Interview with Helena Norberg-Hodge by David Leser
Printed in the May 27, 2000 issue of the Good Weekend
Okay, if we think about it, we know it’s absurd
that the average meal travels to us from thousands of kilometres away –
that the garlic comes from China, the grapes from Chile, mung beans from
Madagascar. We know it’s ludicrous that oranges from California cost us
about 89 cents a kilo, compared with $2.89 for ones grown at home.
But we’re pressed for time. And it’s easier to buy the polished rhubarb from Woolworths than the stuff from the local organic farmer with mud still clinging to it.
The other morning, I was drinking Italian coffee and eating a pawpaw from Brazil and I didn’t think twice about it. Nor did I consider how much our downsized workplaces, our imploding marriages and our alienated youth might be connected to this Brazilian pawpaw, or to the name-brand jeans and T-shirts my children are constantly demanding to wear. I didn’t connect all this with the fact that local cultures, dialects and communities are being destroyed every day by the same thing. The global economy.
But that’s because I hadn’t met Helena Norberg-Hodge yet. I hadn’t heard of her, her organisation – The International Society for Ecology and Culture (ISEC) – or the work she has been doing for the past 25 years in Ladakh, one of the most remote regions of the world.
They say that out of the desert prophets come, but in this case, on this particular day, she appeared not out of the desert but on that most easterly point of the Australian continent where the rainforest tumbles into the sea.
The first time I saw her, she was standing under the lighthouse at Byron Bay looking slightly befuddled, as if she’d lost her monocle or her compass. Her long hair was silvery and wild, and under her wide-brimmed hat you could see a weathered face and a pair of piercing blue eyes.
“Do you know what time it is?” she asked.
“Ten o’clock,” I replied.
That was the extent of our conversation until the following morning at the same spot, when she repeated the question.
“Same time as yesterday,” I replied, but she had no idea what I was talking about.
On the third morning, before she could even utter the words, I told her she was half an hour early. It was 9.30. She gave me a baffled smile and trudged on up to the lighthouse, looking like a mythical figure from some Scandinavian folktale.
Only later that week, at a dinner given in Byron Bay for environmentalist David Suzuki, did I find out that my lighthouse acquaintance – in town on an extended visit – was a friend of David Suzuki, the Dalai Lama and Prince Charles, and has been taught by American theorist Noam Chomsky. She was also the only Westerner who could speak the language of Ladakh, the mainly Tibetan Buddhist enclave in north-west India.
In that wildly beautiful Himalayan zone of Tartar herders and cantankerous beasts known as yaks, Norberg-Hodge had witnessed what happens to a well-functioning society once the global economy rolls into town. It didn’t matter that it was Ladakh. It could have been Lagos or Launceston. In Norberg-Hodge’s opinion, globalisation has done the same thing everywhere. It has triggered an international “race to the bottom” which threatens to impoverish people and ransack environments in every corner of the world. And it is a multidimensional calamity which has grown out of government and business-led economic policies.
So here on the north coast of NSW, at the birthplace of the Australian countercultural movement, Norberg-Hodge has been trying to tackle the problem, partly by giving talks and galvanising community support, but also by proposing to Suzuki a three-way meeting between him, the Tibetan leader-in-exile and the heir to the British crown, aimed at saving the planet.
Norberg-Hodge first arrived in Ladakh in 1975
with a German documentary team, and within 12 months had managed to wrap
her mind and tongue around the impossibly complex local dialect. She also
travelled widely and, because of her language skills, became the first
European in recent times to gain a deep understanding of the inner workings
of the society.
What she saw was a people at ease with themselves, a place where there was neither waste nor pollution; where crime was virtually non-existent; where village communities were healthy and joyous; where teenagers didn’t suffer from alienation; where the old were active until they died. At least, that was until the Indian government threw open Ladakh’s doors to tourism in the mid 1970s and the area gradually found itself exposed to the vicissitudes of a newly emerging international economy.
“In the traditional culture, villagers provided for their basic needs without money,” Norberg-Hodge wrote in her mini-classic Ancient Futures, which – together with a film of the same title – has now been translated in to more than 30 languages. “They developed skills that enabled them to grow barley at 12,000 feet (3,600 metres) and to manage yaks and other animals at even higher elevations. People knew how to build houses with their own hands from the materials of the immediate surroundings. The only thing they actually needed from outside the region was salt, for which they traded.
“Now, suddenly, as part of the international money economy, Ladakhis find themselves ever more dependent – even for vital needs - on a system that is controlled by faraway forces. They are vulnerable to decisions made by people who do not even know that Ladakh exists.”
As Ladakh became linked to the global economy, government subsidies made it cheaper to buy a pound of flour transported from across the Himalayas than from the nearest village. Cash cropping replaced subsistence agriculture as a way of life. The pressure to grow food for profit forced thousands of farmers off the land. Eventually, it proved uneconomic for Ladakhis to grow their own food.
