters you don’t need to be polite. You can be polite in other things.
He then went on to say: “There is a growing level of dissatisfaction with the way in which human society is being propelled without a clear and meaningful direction by the force of its own actions.” In other words, by a sense of inevitability: there is nothing we can do; we must either remain passive or we have to move very quickly to arrange the details so we don’t do too badly out of these ineluctable forces that are rolling ahead of us. And, here too, he’s absolutely right. I firmly believe that the common sense, the intelligence, the intuition of citizens everywhere in the world in is in different ways dissatisfied with what is thought to be the mainstream.
What they don’t have is a convincing central alternate thesis. I don’t mean ideology—a convincing, central, alternate thesis which will capture their dissatisfaction and turn it into a plan for action. That’s what they’re missing and that very often prevents them from speaking in other than negative ways. When public figures say, “The people complain but they don’t understand,” what they’re referring to is the incapacity of the people to speak out because they lack suitable discourse. And it’s the job of individuals like yourselves to think of the discourse—the words, the language—that citizens can use if they want it.
Language is invented in order to be stolen. That’s the purpose of it. That’s the purpose of writers, of intellectuals, of people who educate: to come up with language. If it’s good language it’ll be whipped out of your hands in two seconds and used to express what is already there; what people are already feeling but cannot express because they’re stuck with language like, “The committee met at 9:30 am and discussed shareholder and stockholder and stakeholder relationships with…” etc, etc.
A complete discourse is essentially philosophical; and by that I don’t mean inaccessible. An argument that I’ve made in the past is that what we need to do is to think of a discourse—a multifaceted system of power; a multi-faced system of human qualities—that we can all use at the same time.
I’ve said in the past that I think there are about six human qualities that work anywhere, at anytime: common sense; ethics; imagination; intuition; memory; and reason. They are of equal value and can be used in different combinations. If you have some consciousness of the fact that you have different tools, different intellectual weapons, which are of equal importance, then you are in a sense freed from ideological traps; because the traps come from believing that we really only have one central quality, which dominates and shapes everything.
This brings us to the problem of reason. Reason—real reason; true reason—is conscious intellectual thought; i.e., argument. This means that it is inapplicable; it cannot be applied. Common sense; ethics; intuition: these can be applied—but reason cannot. Once you apply it you destroy it. You destroy what it’s supposed to be: conscious intellectual argument and thought. It’s not supposed to be machinery of government: the machinery of government calls for common sense, ethics and intuition.
The problem that we face is a confusion between real reason, which is this intellectual argument and thought, and what philosophers have called instrumental reason. Instrumental reason is supposed to be applied reason but you can’t apply thought. You do something else with it. You turn it into something else. What philosophers call instrumental reason simply doesn’t exist.
There is a terrible contradiction between thought and utilitarianism yet we’re trying to pretend they’re the same thing. Utilitarianism is not thought. And if you separate them out you suddenly realize that you’re remarkably free to rethink what you’re doing. This false reason, this instrumental reason, is the formal source of linearity, of our obsession with linear action. This allows us to only go in a certain direction; we have to follow a certain logic that comes from instrumental reason. This is what produces our narrow approaches—exclusive as opposed to inclusive approaches. It’s what produces the narrowness of professionalism. And being limited in this way makes it impossible for us to act in an integrated, inclusive manner because everybody’s divided up into silos.
All of this arises from our false idea of reason. If you walk away from it you suddenly realize that 50 percent of the education of specialists could actually be lateral and inclusive and then they would act in a different manner. The universities would have to radically change the way in which they educate doctors and engineers and so on; but that would be a good thing. Today’s education is producing highly trained people who are problematic for society because they can’t see outside of their silos: professionals who are great with the left ventricle, useless with the human body.
If you go into most medical schools around the world what’s being said is, “You don’t want to be a general practitioner; you’ve got to be a left ventricle person.” Why? Because the smaller the speciality the higher the class. Yet in reality it’s the exact opposite: the working class of medicine are the specialists; the aristocracy are the generalists. The sickness of our society is that we have it completely upside down. Who would you rather have as your doctor: the person who knows what a body is or the person who knows what a left ventricle is?
