If ever there was an opportunity to introduce a more local way of life, one not engineered for corporate globalism, it is now. Today’s guest is the founder and director of Local Futures, Helena Norberg-Hodge, who discusses how we can address some of the world's most salient issues, from global warming to income inequality, through localization. Yes, we CAN create sustainable local economies that don't require exploitation of anonymous workers and the desecration of the planet.
Jeff: Thank you for being on the show. Thank you for coming.
Helena: Glad to be here.
Jeff: And yeah, I would say that right now, and I always like to give some context because the global situation is very fluid. So we're speaking on... Well, I'm in America, so it's Thursday, April 9th. Here, in Australia it's Friday, April 10th.
Jeff: And obviously we're in a very, very liquid situation. But I think it's incredibly prescient to be speaking with you in this moment in history, because from what I know about you and your work, your central philosophy is essentially that we can address some of the world's most essential and salient issues from global warming, to income inequality and human misery, through the concept of localization. And I'm curious as to how you came to that determination.
Helena: Well, my journey in all of this started about 45 years ago when I was living in Paris. I was quite a normal person. I wasn't an activist. I was very concerned about the environment. I was concerned about society as well. I had done some social work, but I was not an activist. I had become a linguist. I spoke a lot of languages.
Helena: I'd been asked to work as part of a film team, to this unknown place called Ladakh or Little Tibet, which is the western most part of Tibet, but it belongs politically to India. And it was a part that had been sealed off from the modern world because the Indian government wanted to protect this as a part of India. They wanted to be on the other side of the high Himalayan Range. They didn't want the Chinese breathing down on them from the those mountain tops.
Helena: So it was a protected, very sensitive strategic military area. And that meant that when it was suddenly thrown open to outsiders, essentially to place it on the map as Indian territory, so that the world would know this part of Tibet belonged to India. They threw it open and a documentary team from Germany was one of the first film teams to go out to try to film this ancient culture.
Helena: And they wanted me to come along because I picked up languages quickly, and to try to help to communicate with these people who were so untouched. And I thought I'd be going for six weeks, and then going back to Paris, which I quite loved living there. And I didn't expect to find my entire life turned around, my worldview turned upside down, and for the rest of my life it's sort of like before Ladakh and after Ladakh.
Helena: What I encountered was this very rare situation of a people who had never been colonized, and they hadn't even been affected by the missionaries. And I'm finding now, as I hear about other peoples that are supposed to be traditional. Like in the heart of Papa New Guinea where people think they're seeing a totally ancient culture, they're called Joseph and Mary.
Helena: We don't realize the impact of this type of conquering of a dominant world view, which is actually very unhealthy. You know, the Christian worldview was about repressing our senses, the body and senses are sinful, and we were made to feel that we were born in original sin. So it's a very negative influence on what I now experience in Ladakh on people who felt so completely at ease with themselves. Who felt so authentically themselves. There was a genuine individualism, which it took me years to actually understand.
Helena: I ended up totally falling in love with the people. It's also the most beautiful place I've ever seen. But it was the people that just made me stop and made me give up my job in Paris. I had, as a Westerner, I had the opportunity to do a thesis on the language. I had met a professor from the University of London and was impressed with how much I'd learned of the language.
Helena: So when the filming was finished, I stayed. [inaudible 00:04:48] with the language, I helped to compile first, sort of Ladakhi in dictionary and learned a lot of the language very quickly. And I [inaudible 00:05:04] this was a big region about the size of Austria, but only about a hundred thousand people in small villages.
Helena: And as I went through the whole region collecting folk stories, and so I'm talking to people, everywhere I went, people would describe themselves as [foreign language [00:05:22], which means plenty to eat, plenty to drink. No signs of hunger and no signs of poverty at all as we know it.
Helena: It was a type of paradise that most Westerners who came out in the early years, and I have to say even today, people are inspired, which sort of amazes me. But in the early days people would, particularly women would say, "Oh, a paradise and I feel like I've come home. I feel like I must've lived here in another lifetime."
Helena: And I came also to realize that it took me years to realize things like, once being out in the mountains and it was getting dark, and I saw a group of men coming my way, probably about 10 men. And I realized that it didn't even enter my mind that I needed to be worried about my safety.
