Interview by Ariel Bleth, World Ark contributor
Photos courtesy Helena Norberg-Hodge
If you wonder if money can buy happiness, try asking Helena Norberg-Hodge. In 2011, she produced and co-directed the award winning documentary "The Economics of Happiness," which explores both corporate consolidation of power through globalization and the ways in which communities around the world are creating an alternative paradigm by embracing their small-scale farmers and locally owned businesses—the economics of localization. Norberg-Hodge is a linguist, writer, activist and founder of the International Society of Ecology and Culture (ISEC).
WORLD ARK: Much of your work has been shaped through your experiences in Ladakh, India. What did you see there that informed your view of our global social, economic and environmental outlook?
HELENA NORBERG-HODGE: What I witnessed in Ladakh was a way of life that essentially provided for people’s ecological well-being over hundreds of years. I came to know the happiest, most vibrant people I had ever encountered and realized that the basic principle that seemed to explain why they were so content was that they lived in a human-scale way at a human pace of life. When the outside economic system and culture were introduced, the local market was not able to compete and unemployment increased. Increased competition between people who had lived happily side by side—Buddhists and Muslims—created divisions and even violence. This made me realize that strengthening local economies worldwide is a way of ensuring greater security—both psychologically and materially—through bringing back humanscale relationships and slowing down the pace of life.
You call the benefits of localization "the economics of happiness.” What do you mean by this?
It’s a fundamental recognition that we need to feel connected to one another. For example, studies compare people shopping both in big supermarket chains and in local farmers markets. In the farmers market, one study found that people have 10 times more conversations with each other than they do in a large chain store. To me, this is evidence of how localization can help to rebuild those social community relationships that are so important to our well-being and happiness.
What are you and the International Society of Ecology and Culture working on now?
One huge focus is the psychological dimension of local economics. We find that not enough attention is given to the fact that rural populations have been made to feel marginalized for centuries. In places like Ladakh and Bhutan, I was able to live there at a time when that hadn’t happened. The farmer was a central part of the economy. Over time, farming has become viewed as backward and primitive and the goal for many parents is to provide an education for their children so that they can leave farming. This has contributed to high levels of unemployment and urbanization. The psychological pressures go hand in hand with structural pressures to subsidize big, global businesses, all at the cost of small business and smallholder farmers. Our conviction is that we need deeper dialogue between Global North and South and also between city and country. Even in countries like Sweden or America, farmers still suffer from this idea that what they are doing isn’t important.
The Economics of Happiness
As the global population grows, how do you see small-scale farmers adapting to feed the world? When farmers diversify they can dramatically
increase the productivity of a given piece of land; highly diversified, bio-intensive farms ideally have mixtures of trees, bushes, grain, vegetables and animals. What this requires is human labor instead of machinery. Small-scale, diversified systems are the best way to get more out of each parcel of land and each gallon of water. So on a crowded planet, we are going to need more farmers and a shift in our economic system.
Do you have any experience with livestock as savings accounts?
Yes, I have a lot of experience with this and have seen it to be a very important savings account. Animals can help with labor, give birth and provide fertilizer, whereas the tractor breaks down, costs money to repair and pollutes. It is a wonderful savings account that also ends up being a great friend to children and adults—they are part of a living community that enriches life enormously. I was only aware in recent years as things changed in Ladakh how much I missed the animals that were part of the household where I lived for decades. Seeing new calves and lambs born every year, and also seeing the relationship between those animals, was a great gift.
How do small businesses in the developing world fit into this?
With more decentralized development, all the basic needs (clothing, shelter and food) usually can be met by small-scale businesses. Most people have multiple skills and can contribute to the meeting of these needs, including artisan work. The 5-Star Movement in Italy is an example of how artisan work can still be valued as part of the normal economy. We promote organizations such as the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE) in the U.S. We basically see a great need for anybody thinking about a new economic direction to recognize that the only thing that humans produce that every person on the planet needs every single day is food. So food and farming are fundamental to all of this.
How is it possible to see economic, social and environmental problems as interdependent without getting overwhelmed?
The current global system has grown up in an evolutionary way, in that things naturally get bigger and bigger. Our message at the International Society for Ecology and Culture is that human beings innately long for love and connection, both as children and adults. We now have a system that is perverting that need into a need to consume. Children are led to believe that the way they will get that love and recognition is by having the latest and the fanciest and by being the most clever and beautiful. All of this separates and alienates us further. In the evolutionary process, everything that grows both waxes and wanes; things grow, but they also die off in a cyclical relationship. To know there is a way forward, it is important for us to look at the social, environmental, spiritual and psychological impacts of unimpeded growth.
You have worked in Bhutan, the Himalayan kingdom that introduced the concept of Gross National Happiness (a measurement of national prosperity focusing on people’s well-being rather than on economic productivity). You were also a delegate at the 2012 Bhutanesesponsored UN conference on happiness. What are some of the indicators of Gross National Happiness?
The indicators that they are trying to use have to do, again, with social cohesion and ecological sustainability. My organization, for our economics of happiness, takes these ideas and emphasizes three key structural shifts that we need to make in the economy regarding taxes, subsidies and regulation. Shifting our taxes away from employment onto energy, for instance, immediately stimulates businesses to employ more people and use less technology. That doesn’t mean eliminating technology but instead creating a preference for human beings in the cycles of production. Employing people instead of machines, in many incidences, would increase the quality of life and dramatically reduce pollution and energy demands while increasing job opportunities. Secondly, we need to shift the subsidies so that the money that is generated is used in order to stimulate exactly those businesses and practices that we want to see. Regulations at the moment have been skewed so that we have progressively deregulated global businesses in the name of globalization, while at the same time massively increased regulation in the local and national arenas. That has given a huge unfair advantage to transnational companies over place-based, rooted businesses. Finally, how we measure our economic progress—whether or not we stick to the old, outdated measurements of gross domestic product—is another central question. Of course we can’t. It is a mad indicator that basically measures the commercialization of everything that we value, much of which, previously, came in the form of gifts and community exchange.
Do you believe these indicators are essentially universal or do they vary from place to place?
Localization allows for far greater diversity, and part of what we need to remind ourselves is that the diversity of cultures and races are particular human responses to ecosystems, climates and environments. That diversity, that richness, is clearly a principle of life. The artificial, man-made global system—one global consumer culture that is imposed worldwide—is anti-life, anti-evolution. By negating this basic principle of life, diversity, we are on a suicide course. So, absolutely, I would see the development of diverse ways of approaching economic priorities.