The Sufficiency Economy and the King of Thailand

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.

king rama ixThe 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.

7 Comments on “The Sufficiency Economy and the King of Thailand”

  1. Stefan Thiesen July 2, 2013 at 1:54 pm #

    Thank for that one, Jeremy! As I probably have mentioned elsewhere, I am working on a long term study about the Philippine energy and resource economy, which by now turned into something far more all encompassing. I will not and cannot act as if I am a “mainstream classical or neoclassical economist and as if “economics” and its mainstream tool still had the same standing as 20 years ago. The situation cannot be analyzed scientifically without acknowledging the influence of culture, of psychology, society, history, traditions, ethnic conflicts, as well is growing disparities, limited carrying capacity vs. population growth, the problem of economic growth, the geography of the country (7000+ Islands). My observations and studies really indicate that the islands population basically is culturally incompatible with inherently materialistic and competitive western economic models and with centralized governing structures. Both main western economic and government models – the nominally democratic/capitalistic and the nominally democratic/socialist/communist systems are at odds with the village type deeply humanistic (or humane) share-share culture of most ethnic groups in the islands. This was already observed by the Philippine national hero José Rizal in his book “The Philippines a century hence”, original “Filipinas dentro de Cien Años”, in 1890). It is rather interesting to see that a number of pilot projects in the Islands where a modern version of traditional village management was (re-) introduced are very successful. What nowadays we call “integrated coastal zone management” has been in place for centuries, if not thousands of years, in many pacific island nations (i.e. the “Ahupua’s system in Hawai’i), and these approaches of a need based economy instead of a growth based economy seem to be re-discovered. All this is experimental, still, but there have been lifestyles that evolved and were fine tuned over thousands of years, in some cases sustaining large populations at relatively high cultural levels for many centuries or even an entire millennium. The globalized forced-growth capitalistic system is, at best, 60 or 70 years old. Not even the lifetime of an individual human being. Considering it the non plus ultra and calling it “without alternatives” (as German Chancellor Merkel did on a few occasions) is a bit short sighted and lacks historical perspective. I would even go so far as to claim that the constantly accelerating growth economy is incompatible with human nature at large. I have seen young development engineers who entered their jobs fresh from college, motivated, clever, well educated, energetic, athletic, earning good money, being successful at their jobs – who collapsed with burnout, depression and all sorts of physical ailments before they even turned thirty. Acceleration. Information overload. Voluntary night shifts. Broken relationships and families. That is the price for economic success. We have the means for a humane society, but we opt to become more akin to Star Trek’s “Borg” Drones. Exchangeable machine parts that simply are exchanged when broken. When we look at our spiritual traditions – basically all of them – they all warn against greed and instead emphasize moderation, self sufficiency, calmness, modesty, meekness. When I was 18, I, too, dreamt of nice possessions and envied the kids in school who’s parents were richer than mine, who had a yacht, a house in Souther France and more. It was the same year when in Philosophy class we read “to have or to be” by Erich Fromm, which felt like an epiphany at the time (’85 or ’86). My later experience in Hawaii and in third world countries only added to it. It – “The System” on many levels doesn’t work, and the warnings against it (sorry if I repeat myself) have been resounding through the millenniums. Nothing about all that is new. Consumerism is the result of an economic system that caters to the lowliest instincts of the human animal. To have or to be. I have yet to meet an unhappy monk! “And lead me not into temptation” Christians pray, while living in a society that is built upon temptations, greed, lies and self delusion. As G.B. Shaw wrote: “I am afraid we must make the world honest before we can honestly say to our children that honesty is the best policy.”

