​Thailand's ambitious plan for a sustainable future

Thailand, as a developing nation with a growing population, faces the day-to-day challenge of overcoming issues such as widespread poverty, lack of access to education and overcrowding in urban areas. Despite this, confronting environmental challenge is considered a high priority for the Thai government and people.

"In the name of 'development', the earth's resources have been exploited beyond the limits of sustainable use", claims the Thailand Sustainable Development Foundation (TSDF).

"We now need to reverse our destructive habits and strive for sustainability in the ways we live."

What is "sustainable development"?

Sustainable development, defined by the United Nations in 1987 as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability future generations to meet their own needs." According to the TSDF, "Sustainable development can happen only when the goals of economic, social and environmental development evolve in harmony, without threatening the natural subsystems that are essential to human life."

In many ways, this is just a re-stating of what has previously been said on the much-debated topic of sustainable development. Throughout history, the challenge has remained the same: how can we ensure growth and prosperity while avoiding placing irreversible pressure on the resources that sustain us?

In fact, in 2015 the United Nations launched their update of the Millennium Development Goals: The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This shift in perspective to a more environmental-centric model of aspiration is noted by TSDF: ""Sustainable development has eclipsed all other priorities on the global agenda in the 21st Century."

Indeed, the very notion of creating a sustainable and prosperous nation has long been the vision of Thailand's reining king, His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who coined the term "sufficiency economy philosophy" in 1997 following the era's economic crisis.

The King's aspiration for Thailand was to develop a more resilient and sustainable economic model (partially based on Buddhist philosophy) that would not only lift his people out of poverty, but also enable them to meet the challenges of globalisation.

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What does philosophy have to do with the environment?

Thailand's people, values and culture have been significantly influenced and shaped by the teachings of Buddhism. Indeed, the nation's constitution explicitly states that the King must uphold the teachings of the faith systems. As one academic puts it, "without Buddhism, Thailand would not be what it is today."

Once you appreciate the profound influence of Buddhism on the Thai lifestyle and society, it becomes apparent why Buddhist teachings and philosophies would come into play when working out a sustainable model for the future.

As the TSDF puts it, the notion of "sufficiency economy" is based on the idea of "taking the 'middle path' of moderation as a guiding principle for decision-making by individuals and organisations."

"Sufficiency embraces moderation, reasonableness and prudence… a way of life based n patience, perseverance, diligence, wisdom… is indispensable to create balance".

In this way, "sufficiency economy" is more than a buzzword: it is an approach to life that ties in perfectly with both the values of Buddhist teachings and the environmental imperatives of the era of global warming and climate change.

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What does "sufficiency economy" look like in practical terms?

It's all very well to throw around these elegant terms and philosophical statements, but is it really possible to have a country that is both prosperous AND environmentally sustainable? And even if it were, what would it look like?

It's not anti-capitalist or anti-growth

Many people probably associate "sustainability" in economics as synonymous with attacking businesses for making money, ignoring GDP and moving towards the enforced sharing models of communism.

But this isn't what Thailand is attempting to do.

"The goal is to achieve balance between consumer ambitions and our real needs and available resources, so that we can ensure a sustainable way of life for the foreseeable future."
- Thailand Sustainable Development Foundation

Put simply, let's live within (and not beyond) our means in order to ensure that our resources such as water, land and fuels last as long as possible. If you're rich businessman in Bangkok, living within your means will mean something very different than it would for a farmer from rural Thailand.

The businessman should invest his money wisely into ethical and sustainable companies and resources to create prosperity not only for himself, but also for the wider community. The farmer could restrict himself to using only organic pesticides and herbicides on his farm, or make efforts to reuse waste from animals as fertiliser. Both of these people should avoid doing unnecessary harm to the environment, and should both strive to walk the "middle path" of sufficiency.

Whether we like it or not, capitalism is our world order. Indeed, Buddhist monk Venerable Phra Anil Sakya, special lecturer at Mahamakut Buddhist University, Thailand, addresses this in his talk on sufficiently economy:

"We can't deny capitalism. It has become part of our lives, but it has made us lose part of our identity, our humanity."

"We are sharing this planet: this planet is not our own… whatever we do, we should do within our means."​
- Venerable Phra Anil Sakya

It's not anti-consumerism or anti-technology

As the King stated in 1998, "Sufficiency is moderation… Being moderate does not mean to be too strictly frugal; consumption of luxurious items is permissible… but should be moderate according to one's means."

In simple terms, it's fine to treat yourself and your loved ones with jewellery and overseas holidays, but don't let these actions take you into debt, or come at the expense of the destruction of the environment.

Much of this comes back to the very ideas that we already try to keep in mind when living a low-carbon lifestyle: Do I really need this new house/car/object? Where was it made? Who made it? What is it made from? Will it make me happy, or am I buying this just to show off?

The main difference with the Thai model is that the TSDF wants to apply this way of thinking at all levels of society, from individuals to business, organisations to government.

Final thoughts

It's inspiring to see the leadership of developing nations such as Thailand. It really makes you think: if a country battling poverty and massive health issues can do all this, why can't world leaders such as the US, Australia and the UK do more to develop a more environmentally-minded model for economic growth?

Click here to find out more about Thailand's plan for a sustainable future.

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Images: Steph Newman

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