The structure of thought, the structure of education, makes it difficult for us to actually turn what we know needs to be done into a social reality. This gives us the feeling that the narrow, silo, professional view is necessary, and that we’re all victims of technology. This, again, comes out of mistaking utilitarianism for reason. The loss of control comes out of that. This is the source of inevitability—a word used more and more and more for the last 30 years by people with power. “I’m sorry,” they say, “we’re very, very smart, we’re well-educated, but there is nothing we can do because it’s inevitable because of economic forces, because of technology. It’s inevitable that this is going to happen.”
That’s what you are struggling against all the time. It’s this belief in the inevitability of events, the inevitability of the leadership of technology; all of that coming out of a false understanding of reason. That’s what produces, in this most educated era in the history of the world, a discourse favouring determinism more strongly than any other since the worst part of the Middle Ages.
It’s astonishing. This is an era where determinism is front and centre: economic determinism; technological determinism; managerial determinism—and all of this comes out of this false rationality. If you believe in determinism you can’t reshape the central discourse. You have to walk away from the determinism in order to do that; which is to say, walk away from a false idea of the dominance of so-called “reason.”
That also is the source of exclusionary approaches towards economics, social policy, and so on, as opposed to holistic or inclusive approaches. The historical key to this is the West’s severance of the idea of civilization from the idea of the inclusive whole. That has been a wonderful strength for the West because it freed us to do all sorts of utilitarian things; a terrible weakness for us because it prevented us from understanding the context in which we were working. And we then turned around and tried to prevent other people from understanding the context in which they were working.
The source of inclusivity is something which has been known by various names, but I think historically and linguistically is called animism. Animism is an idea of the world, of the planet, of the Earth, as a seamless web. Everything is one. Thus that severed link—severing us, in effect, from the idea of the Earth as seamless whole—is really what you’re struggling with. It’s what makes us think that human beings somehow have rights to change and alter the nature of the Earth and to take non-precautionary risks even though they may be dangerous. That’s the sign that we’re out of control: we’re no longer linked with the Earth. We have cut off the animistic from our ethical, moral, religious, intellectual way of life.
The environmental movement has grown amazingly over the last 30 to 40 years. The problem is that in order to succeed the movement tends to buy into either a romantic or a rational view in order to win the cause—Kyoto is a perfect example. And what’s missing from the environmental movement is that fundamental philosophical orientation which is animist, which would allow one to deal with the question differently, in a non-romantic way. But in order to do that one has to reintroduce the idea of animism, which—having tried to do it—is pretty difficult, I must admit.
As a result of having severed ourselves from the animistic our philosophy has become increasingly cut off from any form of inclusive view. Our social sciences are the children of instrumental reason and thus are actually central to the problem; and I say this as somebody with several degrees in the social sciences. We are part of the problem because our whole theory is based on the denial of the animistic, of inclusivity. Our theories of governance are cut off and are frightened by the whole idea of inclusivity and lateral thought; terrified by the idea of lateral thought. Our administrative methods are totally cut off from this, they’re tied directly to instrumental reason—“rational” approaches.
About the only working tool that European civilization has to rejoin the emotion, the understanding, the feelings of animism are the Greek tragedies, which is one of the reasons these plays reappear ever five or 10 years with enormous force. I saw one recently in a village in Canada where nobody even knew what a Greek tragedy was. They were people of European origin and they were weeping; weeping because it went right past the rational—the falsely rational—and touched something in their core which they didn’t even know was there but which they felt without being able to express.
I think that Canada and Bhutan and some other countries have an advantage on this front. In Buddhist temples in Bhutan that you’ll find an official animist presence. While that, too, can have some problems, it offers a very interesting emotional, ethical, moral link— putting together the animist with the Buddhist with whatever else. And in Canada we have this strange mixture of the anglophone and the francophone but tied to the aboriginal; and with the aboriginal today we still have over a million Canadians with an unbroken link to the animistic. Fortunately for Canada, this part of the population is becoming stronger everyday. We’re seeing the return of aboriginals to a central role in Canada, the central role which they were guaranteed at the beginning; and that return may be the thing that will save Canada as a civilization. I think it’s the key to Canada’s future.
