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William Powers: Snowflakes in Copenhagen

December 16, 2009

By **William Powers**

COPENHAGEN—It’s a little ironic. The world has gathered at the climate conference in Copenhagen to talk about the weather, but few people are aware of, well, the weather. Not weather trends, mind you. There’s plenty of discussion about that. I’m talking about the fact that it’s snowing now in the Danish capital—lightly, beautifully.

This is more than poetic musing. Both Freud and Jung said that the world’s problems can’t be solved with the same type of thinking that created them. Recent psychological studies suggest that humans cannot solve environmental problems through logic alone, divorced from the environment we’re trying to protect. We have to also feel ourselves to be part of nature.

Take the example of one Latin American delegate I met here. She has been working until 2am every night; and she wakes up at 5am to begin work every day. “Can she make good decisions without any sleep?” a colleague asked, rhetorically, to a group of us here in the gargantuan, windowless media room.

An ethos of total work reigns in Copenhagen—not unlike the one that’s consuming the world’s finite resources at unsustainable rates and spewing out tons of greenhouse gasses. Blackberrys vibrate away as participants race from meeting to meeting, stopping only to gulp down a double espresso.

Meanwhile, I discovered a “meditation and prayer room” here, and walked inside today. Of the 40,000 participants, only one was there in the silent space, amid a half dozen potted trees. In a business suit, he was stretched out of the floor, asleep.

I’m not suggesting delegates chant “ohm” all day or hug trees instead of hammering out solutions to climate change. Global warming is already contributing to floods and hurricanes, severe droughts, and spreading diseases like dengue fever and malaria. The need for work is urgent—the world must act.

But if we’re to achieve equilibrium in our ecosystem, shouldn’t we also foster equilibrium in our lives? Here’s a modest suggestion for the delegates: work hard, but also step outside once in a while and catch a snowflake on your tongue.

I know at least four leaders from Bhutan who are probably doing just that.

Their presentation on Friday is still sending ripples, but it hasn’t been covered much in the media. Perhaps that’s because it’s not as fashionable as climate-ironies (like the 140 carbon-spewing private jets arriving here during the peak period alone—so many, in fact, that they have to drop their passengers, “park” in Sweden, and fly back to pick them up) and the climate-celebrities present (like Leonardo DiCaprio, Daryl Hannah, Prince Charles, and Sheryl Crow).

Bhutan delegates at COP 15.jpg

The Bhutanese leaders, looking like philosopher princes in their intricate plaid-patterned robes, sat before a room packed to overflowing, and presented on a curious topic: “Enhancing Gross National Happiness through Climate Change Adaption Projects in Bhutan.”

His Excellency Dasho Nado Rinchen, a deputy minister of environment, outlined his country’s official national development focus: instead of the purely economic gross national product (GNP), he said, they track and pursue gross national happiness (GNH), a more holistic goal.

Karma P. Dorji, chief engineer of Bhutan’s Department of Energy, explained that his country wants to help reduce the world’s carbon footprint by pursuing carbon-neutral (mostly small scale hydroelectric) rural electrification in 1,700 villages now burning wood and kerosene.

A Japanese government official, who also sat on the panel, explained that Japan was helping Bhutan to do this, and that emerging carbon-trading markets should reward Bhutan for choosing a low-carbon development path. “Gross National Happiness,” he said with a smile, “can inform a new Gross Global Happiness.”

Utopian? Perhaps. But in one study by the University of Leicester’s Adrian White (“A Global Projection of Subjective Well-being: A Challenge to Positive Psychology?”) Bhutan ranked 8 out of 178 countries in Subjective Well-Being, a metric used by many psychologists since 1997.

There’s a larger point here. The reason the GNH presentation has been so resounding here is because the world hungers for ideas that go beyond the technical, reaching the level of changing paradigms.

After all, the world’s financial and climate crises have a similar cause: living beyond our means. The world has run up enormous ecological debts, just as it has run up financial debts, and neither is durable. We can’t rely solely on buying a bunch of stuff to bring the economy—or the environment—back.

“Maybe there’s another way to define prosperity,” an audience member, an executive from India, wondered aloud at the end of the presentation. “Is anyone in the West trying to adopt GNH instead of GNP?” One of the philosopher princes cleared his throat. “There’s a need to shift away from just consumption,” he said, choosing his words diplomatically. “We define quality of life more broadly.”


Several readers commenting on my last blog from Copenhagen asked what they can do abroad to affect the negotiations here. Here are two ideas:

First, consider joining thousands of people around the world will be fasting this Thursday, December 17 “in solidarity with the millions who have and could lose their lives to preventable and involuntary hunger, disease and conflict resulting from climate change.”

Second, check out www.350.org. This is a growing citizens’ movement working toward 350ppm as the upper limit of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. They have exactly 350 mostly young people plying the hallways here, pressuring political leaders for a serious deal, and 350 Danish churches rang their bells 350 times last week to make this point.


This post is cross-posted from The World Policy Blog.


William Powers.jpgWilliam Powers hails from Long Island, NY and has worked for over a decade in development aid and conservation in Latin America, Africa, Washington, D.C., and Native North America. From 2002 to 2004 he managed the community components of a project in the Bolivian Amazon that won a 2003 prize for environmental innovation from Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. His essays and commentaries on global issues have appeared in the New York Times and the International Herald Tribune, and on National Public Radio. Powers has worked at the World Bank, and holds international relations degrees from Brown University and Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service. A 2004-2005 recipient of the Open Door Foundation for non-fiction, he is the author of the Liberia memoir Blue Clay People: Seasons on Africa’s Fragile Edge and the Bolivian memoir Whispering in the Giant’s Ear: A Frontline Chronicle from Bolivia’s War on Globalization. Powers is a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute and author of the forthcoming Twelve by Twelve (New World Library, 2010).

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