Similarly, it became more expensive to build a house out of local mud than imported cement. Land had suddenly become a commodity with a monetary value. The more people crowded together in the city, the less space was allotted to them and the more expensive that space became.
Instead of simply digging up the land around the house for mud, Ladakhis had to travel further from the growing urban sprawl and pay hard cash for building materials. They also had to pay for the labour to make the bricks, and then for the trucks to haul them back to the city. Added to this was the fact that time now meant money, and building with mud was slower. The more Western-educated Ladakhis had begun learning how to build a house with cement and steel. Old skills were becoming more scarce and, thus, more expensive. And given that people were beginning to see the traditional ways as backward, a mud house was looking bad for their image. In a sense, Ladakh was also being “Hollywoodised” by the monoculture of the global village.
“I became aware that cultural breakdown was a consequence of the pressures on young children that led to a loss of self-respect,” says Norberg-Hodge. “It was tragic to see how media images made them feel ashamed of their own skin colour, their clothing, their language, and I realised that this was all happening because of a completely false impression of Western consumer culture.”
Tourism and television had brought to Ladakh a kaleidoscope of irresistible images which, in contrast to their own lives, made them feel narrow and primitive. All Westerners seemed to be rich, brave and beautiful.
“It has been painful to see the changes in young Ladakhi friends,” says Norberg-Hodge. “Of course, they do not all turn violent, but they do become angry and less secure. I have seen a gentle culture change – a culture in which men, even young men, were (once) happy to cuddle a baby or to be loving and soft with their grandmothers.” She describes a boy she knew called Dawa who, at 15, was still living in his village when tourism first came to Ladakh. After years of no contact, she bumped into him in the city one day and found he’d become a tourist guide. He’d also become a walking advertisement for Western fashion – metallic sunglasses, a T-shirt emblazoned with an American rock group, skin-tight blue jeans and basketball shoes.
“I hardly recognised you,” Norberg-Hodge said to him in Ladakhi.
“Changed a bit, eh?” Dawa replied proudly, in English.
Norberg-Hodge admits that some aspects of Ladakh’s traditional culture were less than ideal. In Western terms, there was a lack of basic comforts, communication with the outside world was circumscribed, illiteracy rates were high and life expectancy lower than in the West.
But the conventional response to these problems – from the Indian government as well as others – was to introduce Western-style “economic growth”. And yet, this kind of growth brought with it more problems than it solved. Today, if you travel into this Himalayan region, you will find slums and unemployment where none existed before. You will find streams and rivers unfit to drink from, air unfit to breathe. In this new, competitive economy, friction has developed between Buddhists and Muslims who had lived peacefully side by side for 500 years.
“I have watched a whole range of different pressures – all operating at the same time – pull the Ladakhis away from their own resources,” Norberg-Hodge says. “The way the whole thing operates is extremely complex and has to do with the systemic transformation of a whole way of life. The pressure on every country in the world to pursue the development model forces governments to expend vast resources trying to generate growth. The end result is a total restructuring of society.
Helena Norberg-Hodge sits on her deck above a
glistening sea, surrounded by bottlebrush and eucalypt. She is wearing
rough cotton pants and an indigo-blue shirt from Ladakh. At 54, she appears
serene and comfortable with the world, as if nearly three decades in the
East might have washed all Western agitation from her mind. But she is
far more troubled than she looks. The fragility of the planet, the lateness
of the hour, give her a sense of urgency which, on occasion, brings out
the zealot in her.
“I am passionately driven to try and get this message out, “ she says, leaning forward and fixing me in her Arctic blue stare. “Right now, things are so upside down that people are led to believe that promoting the same (approach to development and progress) is what is going to maintain their prosperity.
“I am tired of being told that the reason people don’t want to change is because they want to preserve a certain lifestyle or because government leaders want to hold on to their power. If we continue the way we’re going, those lifestyles will be increasingly undermined by job losses and greater insecurity. And politicians will continue to see their power shrinking at the expense of giant transnational corporations.”
Norberg-Hodge agreed to this interview reluctantly. She loathes what she sees as the media’s obsession with personality and relented only when I promised that my story would be much more about her ideas than about her. Then she gave me the brisk, edited story of her life.
Born in Manhattan in 1946 to a Swedish industrialist father and a German-born mother, she spent most of her childhood outside Stockholm and then, after school, studied philosophy, psychology and art history at universities in Austria and Germany. Later, she travelled to Italy, France and Mexico and, by the time she was 25, could speak six languages
In the early ‘70s, she worked in London and Paris as a linguist, and it was on the strength of these skills that she was first invited to Ladakh in 1975 with a German film crew. In 1977, she began studying linguistics at MIT under Noam Chomsky. The next year, she decided to return to Ladakh with the man she had fallen in love with and was later to marry, English barrister John Page.