Helena: And I realized that even in Sweden, where I would say, the sort of feminine and the status of women was higher than in any industrialized country, I know. There still hadn't been that strong balance and strong feminine side, which meant that people were more... there was greater peace and, above all, greater joy and vitality than any place I'd ever encountered.
Helena: Now, I hope it wasn't too long winded because there's an infinite amount to say about Ladakh. I think I do want to add that, the reality was that for me, as a westerner to just settle there and say, "This is a total paradise," would have been difficult because there was no glass in the windows and the temperatures dropped to minus 40 in the winter.
Helena: And you know, I had a bit of a struggle fleas and bedbugs and certain levels of discomfort, but I probably, I would have considered actually settling there, but it wasn't possible because for political reasons, you weren't allowed to stay for more than six months at a time. And so that's what I did for many years.
Helena: And then as changes came, it is not a place where I want to settle, because basically I got a bird's eye view of how our dominant global economic system, heavily subsidized, not just fossil fuels, but at every level, we've been subsidizing and deregulating global economic activity [inaudible 00:08:15] local economic activity.
Helena: And this was a lesson that I learned gradually. You know, as I saw butter over the Himalayan Mountains, coming in and selling for half the price of local butter. And there are the butter from the farm, usually a five minute walk away costing twice as much.
Helena: And I saw in a very rapid period how this process of supporting global economy meant that it was completely linked to a continuous process of urbanization, concentrating everyone into larger and larger urban centers, which suited the long distance traders.
Helena: You know, McDonald's can't deliver a McDonald's to every village of the world. This concentration which I don't think has been a conscious process, for me, this whole system, the way it's developed has essentially been allowed to grow into a type of monstrous, destructive force. Mainly because we haven't understood it.
Helena: And I would say from left and right there has not been a clear stepping back to look at the links between these economic policies and the effect on the ground. That I vote this bird's eye view, and it was like a scientific experiment, because there was one road leading into Ladakh and you could just sort of see these variables coming in and transforming the life of the people there.
Helena: And it was both a structural sort of warfare on a healthy economy and a psychological warfare on human and societal wellbeing. And it was this dual prong that again, because I spoke the language fluently at a time when people were completely self-respecting.
Helena: I sort of believe that why so few people have been talking about these things is that very... there are probably very few people alive today who've actually really experienced deeply that degree of self-respect and being so relaxed and at peace with who you are and your culture and your way of doing things. A sense of rightness, a sense of empowerment that I experienced so deeply. And then I saw these variables that suddenly and fairly rapidly affected, particularly the young, where schooling which started as part of this process.
Helena: The schooling was actually a training for adults in the city and it completely robbed the children of the knowledge of their local resources, the particular plants, how to manage the water, the soils different from place to place. All of that knowledge which had allowed them to grow food, make their own clothes, build their own houses. All those basic needs were met from the region.
Helena: Even within the region there was some trade, but there was for the basics, it was within reach. It was human direct contact. It was human scale. People relating to each other. They had developed many structures on how to manage the water, how they took turns doing that. They had developed structures where groups of families supported each other, so that these were I think very cleverly in a very harsh climate, they had something called the [foreign language 00:12:07], which meant that about four families or up to 10, were linked in this institution that extended beyond their village, so that these other people were always there to help you.
Helena: That traditionally, they were there to take care of the birth, the marriage and the funeral, so they actually wash the body. They did all that work and came together in a group to support each other. So, all of these institutions of local interdependence that had evolved or existed literally over thousands of years, were suddenly just trashed, almost overnight because people went into a city where they were dependent on completely anonymous forces for their salary, for the food that they were getting and not knowing if the price of bread is going to go up tomorrow, created almost overnight, a sort of neurotic concern to save money and to try to be secure by amassing as much as possible.
Helena: But also the schooling, which robbed them of the knowledge of how to survive from local resources, also pitted children against each other and in a really brutal way. And we really have to understand it's a type of factory farming of our children, an industrial process to suit industrial large scale production and urbanization.
Helena: So when we segregate 30 one year olds in kindergarten, we're already creating a universe of elbows. It's impossible. You can't reach out a hand and help the other. So it's shouting, elbows and then, have one adult trying to manage this mess. Traditionally, before this industrial era, that never happened. The way we evolved, DNA is a more cooperative way of being because we've evolved naturally in diversified groups and the fundamental diversity, was different ages together.
