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Helena Norberg-Hodge
of Local Futures

"When you rob people of livelihood, bombard them psychologically, make them feel like they’re backward and stupid and rob them of self respect, that’s a recipe for violence"

It’s not easy watching the news these days. Stagnating wages, health epidemics, stretched and failing public services, rising extremism, a fractured political system, not to mention an ecological crisis that, if it doesn’t keep you awake at night, probably means you haven’t been looking at the right infographic. How did we get to this point? And how do we find solutions to problems so massive in scale and seemingly varied in nature? Where would you even start?

Helena Norberg-Hodge has some ideas. She believes that these problems share a common root cause, namely an unregulated and often destructive form of globalisation. Furthermore she believes that to try and address these individual issues at the grass roots without paying attention to this bigger economic picture will ultimately consign those efforts to failure.

Helena’s ideas began to form in the 1970’s, when she spent a number of years in Ladakh, a remote region of India which, on her arrival, was almost entirely untouched by the influences of western economic development.

Her book ‘Ancient Futures’ describes how, over the coming years, she watched as the blunt instrument of globalisation transformed Ladakhi society. Witnessing that transformation convinced her of the need for a different kind of development. A decentralised form, sensitive to the particular needs of the region and community it sought to improve.

Since then Helena has devoted her life to expounding the virtues of Localisation, or as she calls it ‘the economics of happiness’. Her organisation, Local Futures, is a non profit dedicated to the strengthening of local communities and economies, not only through action but also through educating people as to the hidden forces that are shaping their lives.

We paid a visit to Helena at her Devon home, where she proceeded to tell us more about her philosophy on how to build a healthier and more sustainable future.

Can you tell us a bit about your background and how you first started doing the work that you’re doing?

My background is unusually international for people of my age. My father was half English, half Swedish, my mother was half German, half Swedish and I lived in America too when I was young. I travelled quite a lot and learned languages very easily, what fascinated me was understanding different worldviews and cultures.

I became a linguist and when I was about thirty I was asked to go out to this remote part of the world that I’d never heard of called Ladakh, as part of a film team. I was just blown over by the amazing beauty of the place and the health and joy of the people. I was only supposed to be there for six weeks, but I decided to stay. The language hadn’t been written down before, so I worked with a local scholar to write a dictionary. It was very challenging and exciting, but the most exciting thing was getting to know these people who just seemed so incredibly happy. The whole area had been sealed off for the entire modern period. So there hadn’t been any economic development, and modern infrastructure had not transformed their way of life.

Over time, I witnessed stark changes in Ladakh. A fossil fuel based, urbanising development was introduced, and almost overnight, created unemployment as well as pollution. Whilst I was out there I read a book called ‘Small is Beautiful’ by E. F. Schumacher, a well known and respected economist, this gave me the courage to write to the Indian government about the need for a different form of development, something that wasn’t based on fossil fuels, that wasn’t going to pull the people from the villages into an ever-expanding urban centre. The book really inspired me and gave me the courage to start projects promoting renewable energy, organic agriculture and cultural self-respect, all of it under very difficult political conditions, but nevertheless I succeeded in involving local leaders. At the same time, I became an advocate of a different form of development and have been speaking throughout the world ever since. Out of that grew my organisation, Local Futures.

Who is E.F. Schumacher?

So back then, were your ideas completely out of favour? Was globalisation essentially seen as a force for positive change?

No, In the 60s and 70s Rachel Carson [an American conservationist whose book Silent Spring is credited with advancing the global environmental movement], realised that using pesticides on a small patch of grass in your garden can have an impact on the other side of the world, so there was this growing realisation that we need more holistic science. This, along with Schumacher’s ‘Small is Beautiful’ and another report called ‘The Club of Rome’, lead to a very powerful environmental movement that did influence policy.

It’s very important, I think, for us to understand that there was huge goodwill from people when they realised how polluting our system was. There was pressure on government to change towards decentralised renewable energy and to promote holistic science. What almost no one understood though, was that after the second world war, there had been a very conscious decision to integrate all the world’s economies under one umbrella. It was thought by a lot of well intentioned politicians and business people, that this was a way of avoiding another depression, another world war. I knew some of these people who really believed that this, so called, economic integration was essential.

