Simplifying the Economics of Happiness with Helena Norberg-Hodge

This article originally appeared in Project Groundswell

In 1975, before India’s northern region of Ladakh became a popular tourist attraction; Helena Norberg-Hodge went with a film crew. It was here she first encountered a localized economy, planting the seed for her present work.

Now, nearly 40 years later, she is the director of theInternational Society for Ecology and Culture, an organization that began as The Ladakh Project in the Himalayan region of Ladakh in the 1970s. ISEC now works to renew ecological and social well-being through localization.

Globally, women are increasingly responsible for agriculture and food production as men move to cities and urban centers. As Bina Agarwal, an academic studying the Deccan Development Society in Southern Indian notes in Raj Patel’s The Value of Nothing, “as India urbanized, the business of feeding the cities is increasingly women’s work – 58 percent of Indian men work in agriculture compared to 78 percent of women.” Worldwide statistics also show a dramatic increase in the ratio of women to men in agriculture.

Perhaps because of this, the localization movement has continued to gain support from women. As Norberg-Hodge says, “For all my working life, almost 40 years now, women have always responded more strongly. Whether it be Ladakh, Sweden or America.” She adds, “I was never talking about women’s rights, but I was talking about values that are profoundly feminine.” She sees these values as being connected to others and valuing community and relationships.

Norberg-Hodge does not identify with the mainstream Western feminist movement, but instead she believes, “it is extremely important as part of the whole picture, that we recognize that we have to raise the status of the feminine.” Part of both men and women, “even the feminine in men, which has been squashed… That whole side has been squashed and starved, and urgently needs to be revitalized and strengthened.”

In addition to founding ISEC, Norberg-Hodge has also completed two films, which have been translated to over 50 languages. Ancient Futures (1991) and her newest film The Economics of Happiness (2011). In addition to her work with the International Forum on Globalization and the Global Eco-Village Network, she received the Alternate Nobel Prize for her work with the Ladakh Ecological Development Group. More importantly, she is working to bring people together to redefine happiness and work against the economic structures that have caused our current state of economic and environmental crisis.

Economics of Happiness Speakers

In a Skype interview with Norberg-Hodge, prior to theEconomics of Happiness Conference in Berkeley, from March 23-25, 2012, she was generally hopeful, but clear about the stakes involved.

The conference is part of, “ongoing work to build up a broader international dialogue about the need to shift from a centralized economy to decentralized local economies,” she says.

“Consumer monoculture is eradicating species as we speak. Decentralization is an absolute biological necessity. The central goal of our educational work—lectures, films, study groups, articles, conferences—is to build up an international localization movement.”

Norberg-Hodge urges people to take a two-track path. “We can make choices right now that can help us to take steps towards an economics of happiness. It means first of all reaching out to like-minded people in the area in which we live.”

The conference is also another step toward creating economic literacy. “People are beginning to wake up to realize that governments are not really representing them. We now need to wake up that it’s the pressure from global finance and corporations that is shaping policy. We urgently need economic literacy. Without that we’ll only see further breakdown and a bigger gap between rich and poor,” she says.

Norberg-Hodge says that the biggest problem is a lack of the bigger picture and about the way the system operates, “it is important to understand structures, and insist on changing these structures,” she says. “We need to focus on getting this connected picture out to social and environmental movements.”

She sees the localization movement as adding a dimension to the occupy movement. “I think we can add to the occupy movement, a tremendous message of hope and inspiration. It’s a message about regaining our human right to a way of life that is more human scale and more human paced.”

Norberg-Hodge urges people to take steps to increase their well-being by getting back to some basic activities like developing strong community, developing deep connection to the living world, taking time for exercise, song and dance, and quieting the mind. “Right now, if we make conscious choices, we can take steps in that direction,” Norberg-Hodge says. She also believes more intergenerational interactions would be beneficial for society.  ISEC has a study-group curriculum to deepen and broaden knowledge and understanding about these issues and what can be done to transform our society.

Education Panel with Manish Jain

In order to revitalize communities, she believes it is important to increase connections. Norberg-Hodge cites farmer’s markets as an example, as she says in her TedxTalk in Christchurch, New Zealand,“Studies have shown that when you shop in a farmer’s market, compared to the supermarket, you have ten times more conversations with people. Structurally fundamental to that, is the shortening of the distances.”

With extensive international experience, Norberg-Hodge points to the need for change in international and local trade laws. As she says, “as overwhelming, and as big as that issue can sound, once we understand how it works, it becomes very clear, what we need to do. We need to re-regulate global trade, and we actually need to de-regulate local trade.”

Focusing on the root causes, and the fact that economic law has to change may seem daunting, but Norberg-Hodge says says, “we simply need to focus on regulations, taxes and subsidies—the three things governments use to shape economies.”

As she explains, “What is simple is the actual practical structural steps we would need to take as governments. What is extremely difficult is to get people who are so marginalized now, and everyone running faster and faster, to get people to have the time and the strength to get together to force the change that is necessary. This is primarily about understanding. It is about ideas and awareness.”

