Yesterday I mentioned the ‘Sufficiency Economy’, as described by the Simplicity Institute. But there is another name that is more commonly attached to the phrase. The king of Thailand, Rama IX, is the world’s longest serving head of state. He has spent decades nurturing a philosophy of life in balance with nature, and the name he coined for it was the Sufficiency Economy.
The Sufficiency Economy, which no doubt has more of a ring to it in Thai, builds on traditional Thai values of self-reliance, perseverance and wise living. Moderation is one of its key principles – neither lack nor excess, living within one’s means and keeping in control of circumstances. Another is resilience and risk management, or ‘self immunity’ as the king’s Chaipattana Foundation puts it. Greater self-sufficiency is encouraged, not as an absolute, but as a way of increasing independence and autonomy.
The philosophy is applied at household level, particularly in rural areas, but it has been influential at the national level too, particularly since the 1997 crash. The collapse of the ‘tiger economies’ offered a pause for reflection, and the Sufficiency Economy became a sort of counter-balancing idea. Thailand would not resist modernity and globalisation, but it would take more care to provide enough for everyone and to protect itself from future shocks. “Being a tiger is not important” said the king. “The important thing is for us to have a sufficient economy. A sufficient economy means to have enough to support ourselves… we have to take a careful step backward.”
The king has considerable power but is not involved in the day to day government, so his ideas are not enshrined in law and function more as guiding principles. Many of the practical articulations of the philosophy are the king’s own projects and pilots in renewable energy or integrated agriculture. I don’t know enough about Thai culture to know how familiar most people would be with them, so I couldn’t say how far it penetrates into everyday life or politics.
What’s interesting about the Sufficiency Economy is that it is a distinctly Thai approach, complimentary but quite different to the Western concept of sustainable development. As Sirimas Hengrasmee observes in her chapter in Living Within A Fair Share Ecological Footprint, sustainable development can tend to emphasize what you can’t have, by stressing limits and boundaries. In focusing on moderation and living within your means, Sufficiency Economy is more likely to foster contentment and appreciation of what you do have. It aims for ‘reasonableness’ and meeting needs, rather than drawing lines that say ‘this far and no more’.
It’s also more holistic and sees right living as a virtue, whereas sustainability is more of a technical term. And sustainability is an empty word, with nothing to say on the actual value or quality of what is being sustained, while the Sufficiency Economy is clearly seen as a good thing in itself.
The point is not that we should adopt these principles, but by looking into them we can broaden our own understanding of good living in a finite world, and fill in any gaps. We should remember too that concepts like sustainable development are not necessarily globally shared, and that there are lots of different ways of expressing the same thing. Different cultures and languages will have their own perspectives on our global environmental challenges, and we will need all of them to create a truly global response.