A Conversation with Helena Norberg-Hodge, Part II

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 founder and director of the International Society for Ecology and Culture; much of her work has focused on Ladakh, a corner of India whose economy and culture has remained relatively resilient 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 the 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 second in a two-part series. —Scott Gast, Editorial Assistant

Scott Gast: We’ve been talking about the kinds of prices we’ve paid, both in the industrialized world and in the developing world, as globalization has taken root. In response to those prices, of course, there’s been no shortage of calls for a different kind of development—a strengthening of local economies being one. But how do you see us actually finding the will, as a civilization, to pursue those alternate paths? Your focus on happiness and cultural vibrancy—on the personal, emotional impacts of globalization and growth, rather than the purely economic or political—comes to mind. Does that make sense?

Helena Norberg-Hodge: I think it does. I believe that those of us who have been making a plea for development that’s kinder to the natural world could do a better job of asking: What are our deeply human needs? What drives us as human beings? What makes us happy?

Across the industrialized world—and that includes my native country, Sweden—people are feeling more and more pressure to run faster and faster. If you want to assure a future for your child in the current dominant system, you have to work even harder, send them to an even better private school, an even more expensive one. And this isn’t done out of some blind greed; it’s done, really, out of fear. The result is a sort of fear-driven development, which, to a great extent, is not irrational. Because the dominant economy creates this kind of artificial scarcity of work and educational opportunities—an artificial scarcity in a world that is more and more crowded.

At a very fundamental level, we need to recognize that since the beginnings of the modern economy, we’ve allowed our leaders to put more and more of our wealth into technologies that use up energy while systematically replacing people. Fuller employment, with more human care, intelligence, and work involved, and less energy—whether it’s in medicine or agriculture or schooling or construction—would be a huge plus.

SG:You mentioned agriculture and employment—two things that, I think, are very much related in terms of both giving people a sense of meaning and building an economy based upon stewardship. In his column in the November/December 2011 issue of Orion, Bill McKibben writes about how, just recently, the number of farmers in the U.S. has begun to grow—a trend that has actually reversed itself from lows in earlier parts of this century. That seems like tremendously heartening news, and an important step forward for local economies.

HNH: Absolutely. And that’s exactly what I see—a new, young farmers’ movement emerging all over the world. Even in China and India. It’s a worldwide phenomenon, and it’s part of the incredible growth of the local food movement.

I don’t think people realize just how linked it is to the localization of our entire economies. For years, I’ve tried really hard to point out that in terms of production, there’s nothing else that human beings produce that every single person needs every day of their life. So when thinking about the economy, we have got to put food at the very center.

As part of the local food movement, what I see happening throughout the industrialized world—and it’s very telling when you see it in so many different cultures, as I have—is that the kitchen is becoming the center of the home. The hearth, you know, the stove, is becoming the center of the home. The walls are coming down. The status of women is rising. The status of cooking is rising. People are tearing down the walls of their narrow, dark kitchens that had arisen out of a desire to move away from nature—and hand in hand with this is the movement of people actually enjoying a connection to food, a connection with the animals and the land. And it’s part of a whole package that we often don’t recognize. It’s a return to a nature-based and, I’d say, very ancient way of living.

SG: An ancient way of living?

HNH: Yes, definitely. What I see happening is what I call “ancient futures, micro-trends”—the local food movement now being the most obvious and most visible. What I see us doing, without us realizing it in many cases, is coming back home to nature. Coming back home to a view of nature that isn’t this alien creature that has to be tortured for its secrets. There’s been a lot written about how modern science arose out of a worldview that saw nature as the enemy. In these ancient, nature-based cultures, nature was home, and the worldview was one that emphasized a balance between humans and the natural world. And the balance between masculine and feminine was much healthier, I’d say.

But I also want to say, very clearly, that localization is not about rejecting a methodology of trial and error. It’s not about abandoning every possible technology that has arisen out of the modern experiment or returning to an economy where everything we need is produced a mile from where we live.

SG: Part of what’s so compelling to me about the idea of localization—about rebuilding our practical connections to the places we live—is that we can still lean on some of the lessons we’ve learned, as a civilization, over the past few centuries of globalization. We’ve learned things. And yet, living in a more connected, more authentic way probably means satiating some part of us that’s been hungry for a long time. The food movement is an example of this.

HNH: That’s right. There’s a longing, I think, an absolute, cultural longing—across the board—for a sense of connection with nature and each other. And I’m not advocating intuition over mind—I think it’s about balance. It’s about balance between the terms that are used in Tibetan Buddhism: wisdom and compassion.

Read Part I of this conversation, here.