Helena Norberg-Hodge has been searching for solutions to the world’s current economic and environmental crises for 35 years.
The international author and filmmaker is an economic analyst and environmentalist who also recognises that the current world crisis is also one of the human spirit. She lives in Byron Bay and produced the recently released documentary The Economics of Happiness, which explores the root causes of the crises now facing the planet and offers some positive visions for the future.
“The core idea of the movie is to give people a better understanding of how the economic and political system works,” Helena said. “I’m keen to share the bigger picture and encourage people to build a local economy and be more active. It will benefit not only the environment but also our sense of well-being and happiness.”
For an author who says she hates writing, Helena has written some powerful, global-reaching books. Her book Ancient Futures – Learning From Ladakh was translated into 50 languages and made into a film, and she has also co-written Bringing the Food Economy Home, a book that explores food, farming and how our economic systems are separating people from food production. Helena was one of the people instrumental in setting up the Byron Farmers’ Markets 10 years ago and she believes in strengthening the food economy through the localisation of food production.
“Localisation is structurally, inextricably linked to the revitalisation of diversity on the land,” Helena said. “When farmers sell in the global market, they are forced to specialise in a very narrow range of standardised products. Whereas when they sell in the local market, it’s actually in their economic interest to increase the variety of their products.
“Current sociological studies show that, on average, people at local markets have 10 times more conversations than people in supermarkets. They enjoy the shopping experience. Many people tell me it’s the high point of the week. “Fundamentally, it’s about connecting with the producer and having authentic relationships.”
While proponents of globalisation argue that on a crowded planet only large-scale industrial farms can feed the world, Helena argues that smaller, locally-adapted farms are more efficient because they are less mechanised, provide more jobs, use less energy and produce more food per acre.
“The biggest waste now is to import and export the same products thousands of miles across the world,” Helena said. “Every year, the UK imports 114,000 tonnes of milk and exports 119,000 tonnes. The multinationals make the money, rather than keeping it in the hands of the farmers.
“Localisation does not mean ending international trade. Some industrial production works better with efficiencies of scale and centralising production, but we don’t need to hand our power over to multinationals. Society should set the rules for business, not business set the rules for society.
“When the economy is operating on a more human scale, it becomes easier for us to see the impact of our choices; we can see whether the environment has been polluted with chemicals, or if workers have been exploited… and so business becomes much more accountable. Turning away from global business has nothing to do with turning away from the world, international collaboration or cultural exchange. More than ever today, with our global problems, we need global co-operation, but that is very different from the globalisation of the economy.”
In 1972 the King of Bhutan coined the term ‘Gross National Happiness’ and embedded the concept in the country’s development policy. Following his lead, economists across the world have begun to develop more meaningful ways of measuring well-being and prosperity to take into account our human, social, community and natural wealth in addition to our produced and material wealth, to actually count full social, environmental and economic costs.
Helena started to make The Economics of Happiness six years ago after the success of her first book about Ladakh took her to different countries around the world to lecture. On her travels, she filmed much of the footage for the movie and interviewed some of the world’s foremost environmental thinkers.
It was her work on the Tibetan plateau with the people of Ladakh that brought Helena to an awareness of some of the root causes of the crises facing the planet. In 1975, after training as a linguist in Paris (at university with Noam Chomsky), Helena first went to Ladakh as part of a documentary film crew. She put her linguistic skills to use and learned the Tibetan language, fell in love with the culture and wrote a Ladakh/English dictionary. She saw the Ladakhi culture begin to change as the local economy became undermined by the subsidised food, fuel and supplies that began to be brought in by the government. At the same time, the Ladakhis were bombarded with advertising and media images that romanticised Western-style consumerism and made their own culture seem pitiful by comparison.
“As the area was increasingly exposed to the consumer culture, I saw how people started to think of themselves as backward, primitive, and poor,” Helena said. “In the early years I went to this beautiful village, and just out of curiosity I asked a young man from the village to show me the poorest house. He thought for a bit and then he said, ‘We don’t have any poor houses here.’ The same young man I heard 10 years later saying to a tourist, ‘Oh, if you could only help us Ladakhis, we’re so poor’.”
