TALLAHASSEE, FLORIDA. — CHRISTOPHER FLAVIN, vice president for research of the Worldwatch Institute, an environmentalist think tank, recently went to the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan to advise the government on a ''sustainable development philosophy.'' He described his ideas in a recent article in the institute's World Watch magazine.
''Sustainable development,'' he explains, is different from ''the single-minded approach to economic growth'' which has brought to ''many countries . . . not only falling water tables and choking pollution, but a decade of declining incomes and swelling bellies.''
Mr. Flavin never quite explains how economic growth causes declining incomes, but he repeatedly warns of the threat presented to ''the struggle for sustainability'' by things like the ''emergence of an industrial sector'' and ''new business interests.''
Fortunately for Mr. Flavin, the government of Bhutan has been willing to make the necessary ''tough choices.'' It outlawed most private logging in 1979, recently forbade ''a major marble quarry and hydropower project,'' has decided to keep ''at least 60 percent of the country covered in forest,'' and is currently DTC putting aside some of the best land in the country as ''extensive wildlife preserves'' and an ''elephant corridor.'' Furthermore, it has not invested ''huge quantities of capital in counterproductive infrastructure and industries.''
Indeed it hasn't. Ninety-five percent of Bhutanese workers are in agriculture or forestry. Until recent years, the only contact they had with the rest of the world was a four-foot-wide mule track to India. There are still only a few thousand motor vehicles in the whole country.
In fact, most Bhutanese live not just in pre-20th-century conditions, but in pre-19th-century conditions. Their per-capita gross national product in 1985 was $134, and their life expectancy was 48 years. Only about five out of a hundred can read and they have one of the highest infant-mortality rates in the world. On the Physical Quality of Life Index, a measure of economic and social well-being on a scale of 0 to 100, the United States scores 95, Bhutan gets 25.
To Mr. Flavin, this is paradise. The article is entitled ''Last Road to Shangri-la,'' and the strains of ''Brigadoon'' are nearly audible as one reads it.
Of course, the picturesque peasants also lead real lives in their isolated hamlets of four or five huts each. Restricted to subsistence-level agriculture on plots legally restricted to 30 acres per owner, the Bhutanese suffer from malaria and tuberculosis. Not only are their clothes hand-made, but so is the cloth they use. Furthermore, each adult is required to work 23 days a year on public projects. Slavery, however, was abolished in 1958.
Mr. Flavin's solution to this medievalism is rooftop solar panels, to be paid for by international aid. Solar power is so diffuse that hut-sized panels can only produce a tiny amount of electricity, but Mr. Flavin estimates that it would be enough for ''two efficient mini-fluorescent bulbs and a radio -- the main uses for power in rural Bhutan.''
Apparently, electric stoves and washing machines are not sustainable. Certainly, they don't appear in the government's list of the people's ''real needs.''
In any event, ''consumerism'' is another piece of nastiness Mr. Flavin wants kept out of Shangri-la, and King Jigme Singye agrees. Last year he had all his subjects' several hundred television antennas dismantled, to protect, he sa
id, the national culture.
In the light of Mr. Flavin's analysis, it is futile to oppose the sustainable-development policies so often advocated in the United States on economic grounds. If Worldwatch, one of the more respected of environmentalist organizations, regards development above the level of a place like Bhutan as unsustainable, then the affluence of the United States is beyond the pale. The ''enviros'' are unlikely to consider the impoverishment of large groups of Americans as anything other than an occasion for expanding the welfare agencies.
Stephanie Moussalli is a research associate of the James Madison Institute and a professor of political science at Pensacola Junior College.