A Conversation with Helena Norberg-Hodge, Part I

For more than thirty years, Helena Norberg-Hodge has promoted the personal, social, and ecological benefits of local economies. She is an author, filmmaker, and the founder and director of the International Society for Ecology and Culture (ISEC); much of her work has focused on Ladakh, a corner of India whose economy and culture has remained relatively intact in an age of globalization. On October 18, Norberg-Hodge joined author Richard Heinberg and Orion staff for a live web conversation about the end of economic growth—listen to an audio recording of their discussion, here.

I spoke with Norberg-Hodge about her new film, The Economics of Happiness, and the future of local economies on our teeming, changing, still beautiful planet. What follows is the first in a two-part series. —Scott Gast, Editorial Assistant

Scott Gast: Your film, The Economics of Happiness, opens with a description of the strange intersection we’re at as a civilization, between an environmental crisis, an economic crisis, and a crisis of the human spirit. It’s this last crisis—the crisis of the human spirit—that the film seems to dedicate most time and attention to. Why? Why, in the midst of all this other trouble, focus on happiness?

Helena Norberg-Hodge: I’ve been waxing on about happiness for a long time because I think it’s time we realize, in the West, how much our notion of “progress” has cost us—how much it’s cost us personally. For me, and for the rest of us in ISEC, it’s clear that the damage we’re doing to the seas and to the earth, to the birds and to the bees, is a damage that we’re inflicting on our selves. Once that becomes really clear, I think we’ll have a much stronger movement for change.

SG: And for me, as a viewer of the film, the moments of stark, personal confrontation with that damage are the most moving. There’s a scene in the film, near the end, in which a few women, who I assume are Ladakhi women, are standing in a Western nursing home, looking with a sort of sadness and pity at a white woman who’s sick in bed, watching TV alone. It’s an extraordinarily moving image. And it seems to me that that sort of thing—the emotion of it—is an important driver of cultural change.

HNH: I agree. There’s far too little awareness about the high price we’ve paid for our path of progress. And there’s been very little articulated about what it has meant to lose community—not only in terms of a human connection, but also in the sense of a communion with the rest of life.

From my point of view—and there’s plenty of evidence to back it up—that’s the fundamental reason for most of today’s human malaise, including an epidemic of depression in the Western world, and an epidemic of self rejection that takes the form of things like plastic surgery at a young age. And now, throughout the so-called Third World, where there’s media there’s even a desire for lighter skin, for blue eyes—we touch on all of that in the film. This is a terrible, terrible price that we’ve paid, and it’s something that is simply not recognized or articulated enough.

SG: The film focuses, in part, on how all of these changes have played out in Ladakh. Can you say a little more about your experience there?

HNH: When I first arrived, I had never encountered people who had a deeper, more relaxed and more deeply positive sense of self—you know, it wasn’t a question of pride or vanity; there was just a deep joy and humor and wisdom to those people. It sounds like I’m romanticizing, but the fact was no one ever said to me, “We are underdeveloped, we are poor, we are stupid, we are backward.” In the first years that just didn’t happen, and then I saw, with the advent of tourism and development and so on, how these Western ideas started coming in, and what that meant in terms of human happiness.

The thing that became so clear was that there were two structural areas that we had to look at simultaneously. Along with the images that made people feel stupid and backward and underprivileged were structural pressures that destroyed local economies and created a scramble for artificially scarce jobs. I think we need to raise awareness about how this system works. What I’ve found is that the people who tend to see these issues most clearly are the people who have a depth of experience on both sides of the divide: people who have experienced the difference between a highly urbanized, industrialized system and a land-based, generally less developed way of life usually report that the latter offers a greater sense of community, a slower pace of life, a more human scale.

SG: Part of what you attempt in the film, and through ISEC, I think, is to highlight that divide for people from both the developed and developing world. The film mentions a fascinating ISEC program—”reality tours” of the West, for Ladakhis and others—that work to expose the degree of commercialization, sterility, and general falsehood that characterizes our culture. Can you talk a bit about those? Are they still happening?

HNH: Well, there have been less of them in the last few years, partly because it is difficult to raise money for that kind of thing, and partly because we feel that we need to put more of our efforts into raising awareness about localization in the West. As unemployment and poverty grows in the industrialized countries, people are beginning to demand change. We feel we can add clarity to that discussion by strengthening the movement for localization, so that’s a more important focus right now.

But we would like to continue the reality tours, if we can raise the funds for them. The reality tours, which put people from the developing world in dialogue with Westerners, were an effective tool for providing an experientially based understanding of life in the West. A cross-the-divide dialogue—an understanding that there are serious problems in the West, and that there’s a search for a different direction of development—is incredibly important. Hearing that it was from the grassroots that people began persuading their governments not to use DDT; that there are Westerners working to change the direction of our economic model toward something more ecological; that people suffer from the breakdown of family and community; that there’s a serious problem with mental illness—something that in these more traditional cultures was very rare—all that lays the groundwork for leadership.

Visit the blog later this week for Part II of this conversation.