Talking Resilience with Helena Norberg-Hodge: Experiencing Traditional Community Resilience
July 15, 2015
Talking Resilience is a series of interviews with thought leaders and practitioners, discussing how to define, practice, and evaluate community resilience.
Helena Norberg-Hodge is the director and founder of Local Futures, and founder of the International Alliance for Localization. Her aim is to renew ecological and social well being by promoting a systemic shift away from economic globalization towards localization. Helena is the producer and co-director of the award-winning documentary The Economics of Happiness, and is the author of Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh.
Ken White, Associate Director of Post Carbon Institute, shared the following conversation with her.
Ken: How do you define resilience, or more particularly, community resilience? What does it look like to you?
Helena: I am a little allergic to this word because I’m so wary of monoculture, and feel that the term is being overused. Having said that, it’s clear that communities today are very vulnerable because they are so dependent on long-distance transport, and because people have lost almost all basic skills. So this dependence and vulnerability needs to be countered, and creating more resilient communities certainly makes sense. It’s vitally important people become more self-reliant — become more capable of dealing with the almost inevitable multiple crises that we are going to face in the future. Because of climate disturbances, as well as social upheaval, it’s crucial for communities to strengthen their capacity to be more creative, more cohesive, and more capable of building, repairing, and functioning in a situation where, for instance, energy and water might be cut off for weeks — perhaps months at a time.
Ken: Tell me about how your work is connected to building resilience.
Helena: Our work started with all my thinking [being] changed by being exposed to this place called Ladakh, or ‘Little Tibet,’ high on the Tibetan Plateau, but politically part of India. The region, which is quite large, about the size of Austria, had been sealed off for political reasons and from the whole modern era from the 40s to the 70s, and before that because it was high up (at 12,000 feet), and surrounded by Himalayan mountains. So, it was a very remote area.
It was barely affected by colonialism when India was in the hands of the British, and I arrived as it had just opened up to the outside world. I was a linguist, I came out as part of a film team and was only going to stay for six weeks. I was living in Paris, spoke a lot of languages and was well-travelled and thought I understood a lot about the world. But Ladakh completely changed my thinking about virtually everything.
I discovered a place where there was no poverty, there was no unemployment and I saw happier and healthier people than I had ever encountered. I was just entranced by these people…. And, really, because I loved the place so much, I decided to stay on to work on the language.
But my main interest was in these fascinating people. I came to realize that I had never found people who had higher self-esteem. This self-esteem wasn’t expressed in pride, but rather, paradoxically, they also were the most humble people I’d ever encountered. Just this deep, relaxed dignity and sense of self. There was no need to prove yourself. Such a sparkle in their eyes, and a twinkling sense of humor and vitality….
And then I observed, over the next years, almost like a scientific experiment, the place being opened up to the outside world — to the outside dominant economic system.
Within a few years it was obvious that this development was creating pollution, unemployment, and, very strikingly, in young people a sense that they were no good the way they were. I saw this dramatic transformation — from such deep dignity and self-respect to a great loss of self-esteem, especially in the young. They were saying, “Ooh, it’s so much better to have a bigger nose and to have lighter skin.” And they started buying dangerous, toxic skin-lightening cream. And in other ways did everything they could to change their appearance to look more Western.
Previously, there had been Buddhists and Muslims living side-by-side for 500 years, without group conflict. [Then came] 10 years of economic changes, [which] destroyed local production, the local economy, and created unemployment. People were pulled to the city in search of a very few jobs. Suddenly there was intense competition over the fruits of this new centralized economy. Buddhists and Muslims were now competing for the same jobs, something which had never happened before.
This, by the way, is also what happened with colonialism. The colonial powers brought in a model of top-down, centralized economies in city centers. In the traditional economies people of all ages and ethnic groups were productive and there was no need to squabble over scarce jobs and centralized power. When they left, all Hell broke loose as tribes and groups that had previously been interdependent and living side- by- side without group conflict were now scrambling for the same positions of power and fighting each other.
The situation in Ladakh made it dramatically clear that the Western economic system created more problems than it solved. So, having witnessed the psychological, social, economic, environmental impact of this dominant economy, I became a passionate advocate for a very different model. It became obvious to me that what was needed was to rebuild and strengthen the decentralized, human-scaled community structures, whether in rural areas or even within cities — to rebuild a fabric of collective supportive interdependence. To rebuild interdependence between people, and between them and their natural resources. At the core, what was needed was what is now being called ‘community resilience’.
The dominant system that came into Ladakh with development was completely based on fossil fuels — with the building of [subsidized] roads allowing the delivery of subsidized food, using subsidized fossil fuels…. It made it possible for outside businesses to deliver products for half the price of the local ones. In this way, large, outside businesses destroyed the local economy.
I started writing to the Indian government about the fact that Ladakh had 300 days a year of sunshine, and wouldn’t it be much better to base the development on decentralized, renewable energy? With the support I gained from the government, I was able, in a very difficult political situation, to help build up an indigenous organization called LEDEG — Ladakh Ecological Development Group. We demonstrated solar (for lighting), small-scale hydro and wind,…along with passive solar for house heating, water heating, greenhouses.