Helena: So naturally when you have people engaging every day from age one to age 80, you get a completely different fabric. And for me, things that brought tears to my eyes were things like seeing the 80 year old uncle walking with a one year old and they both were toothless and hairless and they could barely walk and they both were slow and meant for each other. And they spent a lot of time together and it worked.
Helena: It really worked. But even the relationship between the three year old and the one year was beautiful to experience, because the three little would naturally hold out a hand to help the one year old to walk. And talking about one year olds walking, it was also very interesting as I did sort of little studies on child care, but above all, I was there living year in and year out and observing these changes.
Helena: I once asked a group of mothers if they didn't worry, if their child wasn't walking by age one. They could not understand the question. "What do men worry?" And it just, it became obvious that what they said was, "Of course, they're going to walk at some point." But that's a deep level understanding of the psychology of deeper security when we live in a way that we were meant to live.
Helena: And so it's something that, of course, as people hear me say this, well, I want to just encourage that we search for a deeper and broader understanding of why things have been going so wrong in our society. And it's partly we also need to open our eyes more to how global these problems are to understand better, because we tend to remain within a national discussion.
Helena: And it's very interesting because it's actually global media that are in control of the discourse that have been shaping our view of history, our view of life and all the time shaping it with this idea of progress. And that we've got to keep rushing forward towards more technology, more growth. Very closely linked to technology and unquestioning urbanization.
Helena: By the way, about urbanization. I would just like to mention that just the other day, a high level expert, someone named Dr.Tim Leunig, in England, an advisor to the Treasury, came up with this big report to show that farming only contributes 1% to GDP.
Helena: So let's stop farming. Let's import our food. Let's be like Singapore. Singapore is doing perfectly well. Now, that ecological and human illiteracy, that blindness is really what's what's running our world and you can call it psychopaths are not in the conventional sense. Many of these people are good people. They're good fathers, they really try to do their best, but they are so blinded by their numbers and by their narrow discipline.
Jeff: I mean you make so many insightful points. It's hard to know which one to address.
Jeff: I think that the separation of just distance-wise between the consumer and the product, is startling. And I have three daughters and we're cooped up now amongst the many during the global pandemic, and of course, they're bouncing off the walls. I'm trying to use this opportunity to allay their consumer instinct. And it'd be like, and you're seeing a global shift in behavior and I want to talk to you about that and how you feel about that and if you're optimistic or if you're just essentially resigned to the fact that we're going to scurry back to our old consumptive ways or not.
Jeff: But you know, my daughter, just because she doesn't know what else to do, we've done 15 art projects, and she's like, "I want this tee-shirt."
Jeff: And I'm like, "Well, what tee-shirt?" She's like, "I want this tee-shirt. It's on Amazon. Can I order it dad, please?"
Jeff: And I said, "Well, you know, maybe, but let's actually find out a little bit more about that tee-shirt, how it was made and where it's come from." And, of course, she's rolling her eyes, this is like, "Oh, dad, stop it with your story of separation," and all this kind of stuff.
Jeff: And so I'm like, "Okay, I'm going to go do the research and I'll come back to you." This tee-shirt, I mean, there is only so much information that I could find, but generally around [crosstalk 00:19:51] the supply chain of a tee-shirt of cotton that was grown essentially in Texas, shipped to Indonesia to get combed and made into yarn, then shipped to Malaysia or Bangladesh to get turned into cloth to get printed in China, to then get shipped to New York to then get shipped to a distribution center for Amazon. So it can get shipped to our house for essentially $14 and 99 cents.
Jeff: And how does that make any sense? And what is the collateral damage of that process in so many different ways? And obviously, you've pointed this out many times, there's no internalized costs in that process. But if you think about the carbon footprint of that process, if you think about this separation that you feel from that product. How... Charles Eisenstein wrote this book called Sacred Economics, which became very influential for me, and that in our pursuit of being able to deliver low cost goods to my daughter or your daughter or anybody's daughters, what we've essentially done in the name of operational efficiency through this process of commodification, we've stripped out essentially anything that is sacred.