At the commencement ceremony in Iqualuit, Sandra Omik, one of the graduates, talked about how she and her classmates had heard about what university was like in the south, and how wonderful it was to be in a less competitive, more consensual atmosphere. Animistic civilizations have a built-in understanding of consensus as opposed to battle, opposition. And they’re very clear in their own minds that what they want to do with law is make it more about consensus and much less about opposites and battling.
Claire L’Heureux-Dubé, one of our great justices, who recently retired from the Supreme Court of Canada, was there to give a speech in the evening. She talked about the importance of melding ideas from traditional Inuit law with Canadian/European law. She talked about how difficult but how exciting this would be.
This is one of the most interesting things happening in Canada. If we can implode our law, so that we consciously place the aboriginal at the core of it, we’ll be able to deal with justice in quite a different way in Canada. We’re getting there but it’s very, very slow, and we’re only in the early stages of it.
The point of all of this is not to say that we should retreat to some roseate past. There are patterns in history and one has to look at those patterns because they do revolve in a Tolstoyan manner—there’s no question about it. But we are not going back to a past, not going back to something that once existed. But we can recreate a future out of the past, using the unbroken elements that are already there. We can take the bits and pieces from Judeo-Christianity, from animism, from other religions that other coming into Canada, other experiences; and we can put them together and make something new.
The animist is central to that. I think that the proponents of sustainable development and environmentalism would look, sound, and act differently if society as a whole built this animistic, holistic idea back into its core. And I think that is entirely possible but it’ll have to happen in the larger sense first in order for the more precise approaches to environmentalism to work. Once you explain environmentalism or sustainable development in a non-competitive manner, in a holistic manner, in a civilizational manner, people understand it immediately and are supportive. Whereas if you start explaining it as: “It’s competitive, too” or “It’s not so expensive” or “We can beat other people by doing this,” people just turn off because they know that even if that’s true it doesn’t matter because that’s not what it’s really about.
As a writer I led movements for years. We were told that there was no money for the arts because the arts weren’t productive, they weren’t important to the economy. So we all went to work and proved that there were 600,000 jobs in the arts in Canada and they were worth so many billion dollars and they generated $2.4 billion in exports; but all they did was turn the other way and change the subject because it wasn’t about that: it was about their concept of power.
In other words, the challenge is to break out of the theoretically rational economic prism, and the basic assumptions of exclusion. For example, I’m not saying that Kyoto is all bad. However, it amounts to only a small bit of progress that resulted from a certain kind of rational negotiation in which environmentalists engaged using the methodology of the people they were opposing; whereas a more strategic approach could have led to a big breakthrough.
What are the barriers to good governance? The inertia of structure; structural laziness—inertia produces laziness. Desire to protect your territory once you’re in one of these structures. Self-interest of all sorts—your own self-interest is encouraged once you’re in a state of inertia, of directionlessness. A concentration on the short term, which again comes out of all this. An obsession with secrecy. In a way, power in our current civilization comes from hording information. There are millions of secrets created every year in Washington. What are they? What could they possibly be? They’re not secrets—they’re pieces of power for the people who managed to get that information registered as secret. This prevents change; it prevents public discussion. An incapacity to share information because sharing information is a loss of power. An incapacity to admit error because if you admit error you’re no longer a competent professional and you lose power—even though it’s obvious that the best way to get to the next stage is to admit really fast that you’ve made a mistake, explain what the mistake was and change what you’re doing so you can move forward. Instead we’ve constructed a linear, instrumental society in which the admission of error is to your disadvantage. This slows down any real sense of progress. Finally, a terrible confusion between leadership and management. Examine how much money goes into producing managers in the world today under the misapprehension that they are leaders. They are not the same thing: a leader has a relationship with the population; even a benign dictator has a relationship with a population. A manager does not. A manager is in charge of structure. The inability to change the discourse is tied to this terrible confusion between leadership—not heroism—and management.
