Bhutan Seems to Offer Hope for the Future of Us All

THIMPHU, Bhutan–Dr. Peter Raven, Trustee of the National Geographic Society and Chairman of the National Geographic Committee for Research and Exploration, reflects on a poem he read at an event to celebrate a hundred years of National Geographic coverage of Bhutan.

I was moved to include Mary Oliver’s poem in the remarks I made for the Committee for Research and Exploration in the presence of the Queen of Bhutan in Thimphu, the capital.  The poem, of course, describes the cycle of seasons and delicately, beautifully tells us about the hope that lies in the renewal of seasons, that leads us to move ahead in the face of seeming disaster because there is a wonderful future being born out of the signs of the closing season.

Bhutan to me seems to offer hope for the future for us all. Deeply spiritual, the country moves ahead with its concept of Gross National Happiness, offering hope for many other nations who admire or seek to emulate it.  It has maintained a net ecological balance, with 72 percent of the national territory forested and a determination, legally based, to conserve at least 60 percent permanently. China and India, which flank Bhutan to the north and south, depend heavily on imports to maintain the standard of living of their people, but Bhutan has not joined them, at least not yet.

It is not so much that there is magic here, although I firmly believe that there is, but that the pervasive sense of hope is an inspiration in a world that is using about 1.5 times the planet’s sustainable capacity on an ongoing basis, has a record 7.2 billion people (up from 1 million in a mere 10,000 years), and is growing at 250,000 people net per day, with some 800 million of us malnourished now – we need to see the light, and the connections.

Lines Written in the Days of Growing Darkness

By Mary Oliver

Every year we have been
witness to it: how the
world descends
into a rich mash, in order that
it may resume.
And therefore
who would cry out

to the petals on the ground
to stay,
knowing, as we must,
how the vivacity of what was is married

to the vitality of what will be?
I don’t say
it’s easy, but
what else will do

if the love one claims to have for the world
be true?
So let us go on

though the sun be swinging east,
and the ponds be cold and black,
and the sweets of the year be doomed.

I was deeply moved by the words of Professor Werner Arber, President of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, as our meeting at the Vatican a couple of weeks ago.  Werner said that we shouldn’t be talking about what kind of world we might be leaving to our children and grandchildren, barely tomorrow, but rather what steps we should be taking to ensure that our civilization can continue for a few centuries or millennia.  In that context I was reminded of some of the words from  the late Robin Williams’ movie, “Dead Poet’s Society.”

We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for. To quote from Whitman, “O me! O life!… of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless… of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?” Answer. That you are here – that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play *goes on* and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?”

— Robin Williams character in Dead Poet’s Society

The National Geographic Society has been in existence for some 125 years, and here in Bhutan for a century.  We try, and that’s the point.  We know that learning about the world, exploring the world and human existence in us, gives us hope.  We cherish that hope, and there’s probably no better place to be hopeful than the Kingdom of Bhutan.

Changing Planet


Meet the Author
Peter H. Raven, a leading botanist and advocate of conservation and biodiversity, is president emeritus of the Missouri Botanical Garden and George Engelmann Professor of Botany Emeritus at Washington University in St. Louis.  In addition, Dr. Raven is a Trustee of the National Geographic Society and Chairman of the Society's Committee for Research and Exploration. For more than 39 years, Dr. Raven headed the Missouri Botanical Garden, an institution he nurtured to become a world-class center for botanical research, conservation, education, and horticulture display.  During this period, the Garden became a leader in botanical research and conservation in Latin America, Africa, Asia, and North America.   He was awarded the U.S. National Medal of Science, highest science award in the country, in 2001.  Described by TIME magazine as a "Hero for the Planet," he has received numerous prizes and awards from throughout the world.  He served for 12 years as Home Secretary of the National Academy of Sciences, to which he was elected in 1977. He is also a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and of the American Philosophical Society, of the academies of science in Argentina, Australia, Austria, Brazil, Chile, China, Denmark, Georgia, Hungary, India, Italy, Mexico, New Zealand, Russia, Sweden, Taiwan, Ukraine, the U.K. (the Royal Society), and of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World (TWAS).  He is coauthor of Biology of Plants, the best-selling textbook in botany.