Changemaker Profile: Helena Norberg-Hodge: Resist, Renew, Reconnect

By Kari McGregor

Kari McGregor caught up with Helena Norberg-Hodge – new economy activist, founder and director of Local Futures, and producer of award-winning documentary The Economics of Happiness – for a glimpse at the journey that led her to conclude that the future is necessarily local.

Ladakh circa 1975: A young blond woman from Sweden sticks out like a sore thumb against the backdrop of forbidding mountains and forgiving smiles. But she is fully immersed.

An independent modern woman, she has lived in Europe and the United States, and she has travelled the world; now she finds her spiritual home in a culture as alien as it is ancient.

In the 1970s Helena Norberg-Hodge is one of few westerners to have visited the craggy terrain of the Tibetan Plateau that is home to ancient wisdom and youthful joy. Little Tibet, geographically remote, politically Indian, culturally uniquely Ladakhi.

Adding a seventh language to the string she already spoke placed Helena on the inside of a culture that most westerners can only ever view from the outside, and the perspective provided a flashpoint for opportunity.

Helena offers up her husband’s perspective as to why Ladakh ignited the spark that catapulted her to activism:

…he feels that if I had not been so culturally flexible and able to learn the language – but not only learn the language, but embed myself in Ladakhi culture in a way that allowed me to experience it from the inside – he thinks I probably wouldn’t have been so aware of particularly the inner issues of contentment and happiness.

Having studied psychology and linguistics, and digging to the core of what is it that makes some people – some cultures – more peaceful, more happy, Helena had already been struck by the difference between Europe and the US. She was ready to learn from Ladakh.

I experienced people who were telling me that they were incredibly well off, that there was no such thing as hunger, who were so clearly the most at ease with themselves and the most vital and joyous people I had ever encountered.

But Ladakh was not to remain frozen in time; it, too, capitulated to the demands of the bloated global economy. With economic integration came imported luxuries, manufactured wants, and the maladies of lopsided western affluence: depression, addiction, and conflict.

In the beginning I thought it was the west, but I realized it was actually the global economy – the corporate and banking structures that were behind something that not only destroyed their self-respect and happiness, but that almost overnight there was unemployment and friction between people.

Exporting an economic model

Helena is critical of what the west has exported to the east, and is keen to accurately identify the culprit. Globalisation: a vector for profit-motivated trade, cultural evangelism, and something much more sinister. The psychological and spiritual impacts of globalisation are less tangible than the material widening of the gap between the haves and have-nots, but no less alarming.

As the gap between the rich and poor grows to a gaping chasm and people notice their real incomes decline, working ever longer hours to cover their basic needs, we are coming to terms with the need for change.

People are beginning to understand that something is fundamentally wrong, and that minor tinkering with the current system is not the answer. A critical mass is ready for fundamental change.

In the meantime, however, global trade treaties have handed over so much power to multinational corporations that they have become what Helena calls a de facto global government, ruling from behind the façade of democratically elected governments.

…far too big, far too mobile, capital and corporations have been lobbying governments to give them more freedom, to access resources, labour, to move in and out of local and national economies more and more freely. And that free trade agenda is a disastrous systemic direction away from democracy… Governments – many of them too poor to meet their obligations – now respond to the wishes of international lenders rather than their own citizens.

To be able to address the social and ecological costs of our economic system we need to provide clear explanations of the root causes, Helena says. It’s not a simplistic matter of individual greed, or a deliberate choice to pursue endless economic growth at huge social and ecological cost.

Our destructive economic system continues to expand primarily because of ignorance. The economic pundits that promote this growth model have been trained to look at flows of money and numerical representations of the world, and are shielded from many of the real-life social and ecological consequences of their abstract models.

While corporate and banking CEOs are driven by mandate to meet short-term profit and growth targets they are often oblivious to the overall impact of their actions; likewise concerned citizens often fail to notice the ways in which their consumer choices support what Helena sees as an energy-intensive job and soul-destroying economy.

Changing the system

The belief that the economic system will collapse of its own accord due to inherent design flaws leads many to view attempts at system change as futile. Helena is not convinced.

Despite its deep flaws and contradictions, the economic system may outlive much of the natural and social world. Many years ago, the Swiss economist H.C. Binswanger convinced me that deregulated capital – money de-linked from any standard or limit – could keep multiplying endlessly, even as ecosystems and societies crash. In other words, the economy could keep growing until the last tree falls.  A depressing scenario, and one that we must do everything we can to prevent.

Unable to escape the burden of responsibility for change Helena suggests that we need to better understand the roots of market fundamentalism and its impact on the global economy, a position from which we will be better equipped for the long, hard, and often thankless task of bringing about an economic system that caters for all of human need.

Until recently, the broad perspective needed to deconstruct the global economic system has been marginalized, with the field left to narrowly focused market fundamentalists. As a result, it appeared that the only viable option was to head towards ever larger and more inhuman economic scale, with wealth and power concentrated in ever fewer hands. Big picture activism informs us that another way is possible.