Although there was a growing awareness of a need for decentralised development, people were not aware of how trade treaties were dramatically centralising economic activity. They were the path that led to global economic integration, in which, quietly, global corporations were getting more and more power. It wasn’t some sort of conspiracy. But sadly, the environmental movement wasn’t saying: wait a minute, these trade treaties are creating an unfair playing field. It’s not even what Adam Smith promoted, it’s not free trade, it’s very monopolistic, but it’s out of sight.

Then, from the mid 80s globalisation really took off and suddenly academics, the media, virtually all sources of knowledge, no longer talked about decentralisation. In fact, even environmentalists and social activists ended up promoting globalisation.

I work with people at the grassroots who are convinced that everybody at the top knows everything perfectly well and they’re just nasty greedy people. That’s not my experience. I find that the main problem we’re facing is a blindness to the workings of something that’s become so big. It’s very hard to see the connections.

If you are the CEO of Monsanto or Goldman Sachs or the President of the United States, or the Prime Minister of the UK, the idea that keeping growth going is essential in order to create jobs, and avoid social instability, is quite understandable. I feel that the environmentalists and social activists, who have been working at the grassroots, are really the ones who need to be more educated about how these trade treaties are having such a disastrous effect because they favour big, global business over small, local ones.

What has been created is a completely unfair playing field, where everything small, starting with small farmers, is being eradicated. Over the last few decades, in economic miracles China and India, we have seen huge social instability, an increase in poverty, farmer suicide and massive increases in pollution. Simultaneously, the media and advertising play a very big role in making anybody who is not white and western feel inferior. When you rob people of their livelihood, bombard them psychologically, make them feel like they’re backward and stupid and rob them of self respect, that’s a recipe for violence.

The violence will often lead to local conflict which is increasing between different ethnic groups, different religious groups, different regional groups. But also, it’s leading to a growing hatred of the west. We really need to wake up to the fact that the same system that’s creating tremendous economic and identity insecurity in the UK, is creating that on a more massive scale on the other side of the world and it’s not serving anybody. More instability, more war, more pollution more poverty. We’re at a point now where we really need to rethink and move in a different direction.

"I find that the main problem we’re facing is a blindness to the workings of something that’s become so big. It’s very hard to see the connections."

In the UK and in the US and probably countless other places across the world at the moment we’re seeing centrist politics breaking down. Do you see that as people waking up to the fact that the status quo is no longer serving their needs?

I would say, as of 2008 and even before that, there has been a growing awareness that this system is not working, we need something fundamentally different. In politics, both left and right of center have been pursuing the same economic path because they have been pressured by what has become almost a de facto global government. That sounds like a conspiracy, but I see it as more of a structural conspiracy. It’s born out of a system where big, global businesses have so much power. As their wealth and power has increased they have had more influence over the media and you can’t really have democracy if you have a global media, funded by big business favouring certain players. What’s centrist is really corporatist on both the left and right.

Now at the fringes, there is a lot of freaking out. A lot of what we call ‘right wing’ is very often a combination of small businesses, small farmers, people who are seeing their livelihoods disappear. They blame big government and they blame left and green for creating big government. They see them as lobbying for regulation, environmental protection, labour unions etc. They believe that it is the left and green that have destroyed their livelihood by lobbying governments for more and more regulations that destroy small business. This leads to a right wing anti-government position. And small government and laissez-faire economics is what Brexit, Trump and a major swing worldwide to the right is born of. People need to be exposed to the explanation that actually the real problem is the way in which giant monopolies have been given more and more freedom to operate globally. And that this in turn has allowed them to exert more power over government and push things in a direction that destroys jobs by the million. When the information about this gets out, we will see a very powerful movement for fundamental change.

Once the penny drops that the systemic policies that support globalisation are the same policies that create massive increases in CO2 emissions and other forms of pollution, massive job insecurity, financial insecurity and a loss of democracy, we will see a rapid growth in the new economy movement.

Until now, really articulate economists arguing for a different path are nowhere to be seen in academia or in the media. So we still have a way to go before this message gets out. To try to articulate this, to try to reach people is what I call education as activism.

Is it a case of weakening a story that no longer serves us and finding ways to strengthen the alternative.