Management has its role but it is not any kind of panacea. We’ve got too many managers; we don’t need any more. We should shut down most of those management schools. They don’t actually understand management anyway. I would say that more harm has been done to the private sector by management schools than by any other part of society. Socialists haven’t done half the harm that the management schools have done: these schools don’t understand risk; they don’t understand public debate; and they don’t understand ownership.
All of these barriers to good governance are the opposite of what you need for an inclusive approach. And I say all of this knowing full well that most of the people who are guilty of these things are also of good will; they are decent people who want society to be well. It’s the structure and our acceptance of the structure which makes it so difficult to change the way in which individuals act. We know that if we act out of context we won’t get promoted, we may get fired, we won’t be able to pay off our mortgages, and so on. When society is structured to tie down well-educated people in that way, you have a very problematic situation.
Lyonpo Jigmi Thinley talked about the glaciers melting in Bhutan. I’ve just come from flying over many dozens of glaciers in the Canadian Arctic and it’s very clear how much they have receded. They’ve moved back 400 m, 100 m, whatever. In Canada, in many cases, it means that they’ve receded far enough that when the icebergs break off at the end they fall on land rather than in the water. This is causing a gradual disappearance, a reduction in the quantity of icebergs. Is this caused by global warming? Is it cyclical? Is it something else? We actually don’t know. We know that there are very real reasons to ascribe it to global warming. We also know that there are cycles. We also know there are other factors. But that’s not the point. The point is that this is something animistic. This is beyond our lifetimes and the precautionary principle should apply. Although we are not absolutely, 100 percent certain, we don’t have the right to take the risk: because if we get it wrong the outcome is incalculable. Yet the precautionary principle cannot be applied because of linearity, because of false rationality, because of managerialism, because of our failure to redefine the central discourse.
Virtually all of our dominant economic theories were invented sometime between the late 18th and the middle of the 19th century—Smith, Ricardo, the whole of it—and we’ve been feeding off this stuff ever since. They were all based on societies in scarcity—agricultural and industrial scarcity. Competition, as defined by them, was part of a race towards surplus by means of technology. And that’s what got you the fair prices and the fair profits. In almost every area of production in the world we are now in surplus, massive surplus. You name it: shoes, ties, watches, radios, glasses, beef, wheat, rice, fruit. That doesn’t mean that everybody currently has access to it but it could be made available to people under proper conditions. The challenge, then, is to invent a new economic discourse which applies to the current reality of permanent or semi-permanent surplus. A reality of the 19th and the early 20th century should not be the lens or the prism through which we are examining society today.
One of the arguments about sustainable development is that it often relies on economic assumptions coming out the 19th century, as opposed to far broader, more inclusive social or ethical or egalitarian assumptions. Thus it is very difficult to make sustainable development normal. Economics cannot—it’s not simply that it should not—function properly as the lens or the prism of society.
The principle of justice—not law—is human dignity and egalitarianism together. And they really are the lens through which civilizations are built, any civilization. It doesn’t matter whether it’s Bhutan or Canada or China or India or Australia: all civilizations. Look at what the Buddha said, or Mohammed, or Confucius; look at any major moral and ethical theorist. They all talk about human dignity and egalitarianism in one way or another. Those are the lenses through which you can build society. You make economics serve human dignity and egalitarianism.
In the same speech, Claire L’Heureux-Dubé said: “Human dignity implies justice and compassion.” Adam Smith wrote two books. One of them is taught as economic theory. It was intended to be a footnote to his big book. And his big book was the Theory of Moral Sentiments, which was all about ethics and inclusion. It begins by talking about the difficulty of empathy; the difficulty of imagining the suffering of the other. In other words: human dignity and egalitarianism. The economics book was just a bit of utilitarian scribbling; and even so it has whole sections in it about egalitarianism and human dignity. All of that is very close to Moses Coady’s idea, which is why Coady is so modern and so appropriate today.
Technology is fabulous. We’ve all done very well out technology, or can do very well out of it. But technology, treated the way we’re treating it, becomes an uncontrollable, linear force. And as a result we lose a large part of the advantage it confers. Twenty years ago we were told that technology would save labour and therefore we would have more free time. Yet since then we’ve gone from a single middle class wage being sufficient for a family with three children, to requiring two incomes to support 1.5 children.