While she uses film, lectures, study circles and continues to write articles, Norberg-Hodge says, “In order to see what we are talking about, you need to squeeze things together in time and space in a way that is hard to do in reality. I think film is the most effective.” While she would’ve liked to do an animated version of her most recent film, to illustrate complicated ideas, she was not able secure the funding.

Norberg-Hodge sees potential for vast social change, and recommends a grassroots perspective, “There’s another way of looking at the world. If you look closely at the ground, everywhere you go you see testimony to people’s goodwill and wisdom.”

On Migritude

I don’t normally cry at poetry events. Most movies don’t get me either, unless I am on an airplane. There’s something about being suspended in the air that makes it easy for me to become teary-eyed at even the lamest romantic comedy. But here I was, very much on the ground at a poetry performance by Shailja Patel, sniffling back the flow of emotion.

It could have been my damp feet from walking through the rain all evening, but I think it was more. In part, it was my own sense of migritude that hadn’t washed away despite the rain. It was all the people I would have loved to bring with me, but they were in various cities and countries. It was my friend in Delhi who sent me the information with the info, and told me to go and soak it all in for her. It was more than that though, it was also the sheer power of Patel’s words.

“Poetry is my best thinking,” she told the audience at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco on March 24, 2012. “When a poem stays with us, it changes the way we look at the world.” There is a reason we read poetry at weddings and funerals and not contracts or wills. After briefly discussing the Occupy Nigeria movement she poses the question, “How do I synthesize the largeness?” For Patel, it usually begins by being in community, “What kick-starts my writing, is always conversations.” More recently, she has been exploring the idea of being alive, as opposite from depression. Patel sees art as part of this, “Art is also a conversation. That’s why we write, that’s why we speak.”

Her book, Migritude (2010) has been translated into 16 languages. She has appeared on Al Jazeera, BBC world service and won various poetry awards. Born and raised in Kenya, she has lived in London, San Francisco, and is now based in Nairobi and Berkeley.

From a performance done in San Francisco, some of Patel’s poems can be heard here, Readings from Migritude: How Ambi became Paisley, The Making (Migrant Song), Under and Over, and Eater of Death.

An Introduction to the Art of Occupation: #OccupyArt


I told my sister I just came home from a class called Occupy Art. She told me she just came home from her Macroeconomics class.


“Where is your class?” she asked me. “Stanford,” I said.


“So it’s a real class, not some art class in a park?” she asked.


“Yeah, like Stanford students take it… for credit,” I said.


The exchange highlights our differences, but also how rarely it seems that we discuss history, and movements inside the classroom as they are lived.


To be completely honest, I missed the beginning of the occupy movement. I had just started teaching at a school in Ladakh, India when it began, and I barely had a working phone and no internet. Since returning to the United States in January, it is clear that everyone seems to be occupying something, from Wall Street to Valentine’s Day, and now even the squirrel in the advertisement on BART is saying something about ‘occupy’. Perhaps too eager to gain a better understanding of what this occupy business is all about, I am still excited just a couple hours after the first class (which feels more like a process/performance or movement) of “Occupy Art” at Stanford.


In a mash-up that can only be described as a schizoid pastiche (which I use as a compliment), the first lecture by Jeff Chang and H. Samy Alim traced the history of occupation as a term that moves (and is moving) from occupied Palestine, to progressive political consciousness. As Jeff Chang said, “The arts rely on layers of meaning… we are privileging the questions.” With a shout out to the Zapatistas who remind us that, “other worlds are possible.


The intro went from military occupations to the occupation of Alcatraz, it jumped from skateboarding to consumerism and ‘black Friday’, or as Chang put it, “the day when people lose sleep and risk their lives to buy their 4th TV.” And from there, it went to defining domination (power enforced through coercion, usually through force, violence and conflict) and hegemony (mainly in the mind) to a discussion of culture.


As H. Samy Alim said, “Cultural change, always precedes political change.” Alim went on to talk about how “hip-hop helped change the narrative… artists provide the language to express that change.” Using the example of the Arab Uprisings he uses El General as an example of someone who provided a “soundtrack to the Tunisian revolution.” The song Not Your Prisoner, by the The Arabian Knightz (Egypt) was produced five years before the Arab Spring. Acknowledging the role of social media and its ability to assist with collaborations such as #jan25, those in the class are encouraged to tweet at #occupyart.


From Tahrir, we were brought back to Wisconsin and reminded of the calls that delivered Pizza to Wisconsin protesters from all over the world. The signs united protesters and occupiers in Oakland and Cairo, but Alim reminded us of the limitations within movements (where and how does race, class and gender politics come in to play…). And now, activists in Zimbabwe face up to 10 years in prison for watching films of the Arab Spring.


From the economy, to capital to immigration, “Capital can flow freely across borders, but people can’t,” said Chang. The ban on ethnic studies in Arizona seems comical, are we really banning speeches by César Chávez ? Maybe it seems so funny, because I want to deny it so badly.


Protest posters and art from the movement, a picture of a wave, hip-hop, skateboards, immigration… in the end Chang admitted that “We might need an intellectual Ritalin.” The Introduction to the Art of Occupation ended with a quote by Angela Davis, and the last words on the screen were “The revolution starts now.” When in truth, we know it started long before today with art, and our politics are just trying to catch up.