Helena is positive for the future, yet her expectations are expertly managed so as not to be bitterly disappointed by the baby steps achieved by change-making Davids against the Goliath of globalisation.

I do see countless projects, organisations, individuals who so clearly want something else, and ultimately squashing these movements really means squashing life itself, because life moves towards healing, towards self-balancing, and for me I see that an almost unconscious movement in the west, towards doing things in a way that’s more natural and more health-affirming for both people and ecosystems.

Helena herself is now based in Byron Bay, the effervescent hippy haven of the New South Wales coast that attracts alternative minds and new age travellers, cultural misfits and lifestyle retreaters. There is much that is positive happening in the region, a hub for local activism, but as with most places there is a level of frustration that change isn’t moving faster, reaching further, really getting under society’s skin.

Fragmentation and loss of connection

Part of what stands in the way of meaningful change is, quite possibly, the deleterious effect of fragmentation and the loss of connection that comes with the territory of an individualistic system that caters to consumerist impulse. We have lost a great deal to globalization.    

What people around the world are missing is both self-reliance and self-esteem…. people are sort of becoming aware of the western epidemics of depression and all kinds of addiction, that there are very evident signs that we are not so happy.

While it is easy to talk with progressives of the Left about the tangible impacts of globalisation – they are plain to see – it is much harder to broach the subject of spiritual bereavement. Ephemeral and subjective, it’s a topic that’s hard to kick-start, and even on the Left there is a reluctance to stray from subjects that are easy to quantify.

A large proportion of the change-making projects and initiatives that gain traction in the west are based on the leadership of white, middle class males, and Helena laments the lack of sincerity with which we greet the work of women, the value of diverse cultures, and the contributions of the materially poor. We are missing out on a great deal of learning if we fail to broaden our scope.

The scope of our activism also needs to take into account the worldviews of cultures where spiritual traditions provide the foundation.

With spirituality, what I’ve experienced is that in cultures where spiritual traditions were actually the fundament of the worldview – like in Ladakh, Bhutan, but also I’ve experienced it in Laos, I’ve experienced it in other parts of India, where it’s Hindu, I’ve experienced it among Muslims, and with the Masai – the worldview was spiritual in the sense that constantly at the centre of it is the reminder of the interdependence of the oneness of all life. And another universal fundament of the spiritual belief was that love, compassion is the way. And this is of course true in Christianity as well. So essentially these spiritual worldviews were extremely positive and life-enhancing.

This is not a view that is taken seriously by many academics on the Left in western cultures, much as the economics of happiness is treated as so much fluff compared with cold, hard statistics. There remains the underlying assumption that more collectivist cultures whose cultural roots are in ecological spirituality are somewhat inferior to the enlightened rational west. The individualistic, mature west, where we need not depend on others for our wellbeing.

…in the west, as we’ve gone away from this spiritual truth of the interdependence of life, we have actually created a type of hyper-individualism. The whole system that globalization is driving forward is a system that encourages separation, fragmentation. We are out of touch with the reality of being at one and totally interdependent with nature. At every level it’s based on fragmentation. At the core these spiritual traditions remind us of the inextricable connection.

In fairness to those who are turned off by the notion that spirituality can be an effective force for change, Helena cites the shortcomings of the new age movement, whose overly esoteric approach has alienated many activists.

Until recently, however, there was a tendency in the new age to focus almost exclusively on the inner dimension, on thinking positively, and personal change. And among those who focused on this inner world, many tended to look down on activists who seemed fixated on the outer world.

A false dichotomy

The dichotomy between the scientific and the spiritual has left a yawning chasm that few even attempt to bridge, and I comment that spirituality has become a post-Enlightenment taboo, simply because it’s not scientific. Helena thinks there’s more to it.

I would go further than that. I would say that what we really need – to look clearly at what’s going on in the world today – is to be very, very cautious about science as this search for objective truth that many people believe it is. I think if we look back historically we’ll see that it really never was.

But there was a time – certainly even going back 30 years, in many countries, I mean certainly in Scandinavia where I grew up – there was a certain amount of science in the public interest. And among other things that science began noticing that certain things like pesticides were very detrimental to our health, and provided warnings against them, and so on.

But in more recent years the profit motive has claimed victory over much of science. It’s not part of some insidious plot, Helena adds, but a systemic inevitability of the structural relationship between enterprise and innovation.

“…the structural relationship between money accumulation and the so-called search for objective knowledge is disastrous.”

Helena sees the position of the Left, vis-à-vis science, as one of raising awareness about the co-optation of the field by Big Money, and demanding science in the public interest. The field needs to be decoupled from narrow profit-making goals if it is to retain relevance and objectivity.

If the supposedly objective domain of science has been rendered subjective by suspicious ulterior motives, then subjectively focused spirituality is not off the hook either. Helena cites a lack of rigour and integrity among many who emphasise spirituality as a driver of change, and instead points toward the need for testing hypotheses and being honest in our claims and what lies behind our decisions.