How did that happen? How did we lose the imaginative value that we won through technology? We lost it because we didn’t change the discourse. We allowed the value to be inflated away; a form of invisible inflation which is not even discussed. Yet technology is perfectly controllable, perfectly malleable. I could give you dozens of examples of how technology can be shaped and limited and slowed down so that it can be useful to our societies.
Like Bhutan, Canada has many isolated communities. In both countries there are many settlements that cannot be reached by road. Canada doesn’t have a central energy theory for dealing with the needs of such communities. We ship fuel oil to Arctic communities by barge once a year. We fly fuel in to landlocked aboriginal communities. Most of these settlements are sun-baked for eight months of the year. Many of them are in windy spots. All of them have waste available for burning. Many of them could have geothermal. All of these technologies are in place; why aren’t we doing it? Because the dominant discourse says you need a big economically-based energy theory to solve these problems; not a mere windmill and a dozen solar panels.
What is needed is a much more common sense, down-to-earth, less romantic, less ideological approach towards energy. It could be done but instead people say, “Yeah, but wind could never get beyond 10 percent of our national needs.” Who’s talking about national needs? See: that’s the ideological, linear, rational approach. Instead, let’s recognize that we’ve got 2,000 communities that you can’t drive to; they’re very isolated. Let’s set up a group of people and go to each of these settlements and figure out how to provide them with energy on a one by one basis without some big theory.
What stops us? What stops us is that we have not redefined the central discourse, which is all about big solutions. Health care—we have a minister of health but the entire budget is spent on sickness. People attempt to talk about wellness and about prevention—but there’s no money for wellness and prevention. There’s only money for utilitarian, falsely rational activities. Of course I want the doctors there when I have a disease; that’s not the point. The point is that the way we got from an average life expectancy of 50, in 1900, to an average life expectancy of about 80 today is through wellness: by providing clean water, sewage collection, and so on. But we’re not doing that anymore because we’re so locked into this minutia of managerialism, of false rationality, of linearity.
I think this is a critical moment. I’ve been talking about negatives but underneath you can sense enormous opportunity. It’s a critical moment because we have a critical mass of people involved. These people feel isolated. You’re among a lucky few who can come together to discuss what links you; what makes you more than isolated lights shining in darkness, or whatever you want to say. But the only way to positively proceed from this critical moment is by changing the discourse: the intellectual discourse and the discourse of power. If you don’t have power, if you don’t have the language, you can’t do it. If you don’t have the power you can’t change anything. If all you have is influence, all you have is influence. You may get a few cookie crumbs but you’re not going to get the fundamental changes that you’re after.
It’s very important to differentiate between strategy and tactics; leadership and management; and so on. Most NGOs were constructed as shadows of the problems they opposed. What they opposed is a silo, by definition. It cuts down trees; it burns something. And thus, in a way, even though millions of people are involved, the structure of the NGO mirrors the structure of what it’s trying to eradicate. Intellectually speaking, that is a problem: one, no power, only influence; two, structured in a manner which mirrors what you oppose—a system which limits to tactics many people who want to change the world, and prevents them from getting at strategy.
Strategy is not a great big thing that takes on everything at once. It’s not the trenches of the First World War. That would be disastrous. Strategy is looking at the situation and trying to figure out what are the strategic points. It looks for the one, two or three major programs, changes or initiatives that could be undertaken which would, in a sense, shift the whole opposing side; shift the whole situation. A great general looks at an army—it doesn’t matter how big it is—and he pushes a button and then the whole thing either falls apart or it swivels around. That’s what strategy is.
In practical terms, in Canada and in Bhutan, this means public education. This country was radically changed by public education. They didn’t say: “We’re going to change everything.” They said: “We’re going to produce public education for everybody and that will change everything. And then later we’re going to produce health care for everybody and that will change everything.” Or they said: “We are going to ban the death penalty; that will change the attitude towards justice.” Those are strategic approaches as opposed to ideological approaches; the rest will follow if you succeed at the thing you concentrate on.