Jeff: There is essentially, we're just wearing what we're wearing or what we're drinking or anything, is that essentially what we've gone for is highly commodified operationally efficient goods that we don't know who made them, we're completely divorced from who made... And they're all exactly the same.
Jeff: And you know, I wonder now in this moment in history when people have slowed down, when they're in quarantine, when they're in their homes, when they're cooking, when they're not driving, when they're not flying, when they're spending more time with their families, when they might actually see their neighbor walking and find out what their name is.
Jeff: I wonder that in this period of time, is there a re-prioritization that is happening that can essentially create, not only just a personal awareness of what makes life worthwhile, but you talk about the GDP, essentially give birth to new indices of what it really means to be successful.
Jeff: And I wonder where you are as you witness what's happening in the world right now, because you've been thinking and talking and writing and making movies about localization for decades. And now we seem to be... now that we've felt the breadth of the apocalypse on our neck, are we ready for global seismic change?
Jeff: I mean, look at what it's take... two months ago, no way. No way are we going to change our global behaviors. But here we are.
Helena: It's interesting because my husband was saying until this pandemic, "No way are we going to change." I was saying that by keeping my ear very close to the ground, because I ended up, when I first sort of saw this humongous change was almost overnight, led to divisiveness, literally Buddhists and Muslims have been living side-by-side for generations, and suddenly they were literally killing each other after 10 years of being pushed into the [inaudible 00:23:52] intense competition for jobs.
Helena: You know, it's like putting people into a cage and their only way is to fight for themselves. And so this conflict is so linked to this hardening into bigger and bigger cities and fear of life and this insecurity that this money supply creates.
Helena: Then also seeing young people reject their own look, feeling they had to look like the role models in the media. And seeing that overnight, you created pollution that never existed before. You create a gap between rich and poor that had never existed like that. So this sort of massive systemic change all in a negative direction, all of it.
Helena: So I go back every year to sort of report and every year, literally like Munich, Paris, Stockholm, London, New York, San Francisco, giving talks. And in the 70s, there was a big movement to go back to the land. It was a real recognition we're going in the wrong direction. We want to be more connected to community and to the land. And there was enough power also...
Helena: And there was enough power also on the back of Rachel Carson's knowledge that science had become too specialized. So she had warned about this blindness and putting some dignity over here thinking it's perfectly safe. She exposed that actually we are affecting the entire web of life, even on the other side of the world that can have an effect. So there was this huge demand for decentralized economic structures and more holistic interdisciplinary science and it actually had a bit of an impact. So I taught and one of the interdisciplinary departments of dealing with to Berkeley and I was connected to some and so Germany and Sweden, but what happened around the same time as the environmental crisis grew was that people in higher levels of power also became aware.
Helena: And one of the key players in that I knew well someone named Morris strong and his Danish wife Hannah, who was passionate about nature's and spirituality and she managed to persuade Morris, this is really important. So he becoming really serious about the environment seeks to talk to his peers, the CEOs of the world and also to Gro Harlem Brundtland, the prime minister of Norway and it begs up this global attempt to really do something about the environment, which includes the big meeting in Rio in 92. What I saw was that as these power players got involved, the last thing they were looking at was the problem with centralized, globalized economic growth. They were serious about forest depletion, about climate. Well you know I tried to talk to some of them also about the trade treaties that were deregulating global monopolies and why regulating every other player and they didn't really want to hear that and in fact it's not been a very popular thing with anybody because it just seemed so far removed.
Helena: So as I see it in order for us now to really ensure that this opportunity, it is an opportunity now to rethink, it's a bit like pushing the pause button. First of all, we need to realize and open our eyes to a quiet grassroots movement that has actually been there all along. What happened with a big hippie movement and the desire to go back to the land and more balanced with nature and community. It got essentially co-opted. And it got co-opted primarily through the marketing of computers and the internet as a way for us to decentralize. That was the message. We were told, look at this, you can have this elegant information society. The message was, we're moving away from dirty industry where we take things out of the ground and we transport them all over the place. No more than that.