Helena watched as a vital, sustainable culture was turned into a divisive one with unemployment, pollution and depression as it became exposed to outside economic pressures. Ladakh’s introduction to globalisation had broken down the community fabric and people’s connection to nature.
“It’s not just about Ladakh,” Helena said. “People from other countries would tell me that what was happening in Ladakh was their story too.”
Helena’s experiences in Ladakh enabled her to understand the impact of conventional development and globalisation on people and the environment. She set up an international forum on globalisation, and representatives from every country recognised that the same pattern and direction was taking place in their country.
“Local business was being dumped in favour of multinationals,” Helena
said. “The countries were eroding their own tax base, and as a result, they became poorer. Then multinationals would put pressure on the governments to spend millions on activities like energy or mining, to fuel the global mega-infrastructure.
“People often think of globalisation as something that brings us all closer together – through faster communications, easier travel, and so on. But at its core, it’s an economic process. It’s about deregulation, and that means freeing up big banks and big businesses to enter local markets worldwide. The focus is on profit, not people. That doesn’t bring us together. On the contrary, it’s leading to increased competition and division.”
Helena believes the path to our current global economy started with the activities of British colonisation over 300 years ago, when industrialisation and slavery pushed people from land into over-crowded cities, widening the gap between rich and poor. The modern version of this can be seen in the slums in many third world countries, where economic development does not succeed at driving down poverty or illness.
“After WWII the World Bank, IMF and GAT were set up,” Helena said. “They signed an agreement in tariffs and trade and governments were pressured to deregulate and open up to banks and corporations. Supermarkets got bigger and consumerism was created. These days, consumer fashions change more often, and products, cars and shoes are designed to break down faster and can’t be repaired.
“Encouraging consumerism threatens the ecological fabric of the entire planet. Natural resources are already stretched to breaking point by population pressures, and yet we have an economic system that encourages each and every one of us to consume more and more and more.”
Helena encourages people to move toward localisation and start imagining an economy that isn’t obsessed with economic growth and maximising profits, but in providing satisfying jobs and producing goods and services that people really do need. While it will take more than just individuals changing their consumer behaviour to make the huge changes that are needed to create a sustainable future, Helena believes that if people in local communities don’t remain isolated and come together to look at things differently, as well as making educated consumer choices, they will be on their way to creating a happier future.
“People are feeling more depressed and demoralised and need to feel there is more hope,” Helena said. “People need to inform themselves and do it actively. Our inner well-being is connected to these things. We need to look at why young people have bulimia and depression. We are heavily-influenced by commercial forces and there is very little scientific research done in the public interest anymore; What are mobile phones doing to us? What about global warming research? The commercial interests have more power over government now than 20 years ago.
“Gas fracking is a good example of how deregulation has allowed big business to engage in activities where we don’t even know what the real consequences are yet. In the blind pursuit of growth, governments are pressured by business to remove the regulations that protect society and the environment, to make it easy for big business. With gas, we need to be clear: why do we need this energy? We are being told it as a good thing for the export economy.
“We need to look at it and understand how it is connected to consumer choice and the system. In the last 30 years, regulations have been changing with help of big business. The levels of what is safe nuclear radiation and pesticide exposure have lowered. I’m hoping The Economics of Happiness can spark an interest and make people think.”
With the era of cheap oil soon to be over, Helena believes we need to reassess what our real energy needs are.
“If we produce what we need closer to home and cut out outrageous waste inherent in the current system, we’d be able to meet a far higher proportion of our energy requirements from decentralised, renewable sources,” Helena said. “In Ladakh, we’ve been working with local NGOs to demonstrate renewable energy technologies such as solar and wind and we’ve been able to show that it’s far less expensive and much easier to introduce a decentralised renewable energy infrastructure than it is to build up the conventional fossil fuel-based infrastructure. And it also allows the fabric of community and social cohesion to continue.
“As we decrease the scale of economic activity, we actually increase our own well-being. That’s because at the deepest level, localisation is about connection, it’s about re-establishing our sense of interdependence with others and with the natural world. And this connection is a fundamental human need.”
If you would like to find out more about Helena’s film, buy the DVD, or organise a local screening of the film in your area, visit the website www.the