Right now, within the next month, there is a small possibility that leaders of the western world will cancel about $40 billion worth of Third World debt. If that happens in a reasonably clear manner it will be a sign of a new political energy and leadership, a sense that you can change the direction of things. It’s important to know that this precise thing could have been done in 1980, 1981, 1982, 1983—at any time in the last 25 years this money could have been ripped up or put in a drawer with a note to take it out again in a hundred years. But if it’s done this time it will indicate that there is movement afoot: we are into a new approach, a new self-confidence among political leaders. I don’t know how much. I don’t know how far. We’ll see whether it happens. We’ll see how clearly it happens; how much influence the advisers, the technocrats, have to stop it from happening because they fear that it would be irregular to simply rip up the money. But it’s a sign of an opportunity which is an opportunity for all you.
Let me finish by asking, “What are those areas? What are those strategies?”
That’s not really my business. I could give you my opinion. For instance, I think that micro-finance is a very important area, particularly when it’s aimed at women. I think that the co-op system, which had a great day, is crying out for reinvention; and that the co-op system could actually be the basis of micro-financing. It could be a very powerful new tool; not only in Canada but around the world.
I think there is an enormous need to redefine education so that we’re not exporting education of one sort all over our country and all over the world. We must think about how education needs to be adapted to places so that we’re not simply producing mirrors of what already exists in a few large cities.
I think there’s an easy opportunity to escape the commodities trap by consciously setting out to create international cartels. We’re in a surplus situation. We need to reduce production. By reducing production you bring prices up. By reducing production and bringing prices up you reduce reliance on chemicals; you don’t have to follow the industrial agricultural method. By reducing the industrial agricultural method you get the price up, solidify employment, get better produce, help the marketplace and get government out of subsidies. It would be very interesting, and is an easy area to work in.
Consensus politics in place of opposition politics: I think there is more and more of a call for that in various parts of the world. We mustn’t fool people into thinking that there’s some wonderful dream world of getting the truth through opposition, when in fact the truth can just as easily and more appropriately be got through consensus.
Dealing with the disjunction between the amount of education women have and how little power they have. Today in Canada the majority of graduates from law schools and medical schools are women. You wouldn’t know it when you look at the power structures. I think that could solve itself within 10 years; but if we allow it to solve itself—as opposed to asking, “In what way do women wish to take power?”—we’ll have lost a great opportunity, just as we lost most of the investment value of women going into the work force. I talked about the necessity for two incomes required. It was inflated away. Are we also going to lose the direction that could be given by having a majority of women in two of the most important professions? It has to be consciously considered. How would women take the leadership in these professions in order to see whether it could bring us around in interesting directions?
In the 1970s many young people stopped going into politics because they were told there was no point: inevitable forces were at work around the world. After about 15 years of frustration they started creating NGOs. We now have a higher percentage of people under 40 in public service than ever before in history—but virtually none of them are in electoral politics. Electoral politics is where changes are made. Influence is influence; power is power. If you don’t have power you can’t change things in a radical way.
What do you have to do? You don’t have to shut down the NGOs; there’s nothing wrong with doing two things at once. But you must decide that you’re willing to entirely ruin your personal life by going into electoral politics. Ruin your family life; make your children bitter; all the rest of it—but nevertheless serve the public good by creating political parties, going into political parties, engaging, getting power—and with power serving the public good. And that is a strategy.
Thank you very much.
See also: Speaking notes in both HTML and Print PDF
I want to thank His Excellency John Ralston Saul for providing us with such a stimulating addition to our conference here.