How big money co-opts and corrupts

Helena is not pointing to a lazily clichéd middle way either. She warns against the lobbying of corporate-funded think tanks that promote the idea that the world cannot be seen in black and white terms when it comes to issues such as genetic engineering. Although the grey areas on the fringes of issues are often the locus of truth, there are cases – practices and policies – in which an emphatic no must be articulated. Some paths must be rejected.

No task seems to have been co-opted quite so easily as that of feeding the world. Insidious though it may seem to profit from preventing hunger, the notion that a corporation might, on the one hand, claim the honourable intention of feeding the world’s hungry yet on the other hand create terminator seeds that cannot reproduce after a single harvest, bears consideration for its inherent contradiction. You can’t have it both ways.

So many of the scientists – and I’ve known many of them – that have been passionately committed, for instance, to developing genetic engineering, have been doing so because they’ve been told that this is the way to feed the world.

Helena tells me the story of a professor from the University of Indiana whose name escapes us both, but whose story reveals a challenge to the scientific psyche that demands integrity to the method, not the motive.

She was convinced that what she was doing as a geneticist was helpful for feeding the world. Then she happened to be on holiday for long enough in India to actually get in touch with what was going on on the ground, and started hearing from groups and small farmers that this was actually disastrous, that it was destroying their ability to feed themselves and the world.

This opened her eyes to it, and then when she went back to the US and started trying to discuss this, she realized how closed the system was – both in academia and the media – to any discussion. And she became an active proponent of local food economies, and, if you like, a black and white “no” to genetic engineering, based on the fact that this idea that it’s feeding the world was an utter and total fabrication.

Equanimity emanates from this elegant lady of nearly 70 whose expressive features hint at stories to tell while she measures her words with practiced restraint. But she is serenely defiant, protective of what is just, protective of what has not yet been taken or destroyed. For Helena effective activism requires both resistance and renewal.

Unity in diversity

Although certain pathways can be rejected with great clarity, Helena warns against promoting simple solutions. One size does not fit all; diversity of culture is not a luxury, but a necessity based on the specific ecological conditions of a landbase.

And on the other hand, when it comes to developing paths that are truly health-affirming of both humans and ecosystems, affirming something that is more democratic, something more egalitarian, we have to be extremely cautious about imposing simple formulas on the great diversity of cultures and ecosystems.

I think we can have a very clear, united “no” to a monocultural top-down system while maintaining great humility over just how we should develop.   

The perils of this monocultural top-down system are represented nowhere more dramatically than in Ladakh. Not because Ladakh was entirely without problems prior to globalisation, but because this laid-back culture familiar only with sustainable, local, organic materials to meet their daily needs had begun to fall prey to the more sinister side of global trade.

…and then to see government officials on the radio, in the villages, promoting things like DDT that had been outlawed elsewhere, to see a hospital being built essentially of asbestos when asbestos was being – at great expense – being removed in the west, that’s where these issues of greater clarity and so on were so stark. That became the theoretical foundation for me for localization as opposed to globalization.

Helena describes her connection to Ladakh and its people as an ongoing relationship. For over forty years she has been invested in this spiritual flashpoint that sparked her raison d’etre, and she frequently travels back. But she says her efforts are now needed more in the west than in the east, and are best applied where they can be most effective.

In the so-called third world the environmental movement and the ability to speak out are so much more curtailed than in the west. You know it’s very frightening to see in India right now they’re sort of witch-hunting non-profit organisations; we do have that in the west as well, but not in such an extreme form. We have a window of opportunity here, but we can also see that the system is definitely trying to do everything it can to squash these voices.      

Connecting with our local roots

In order for an economics of happiness to really take root we are going to need to turn to the wisdom of those who remember a smaller world pre-globalisation.

Contrasting the deep spirituality of traditional cultures with the thin veneer of spirituality that sits atop a troubled western society, Helena explains why an ingrained spirituality is intrinsic to co-creating an economy that serves all our needs.

What I experienced in Ladakh was that this spiritual framework there was part of daily life, and it was not something where you have to look very serious and go into a building where a priest or someone tells you what to do. It was something that was part of everyday life – it was also part of cooking and eating and laughing and dancing.

This is a very long-winded way of saying that I think a lot of new age spirituality in the west often fragments the spiritual as a separate entity of something very holy, very serious, but very separate from everyday life, from the economy – what does a spiritually based economy look like? Well it’s one that would actually be aware of and encouraging interdependence.

And this comes back to localisation. By fragmenting we create a type of spiritual materialism that Helena considers counterproductive. Instead there is a need for holism – to consider the entirety of human experience and acknowledge our need for connection to one another and to the landbases that provide for us.

In Helena I sense a craving for connection – it is the same craving I think we all have, but that so few of us are able to express, or even identify. But for Helena it is not a connection that has never been found; it is one that is known well, and sorely missed, like an old friend whose warm embrace soothes all aches of the heart and soul.

When I ask her how she feels about making her new home in Byron Bay she sighs, smiles, and whispers:

It’s not Ladakh.



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