    “The System” was created by humans, and only humans can do something about it. I wonder what would happen if enough people would opt out of it and simply refuse to go along with the white collar lifestyle and suburbia ideals? In Buddhism grown up reflection of life often is taught by meditating upon one’s own death and decay. The effect here is that understanding and accepting your own unavoidable demise pretty much keeps your greed at bay, deep within you learn to let go of yourself, of the illusion that you are here for eternity and the constantly nagging monkey soul within that craves possessions, substances, any form of short lived pleasure, over time fades away. In Thailand Buddhism penetrates the culture of the country, so the principles – whether they are lived by or not – certainly do deeply penetrate the country. But as I said above, those are not only Buddhist principles, but they can also be found in many of the South East Asian countries and the Pacific Island nations, no matter what is the dominant religion or form of government. And now back to the rat race…

    • Jeremy July 2, 2013 at 2:11 pm #

      Interesting that you should mention temptation. I’m currently reading a book called ‘We have met the enemy: Self control in an age of excess’. It makes that exact point, that modern society offers us more temptations than ever before.

      The Sufficiency Economy is inspired by Buddhism, but as you say, every wisdom tradition I can think of talks about the benefits of moderation. It is rather arrogant, I’d say, to think that we can ignore all those centuries of wisdom and create a good society based on selfish excess.

      • Stefan Thiesen July 2, 2013 at 2:40 pm #

        Yes. Interesting. I still have an old issue of the ecologist here that I really cherish. It is from the late 90s and titled “The Cosmic Covenant”, a special issue focusing on inter-religious dialog and what our spiritual traditions have to offer in terms of an answer of the seemingly never ending “crisis”. At this very moment the latest issue of the Quarterly “Buddhismus aktuell”, the magaizne of the German Buddhis union, lies next to me, and the last article I read was a dialog between Wilfried Reuter, a German Buddhist Teacher and Christian Herwartz, a German Jesuit Monk. The article is roughly titled “Spiritual Practice means crossing limits and keeping limits.” Quite often I am amazed how much catholic and Buddhist monks essentially agree. There usually is very little difference between them when it comes to ethics and morality. What they both describe though, as a problem, that even the spiritual traditions (or wisdom traditions in the widest sense) tend to be penetrated by the logics of marketing and consumerism, and what used to be a genuine tradition turns into a fashion, into what a friend of mine referred to as “spiritual consumerism.” Independent parts of our culture – science, art, music, philosophy, religion etc. – all are becoming “markets”. All provide “services to society” and whether they receive support depends on how valuable that serviced is deemed to be, usually reduced to some form of monetary assessment. Quite obviously then a tradition that teaches to be humble and meek and self sufficient ranks rather low. I am waiting for a law that penalizes those who refuse or fail to consume a certain minimum every month… In any case organized religion can be both: part of the solution or part of the problem. It is quite obviously for me that “Capitalism” itself largely is a belief system in its own right, and most people cannot explain its workings (think about your own article about fractional reserve banking a while ago). What is the percentage of the population that can properly explain how money creation and fractional reserve banking work? I once met a financial consultant who wanted to sell me a mortgage credit. From me he expected to basically strip my soul and provide every information. I then asked him to show me how to calculate compounded interest (I learned the simple formula in grade 9). He couldn’t! A financial “consultant” (salesman, that is). People have faith in the money system that they don’t understand. If they would, much fewer people would go bankrupt or end up in deep debt. Here is basically what I mean when I say we need to look at “the economy” in a scientific way, i.e. in a way that actually reflects reality. At the same time moral and ethical standards have to come from elsewhere….

  2. Paul G July 3, 2013 at 4:28 am #

    Haven’t had a chance to read any of this – but THANK YOU for posting it. Great that this philosophy gets more attention.

  3. rain February 24, 2014 at 8:12 am #

    I LOVE THE KING OF THAILAND.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. When Worlds Collide #95: Waiting for Sombath Somphone… | When Worlds Collide, by Nalaka Gunawardene - December 15, 2013

    […] only thing that I see available is ‘Gross National Happiness’ philosophy (of Bhutan) and the ‘sufficiency economy’ of the Thai King. But…every culture will have to find its own adjustment…The prevailing pattern of development […]

  2. Ecuador’s sharing economy | Make Wealth History - March 10, 2014

    […] number one priority” as Gordon Brown declared it to be when he was PM. I’ve mentioned Thailand’s sufficiency economy before, or Bhutan‘s experiment in Gross National Happiness. To that we can add another: […]

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