We now have time for a couple of questions.
|Audience I||My work for the last 20 years has been on the issue of consumerism. One of the major ways that public discourse gets degraded is through advertising and the propagation of a dominant story that has to do with shame and selling products. In the United States advertising is included in the cost of doing business so the money that’s spent on advertising isn’t taxed. This allows a proliferation of advertising which really degrades so many things in the public sphere. I don’t how it functions here in Canada, but what do you think about that as a strategic leverage point? How do you reduce the amount of advertising and the propagation of that consumerist story?|
|Audience II||My name is Sarah Shima. As someone who works with cooperatives overseas I was very pleased to hear your comment about the importance of cooperatives. And I would love to hear more on that issue.|
|Audience III||Hi. You spoke about how, under the current paradigm, we analyze all our problems through the prism of utilitarianism; and you related that to the Kyoto Protocol. You said that Kyoto is an example of how we’re making some changes but it really hasn’t worked in a certain sense. So my question is: how could we use the new paradigm in the context of the Kyoto Protocol to make a real difference.|
|Audience IV||I come from Laos and have gone through many different political systems. When do you think the time would be right to set up a GNH party so that everyone could be involved across national boundaries?|
|Mary Coyle||Thank you very much. I would ask His Excellency to please come here and respond.|
|John Ralston Saul||
It’s always very difficult to tell people they can’t do something if you can’t clearly identify the way in which it’s evil. As a former president of PEN and I believe in uninhibited freedom of speech. You would say this is not freedom of speech and I’d basically agree with you, but it’s very dangerous territory when you start telling people they can’t say certain things. I think that there are other ways of dealing with this problem.
About a month ago in Burlington, Ontario, a middle-class community of about 150,000 people between Hamilton and Toronto, the municipal government came to the end of a two-year negotiation process with Wal-Mart. And it was a very serious negotiation and the problem was that what Wal-Mart wanted required a change in the city’s by-laws. And the planners got all they wanted out of Wal-Mart and then they went to city council a month ago and recommended a change in the by-laws. And the council talked about it for a while and then they voted it down. It wasn’t because they hated Wal-Mart; the council just said: “We have very fine planners but they don’t know anything about building communities. Having available the cheapest possible goods is not a citizen’s right and it is not a characteristic of capitalism.” This in a middle class community where almost everybody works in the private sector.
Nowhere in capitalist theory does it say that you need the cheapest possible goods and the biggest possible profits. That’s not capitalist theory. Capitalist theory is fair competition produces fair prices and fair profits. I’m not quite sure what theory is about the lowest possible price and the highest possible profit. Well…theft is one way of saying it.
The point is that Burlington was very comfortable saying, “We’re willing to pay more.” And that’s what I was saying about agriculture, you know, that actually most of our fruits and vegetables and meat are sold far too cheaply in Canada. There’s no reason why apples should be that cheap.
But once it’s explained to people that if you pay too little you can’t employ people, you can’t have an industry, people will agree to pay a little more. But once you have a religion, a linear religion which says we have to get those prices down then people say it’s my right to pay less than I need to pay. And then they’re surprised to find that you have to subsidize the farmers. You’re subsidizing the farmers because the price is too low. Get the prices up and you won’t have to subsidize them. Have a proper capitalist system and you won’t have to subsidize them. I think there are lots of ways of dealing with the manner in which the market functions but what one has to do is try and look strategically; and, I think, beware of limiting freedom of speech.
As for the cooperatives, there isn’t much more that someone like me can say except that 15 or 20 years ago we were told that we would have a service economy; and in the last 20 years we have gotten the exact opposite. That is, we got answering machines and form letters and bank machines which have great utility—but we lost the branches of the banks, and somebody to talk to, and all the rest. In some ways I like going to a bank machine but it wasn’t supposed to replace people. And it didn’t simply replace going to talk to somebody at the wicket; it also undercut the ability of people in rural communities to imagine how they would do something financially.
The big banks have moved out, and the big corporations have moved out into theoretical abstraction, so there’s a fabulous opportunity for a common sense structure; and cooperatives are pure common sense structures to move into small communities. Now the difficulty is: small is beautiful but big is necessary; you need small and big. So cooperatives provide you with the possibility of anchored lending institutions locally so that they belong to the community, but also to very large, powerful national and international institutions.
At a certain point in the Kyoto negotiation the French minister of the environment made a very strong statement saying that it was a failure of politics, by which she meant a failure of political leadership and a victory for management. And the British minister of energy basically said she was a “hysterical woman.” He was in the hands of his managers where she was capable of standing back from it and saying, “We’re going to a lot of work here and we’re going two inches whereas we could be going 30 feet.”
