Lakshmi Sarah

Producer, Educator & Writer

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.”

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This entry was posted on April 19, 2012 by in Project Groundswell Posts.

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