By that time, Norberg-Hodge had become convinced that the destructive changes she’d been witnessing in Ladakh since 1975 were neither natural nor inevitable. Rather, they were the result of specific government policy – which could be altered. One such policy was promoting and subsidising fossil fuels in an area that enjoyed 300 days of sunlight each year.
“I began pleading for policies that would build on the strengths of the local culture and promote the use of renewable energy,” she explains. In 1978, the Indian Planning Commission gave her permission to organise a small pilot project to demonstrate some simple solar technologies. The focus of the project was to find ways of heating houses and developing solar ovens and greenhouses. This led to the creation of one of the largest renewable energy programs in the developing world. Today, there are thousands of greenhouses throughout Ladakh providing fresh green vegetables in minus 40 degree temperatures for domestic use.
Norberg-Hodge also became involved in a process she describes as “counter-development”, writing plays with Ladakhi colleagues as a way of helping restore cultural self-esteem, particularly to the young people. She organised an exchange program whereby Westerners would explain less glamorous aspects of their society to the locals.
“They would come to Ladakh and talk about the breakdown of family, about the fear of ageing, about child abuse, about job insecurity, about food scares,” Norberg-Hodge says. “They would also talk about the grassroots movements that were trying to rebuild community and find a more sustainable development path.”
By 1980, Norberg-Hodge’s work had expanded to include extensive lecture tours in both Europe and America, and she found herself explaining to economists from the World Bank, the IMF and numerous universities that their model for economic growth was a recipe for social and ecological disaster.
“I found in every institution that there were individuals who were going against the dominant paradigm. But there seemed to be almost a law that those with the most power were the most resistant to my message.”
Early in December 1999, a state of civil emergency
was called in Seattle after the World Trade Organisation was subjected
to wild demonstrations not witnessed since the days of the Vietnam War.
Given the coverage in some sections of the mainstream media, you might
have thought the Martians had landed. Who were these people? Where were
they from? What did they want? According to The New York Times’s Thomas
Friedmann, they were a “Noah’s Ark of flat-earth advocates”. In fact, they
were, as Noam Chomsky put it, “a very broad opposition to the corporate-led
globalisation that has been imposed under primarily US leadership” (Among
their ranks were small farmers, indigenous groups, lobbyists from Third
World nations, trade unionists and representatives from non-government
organisations.) Norberg-Hodge believes Seattle represented a major turning
point in postwar economic history.
“The demonstrations,” she says, “came about as a result of a build-up of awareness by millions of people worldwide that the root cause of escalating unemployment and environmental breakdown wasn’t what they’d been led to believe. It wasn’t dark-skinned immigrants taking their jobs away. It wasn’t a question of right or left politics. It wasn’t the result of some sort of evolutionary ‘progress’, innate human greed or even propensity to overpopulate. It was a result of institutional structures that had been imposed by governments.”
Six months later, demonstrators followed up their successes in Seattle by trying to shut down the half-yearly meeting of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, the two organisations deemed most responsible for promoting globalisation. Soon after, on May Day, there were frenzied scenes in several major cities around the world as demonstrators again took to the streets.
More and more people, it seemed, were beginning to care about and understand what William Greider recently described in The Nation as “the imperious attitudes and amoral operating assumptions embedded in every aspect of globalisation”.
“This is a man-made artifact,” Greider wrote. “A political regime devised over many years by interested parties to serve their ends. Nothing in nature – or, for that matter, in economics – requires the rest of us to accept a system that is so unjust and mindlessly destructive.”
But any optimism Norberg-Hodge might have felt about the Seattle and Washington protests – and it’s not much – is tempered by the fact that “this engine of destruction” is moving at a frightening pace. It is therefore up to all of us, she believes, to get economically literate.
“That’s the most vital form of activism,” she says, “for people to understand what these economic policies mean. Not even most environmental groups are doing that. They are still fixating on the destruction of forests and rivers, but not the economic policies that lead to that.” The next form of activism, she says, is to get involved at the community level – to start community banking systems, strengthen local currencies, establish community land trusts, and institute a local food movement.
“There is almost nothing more important than the localisation of food,” she says. “Every human being has to eat three times a day, so to call a system efficient that separates people further and further from their source of food is nothing short of madness.”
The transformation of food production is beginning already – from Australian farmers challenging the middle men who buy food on behalf of big corporations, to community-supported agriculture programs throughout Western Europe. In these programs, consumers in towns and cities link up directly with a nearby farmer and, in some cases, actually purchase an entire season’s produce in advance, thereby sharing the risk with the farmer. In Britain, Norberg-Hodge and her colleagues spearheaded a local food movement which three years ago resulted in the setting up of a farmers’ market in Bath. This model, which has since been replicated throughout the country, brings consumers and producers together and cuts out unnecessary transport, packaging and waste.
“This is about using resources, technology and economic systems on a human scale,” she says finally. “It is about putting the local economy first and long-distance trade second.”
Helena Norberg-Hodge has been saying this for a quarter of a century. It seems that, at last, people are starting to listen.
Links to other Helena Norberg-Hodge
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