Helena: Information can be yours can be mine at the same time and we're moving into this clean inflammation society. Now, my experience coming back and forth from the so-called global South or third world was that more and more of the environmentalist and people bought into that world view because what was happening so metaniously with the help of those technologies was that the industry was shifting to the other side of the world, to the poor countries to do the manufacturing and all the time the discussion was, ooh, climate change is becoming quite a problem. Don't drive your car, turn off your light bulbs. Even things like park in the shade in the [inaudible 00:29:20] there was this enormous transformation of economic activity where government with global business was shifting the dirty industry out of sight and then with this environmentalist saying, oh yeah, we've become so sustainable, the Hudson is cleaner, the Thames in London is clean and look on the other side of the world, bigger, dirtier industry than ever before. Larger and larger and engaged in more and more insane tray, insane tray.
Helena: Now I had already discovered in the 70s when I came back from [inaudible 00:30:01] and it's got to be aware of this business of things transported from far away being cheaper than local thing. So I found out in Sweden at that time that they were shipping potatoes to Italy by road to be washed, put in plastic bags and shipped back again. Now over the years in this era of supporting the global economy that's turned into flying potatoes to the other side of the world, apples have flown from England to South Africa to be washed, flown back again. Fishes flown from Norway to China to be de-boned, scallops from Tasmanian flown to China and are flown back again.
Helena: Right here in Byron Bay they're flying macadamia nuts to China to be cracked open. Now this insane trade, particularly in food, let's remember, food is something everybody needs every day of their life, to have a system, an economic system that is separating us further and further and further from that food, that we need about three times a day, you cannot imagine anything more obscenely wasteful and obscenely unhealthy. We know we need fresh, nutritious food as much as possible. There is huge and knowledge about the need to also come back to more indigenous varieties. People are recovering also wilder species of plants that have far more nutrition and there's this incredible diversity.
Helena: Now quietly at the grassroots and I myself ended up just going more and more grassroots. I wasn't invited anymore to Harvard or Oxford to speak. I didn't get on any television programs, which I had a bit in the 70s and up to the mid eighties but I found at the grassroots there was still this soul. There was still a connection to the sacred. The sacredness meaning the amazing miracle of life, the richness that the truth that spiritual traditions have told us about nothing ever the same constant change, the uniqueness of every single set in our bodies, every single leaf out there. That sacredness and beauty and joy of life. There were still people in touch with that and we started helping, and even in Los Angeles, I was there. When was it been very early on helping to start one of the first farmer's markets and many parts of the world we helped to pioneer this idea of starting a local food movement and now we actually had, before the pandemic, we actually do have a local food movement that is global. But it doesn't recognize itself as global because we haven't been allowed to get it into the media and the global media are controlling or have been controlling the discussion.
Helena: And so I, before the pandemic, was still keeping my passion and my health and my joy alive by being more in touch with the grassroots and seeing that it was on a micro scale that I was seeing in every avenue of life. Architects, doctors, [inaudible 00:33:30] discovering life affirming, spiritual, connected ways of doing things. The alternative health that was more holistic, that was more in touch with life, the eco of theology, the eco psychology, the eco architecture, every avenue of life there were cheaper strain away from the dominant monolithic and very disrupting monoculture of ideas and ways of doing thing.
Helena: That kept me hopeful. My husband would shake his head and say, ya, ya. Keep going. I'll support you. But had no hope really after the pandemic for the first time and we've been together 43 years, and for the first time in 43 days he said we may have a chance, we may really have a chance to change things now. So I see this as sort of an outpouring of, first of all maybe out of fear we can see everywhere people turning to local food supplies. They are turning to even get their hands dirty and are planting a seed for the first time in their life. And I do want to make a big, big plea for people who are interested in the sort of new age spiritual movement to take this sort of food and farming reality much more seriously than they have tended to do. Because I'm seeing like for a child and for a young person, the ability to be engaged in planting a seed and seeing it grow and watering it is a profoundly spiritual experience. And it's one that it allows this in depth, ongoing relationship with life, with sacred life in a way that is far more profound than we realize.
Helena: And I also I would argue that it's in our DNA, we evolved closely connected to others in intergenerational community and deeply, intimately, interdependent with the living life around us, the plants, the animals, all aspects of life. So this turning towards the local food supply and even getting the hands dirty is actually a huge global movement and yeah, sis you-
Jeff: There's been a lot of studies around how long it takes humans and there's a neuro-plasticity component of this, but essentially to develop new ingrained habits. And we're sort of past that point now in much of the world where we now have been sequestered and we are becoming attuned to whether or not we like this new normal. And my sense is that, and I exclude the obvious frontline workers and people that are sick and that people are enduring extreme pain or loss and that's real. There is a human experience here that is real. But I think for the rest of humanity that is largely sheltered at home, there is now the dawning of am I not just happier not driving, not flying? Am I not more efficient working remotely? Am I not happier being with my kids? Oh guess what? They actually like me and I like them.