Yes, definitely. The dominant story, that we’re being told again and again, is that human beings are greedy by nature. When someone says ‘let’s change the system’, we’re told, oh no, it’s evolutionary.

The other story is beginning to be told from the ground up. It is a story about our need to reconnect to one another and to nature. It’s what I call localisation. This story is based on a lot of experience and incredible, inspiring examples. It shows that once we start rebuilding our connections to nature and to others, we can create another type of economy and enrich and enjoy our lives more. Human beings are not greedy and aggressive by nature, we long to be loved and respected, and we find our true nature as we start reconnecting to the living world around us. Deep joy springs from a relational way of being.

In the past we have been told that the only choices were Capitalism, Socialism or Communism. However, they were all top-down, centralised industrial systems that broke down community and our connections to the natural world. The bureaucracy and inhuman scale were both socially and environmentally destructive. I feel privileged to share a different story and information about grassroots initiatives that are truly empowering and inspiring.

For this movement to flourish, what needs to happen?

The movement for decentralisation dates back to the start of industrialisation, but localisation, as a movement, is really very new. Many of the people who are doing wonderful local work are not aware that this is a global movement. They’re not aware that people are starting to do it in China. It’s not as big in the less industrialised parts of the world but it is happening there too- in fact on every continent.

But what would we need to make it really take off? More information and education. We need people to know more about their choice between these two paths. It does not appear on the political agenda, it’s not being articulated in the media yet.

My book was a bestseller in South Korea and has made a significant difference there. There, we’re working with a network of fifty mayors, including the mayor of Seoul. But still, the forces from above – including national governments worldwide – are working in the opposite direction. We don’t have a lot of time, because the dominant path is responsible for increased pollution, social instability, and violent conflict.

"A lot of what we call ‘right wing’ is very often a combination of small businesses, small farmers, people who are seeing their livelihoods disappear."

So given that we now seem to have overwhelming evidence that our current path is going to lead to the destruction of the planet, how is it still maintaining its grip over people?

It is because big business, including deregulated banks and the corporate media, are still blindly pushing in this destructive direction. I know some of these big business leaders were very concerned about climate change and environmental issues. They genuinely wanted to encourage a more sustainable path, but there wasn’t anyone there that forced them to address the social and ecological consequences of their increased profit.  Most corporate funded think tanks, and even many environmentalists are now convinced that the problem is you and me. That we are greedy, that we really don’t want to stop driving our cars, that we don’t want to let go of our nice living standard. It’s a completely false story. We are being forced to let go of our living standards because, with globalisation, we’re actually becoming poorer.

If you could give the 21 year old version of you a piece of advice what would it be?

Because the message that I had was so critical of the western model, I now think maybe I should have done what some people advised me to do: write a book about the wonderful, inspiring culture of Ladakh. I probably should have been more patient and planned to do something less threatening, get it out in the media and then, once I had a bit of a voice in the mainstream, come with the bigger picture.

Also, I was really keen to get a clear critique of the global economy out as quickly as possible. I didn’t take the time to focus on fundraising and establishing my organisation, nor on teaching young people. In hindsight, I would have been less impatient and planned things in a more strategic way.

Have you got any advice for somebody coming out of school now, maybe looking to make a difference or get involved with localisation?

Oh I do. I’d really urge them to actively search for the alternative visions, the alternative institutions. Again, there is a huge localisation movement, but you’ve got to look beyond the mainstream media and mainstream academia. There are so many more, inspiring, positive things going on than you know. Don’t be depressed. Don’t buy into the story that we’re all greedy and aggressive by nature. Don’t buy into the story that it’s not possible to change the big system. Actively look for the vision and examples that are out there. There is a world of alternatives, that’s extremely inspiring and positive. Be sure that you nourish your mind and your soul with that. You may have to choose to do a practical job that isn’t exactly what you would like to do, but you don’t have to become imprisoned in that. You can earn money from the dominant system but liberate your soul and your vision by finding ways of supporting that other movement.

"There are so many more, inspiring, positive things going on than you know, don’t be depressed. Don’t buy into the story that we’re all greedy and aggressive by nature. Don’t buy into the story that it’s not possible to change the big system."

Local Futures

Local Futures UK
PO Box 239
Totnes TQ9 9DP
UK
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