What prevents us from going 30 feet? The same thing that prevents us from ripping up the Third World debt. The politicians get together and say: “OK, let’s do it. We might lose our jobs but so what? We’ll go do something else. Okay let’s rip it up. Let’s see if it works.”
That’s the kind of courage and leadership which politics can do which management can’t do. And I think that is the answer to the question.
You should start a political party when you want to start a political party. You asked if the Gross National Happiness party should start today, tomorrow…. Start it when you want. You have to decide for yourselves what you want to do. All that someone like me can do is say if you keep putting your efforts into lobbying you will get a very small amount of what you want and you will always be broken up into little pieces.
Let’s be clear about this: lobbying and influencing people can be for the cause of good or the cause of evil, but in both cases it is generically the same thing. It’s not the levers of power, right?
About 20 years ago, in the United States and then in Canada and elsewhere, people began to get worried; the administrators got worried that there were too many lobbyists and that this was corrupting the system. There was too much money floating around in our capitals. So they registered the lobbyists in order to keep them honest. But what they actually did was normalize corruption. When you take a corrupt act, such as the act of putting money into the political system, and you register them, that is legalized corruption. They’re in the influence business. How can the NGOs actually do any better than them in the same business where you’re not corrupting people, right? So the key to it is not influence; the key is power. Rather, I should say, the key is power provided you have begun by getting the public discourse right and so it is clear why you are going after power. These two together are the key.
|Richard Reoch||And now, friends, it gives me great pleasure to invite His Excellency Lyonpo Jigmi Thinley, the Honourable Minister for Home and Cultural Affairs of Bhutan, and one of the intellectual giants of this conference, to address us briefly as we move towards its conclusion.|
|Lyonpo Jigmi Thinley||
Let me begin by saying that it has not been easy for me to come and stand at this podium after the session that we have just been through. May I say, Your Excellency, Dr. John Ralston Saul, that we have greatly enjoyed your most profound and powerful thoughts. And we think it most appropriate that you found the time to be with us at the conclusion of our very, very successful conference. You have indeed enriched our discourse and have given us much to ponder upon as we return home.
May I, with all humility, pretend that I have been given the mandate to represent all the participants here at this conference, as I realize that I am the only person from outside the country who has been given the opportunity to speak before you in this concluding ceremony. And in taking this opportunity, let me thank Mary Coyle, Richard Reoch, and all those who have worked so very hard to make this conference so very meaningful and successful. It has been, in fact, more than a conference: I think it has been a festival, a celebration, in our discovery of what is indeed the most important thing in life.
This is the second international conference that we have had on this subject of Gross National Happiness. I hope that happiness will become a subject of intense discourse at the family level, at the community level, at the level of our societies—so that we will discover and adopt and accept happiness as the purpose of development, and as the goal of human society.
And in having adopted this, I believe that we will be able to impress, we will be able to require, our leaders to reflect on it, think on it, and enjoy the mandate of being able to fashion the appropriate policies and strategies so that we might ways in which we can share what we have and create a society that is equitable and just. Create a society wherein we look at each other as one and find reasons to collaborate rather than reasons for conflict, and thereby enjoy peace within an environment of sustainability.
So with these words may I thank you once again for the opportunity of being here along with a very large delegation from Bhutan. All of us have benefited tremendously from this and we know that we are returning home with a greater sense of faith and trust; indeed, a greater sense of faith in humanity. It has been such a privilege for all of us to have been able to hear great thinkers, great minds—leaders who have dared to break away from the shackles of our conventional thoughts and beliefs and dared to lead us in a new direction. I would like to thank them for the leadership that they have provided so far. For their endeavours I would like to express our solidarity on behalf of those leaders who have spoken here today and in the past few days; solidarity with them in the endeavours that they will continue to make. Once again, thank you very much.
Before I go I would fail in my duty if I were not to convey to His Excellency John Ralston Saul the greetings and good wishes of His Majesty the King to Her Excellency the Governor General and to yourself. Thank you. I wish you happiness!
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