Jeff: And this is the piece of it because it might last a few more months to be honest and potentially longer that essentially were being coerced into these new kinds of patterns. And I think what you said about the relationship between technology and localization was very interesting. I never really thought about it that way. Essentially that in the name of sustainability, we're just moving the dirt over there where we can't see it.. And globalizing the carbon emission problem. But I do think that there is something interesting, there's a John Maynard Keynes quote that I actually, I love that I discovered recently, which is, it is easier to ship recipes than cakes and biscuits.
Helena: I think that's from Keynes. I think that's from Schumacher.
Jeff: Okay, well we'll look that up. We'll look it up.
Helena: Small is beautiful. He was a German economist working in England and he had a very similar experience to mine in the 50s he went to Burma and basically found that the happiest people he had ever encountered and know real poverty. So it forced him to completely rethink economics and as we now look for a pattern, a paradigm and a system to embrace, I would urge everyone to read that book, Small is Beautiful. And it was very clear about the need to decentralize and to question and to look at technology to ensure that it remains in the hands of human scale institutions, that it does not come to dominate us as a mega system. And also I think another really important part of our technology is to try to get away from my hyper individualistic way of looking at things so that we need what I call big picture activism. We need to step back and look at the bigger picture and look at what's happened as a society, as a community.
Helena: And there are many things that appear so small and handy and they appear to save us time. But if we actually step back and look at it, what these technologies have done in the last 30 years is to push us into faster and faster more competitive behavior. And this idea that information can be yours and mine. You know, one of the biggest exports in the US is patents. The control of knowledge is greater than ever. And I think also another really important part of the big picture is to look at the structures that are problematic. So I would say that mono culture is the enemy and larger and larger mono cultures are human and ecological or essentially anti life. Life is diversity, is this remarkable richness and diversity and we haven't seen clearly enough, absolute inevitable part of the structural part we've taken with the tools and technologies is to centralize and overnights and impose monoculture.
Helena: So that's the sort of enemy and the biggest enemy of all is the blindness that has been part and parcel of this path. I was talking about you know at the deepest level, going way back, what I was talking about in [inaudible 00:16:21], training children in those school rooms was actually a training that meant as they went through their entire schooling, they learn nothing about how to build a house, how to grow food, how to do any of the basics that are essential as a part of our economy, not a word.
Helena: If you wanted to learn to grow food you went to agricultural college. If you wanted to learn how sort of road you went to engineering college and on and on, and in those institutions already going way back, what was being taught is what suited big business. What suited giant industrial forms of production. And after the Second World War, that meant we had lots of cheap oil. So that oil was made artificially cheap when it actually cost millions of lives and huge amounts of money.
Helena: And another of course part of this secret that Charles also talks about is the way money was created and we allowed this deregulation of global banks and businesses to get to the point now where it's the banks that should be under democratic control. The banks I've been giving our governments their marching orders and not just the bags, the Monsanto's and the auto Daniels Midland, and these giants have been essentially ordering our governments to give them more freedom and to regulate everyone operating in the local, regional, national arena. So here we have an economic system where everyone is operating at that level is not only strangling by regulation, many of us absolutely counterproductive and stupidly anti-ecological but often in the name of health and safety and those same players of strangled by taxes.
Helena: And in the meanwhile those that operate globally, they will pay no tax and have no regulations and in fact are telling government if you don't do is we say we will sue you. We'll take you to the court and that's under what's called ISDS clauses, investment state [inaudible 00:43:43] and I'm absolutely convinced that almost every sane person, if they really stepped back and looked at that, they would say, that's crazy. It's a joke to talk about democracy. We learnt technically economic [inaudible 00:44:01] to be doing this, making a joke of democracy all the time in posting this sort of deadening mono culture.
Helena: I really believe that if people fully understood and comprehended this that we would be having a massive vote for change.