The group grew, and influential leaders joined us, and later on they went on to form a local, semi-independent government. The work we started as a nonprofit, turned into local government policies to promote renewable energy, organic agriculture, to maintain cultural self-respect, and to use local crafts as a major way of bringing in some money to the region.
However, the dominant economic steamroller is still powering on, and it’s clear to me that the most important target audience for our work is really the West, particularly America. We are primarily trying to reach all of those millions upon millions of people who are trying to do something to make the world a better place. We are trying to encourage a more holistic, more systemic, and basically a more global understanding of what’s going on, so that we can focus strategically on key issues, rather than an endless stream of crises and symptoms.
If you analyze what’s going on globally, from a systems perspective, many activities—recycling, ethical consumerism, ethical investment, micro-credit—generally end up reinforcing, or at best allowing the continuation of a techno-economic juggernaut that’s taking us rapidly in the wrong direction. Building ‘resilient’ community alternatives is exactly the antidote that we need. In Local Futures, we tend to use the language of shifting away from a globalizing techno-economic juggernaut towards rebuilding local communities and economies. At a fundamental level this type of localisation has to do with shortening the distances.
Ken: So what does community resilience look like? How do you know it when you see it?
Helena: It looks like groups of people between 10 and many hundreds and sometimes thousands that have structures of support, that know each other well enough, and that have built up…ways of supporting each other in times of crisis.
In the modern world we’ve become so dependent on distant government and corporate structures, giant entities and bureaucracies far away from our sight. And we often relate to them through machines and simply as numerical figures. Faceless bureaucracies. So here we are talking about structures that have a face, that have a human scale, where people know who they can rely on….
Having worked over a 40-year period in Ladakh, as well as in Bhutan for a shorter period, I’ve had the great privilege of experiencing the traditional community resilience in these cultures. It was very clear that the human scale structures were vital to relationships that provided real support and security. First of all the basic social unit wasn’t the nuclear family but intergenerational households of about 10 to 15 people. They, in turn, linked to groups of about 10 households and these groups linked in to a village structure with an appointed head and a council. Importantly there were also household structures that transcended the village — groups of about 6 households. This was clearly important in case one village suffered a drought or flood and could get support from others. These relationships went back over generations and were of a scale that meant that people knew each other personally, could communicate face to face and had a feeling of much greater control than we do in the industrialised parts of the world where we are dependent on anonymous businesses and government bureaucracies.
In Ladakh, I experienced a way of life that is disappearing rapidly. [T]here are many parts of the world that have been less corporatized. Which means less vulnerable, less dependent upon faceless bureaucracies. They have more knowledge, skills, and local infrastructure to help them sustain their lives in terms of food, clothing, and shelter. It’s very clear that they are of the human scale. They’re in their own control. They are able to build and repair and operate [what they need, from] water channels to paths, or small-scale water mills for grinding grain… All kinds of appropriate technologies…for processing food and various farming activities and building houses.
Most children learn how to do a lot of…growing food, building houses, making clothes—they grow up learning these skills, so it’s very natural and easy to join in when needed.
Ken: When I was in school…, we still had metal shop and wood shop and sewing and cooking and things like that were part of the education system. Most of those have been phased out by most schools.
Helena: Yes, absolutely! As part of the corporatization process, we are being made very vulnerable and passive victims in this situation, because we become so helpless. And of course now we think that if we have the right app we’ll be able to do everything, but the fact is that app can only help us to direct our voice to a large infrastructure where we have no control, and we don’t even know where it is, or see how it works.
As part of what we call ‘growth’ and progress, we have allowed our governments to support large businesses to become giant global corporations. This has led to a systemic shift where our skills and labour gets replaced either by technology or cheap labour on the other side of the world. We need a discussion about the extent to which we are being made very vulnerable and passive. People become helpless victims in this situation and often the reaction is anger. Many, unfortunately, blame immigrants or the government for their hardship, rather than pointing to the crazy economic policies that have given global corporations (including the media) so much power.
Ken: And then there’s this phenomenon here in the U.S. where the return of those skills is mostly happening at two ends of the socio-economic spectrum. One is people who immigrate here and bring those skills with them, the other is more at the high end of the economic scale, where it’s almost seen as a luxury lifestyle choice to raise chickens.
Helena: Well, at the upper end of that socio-economic ladder I think it’s very interesting that a lot of people who can afford it are turning to farming and actually enjoying hands-on skills. Enjoying being able to move with their bodies and actually regaining of a sort of pride in being able to literally make something. Especially when you work with Nature, planting something from seed and seeing it grow and being able to harvest is an incredible joy. We’ve evolved for all but a tiny, tiny, tiny fraction of our time on earth [to do this], so I would argue that it is in our DNA, and that we have a great need for it. [Yet] people of privilege. who could be very happy sitting on the sofa in front of a flat-screen television, [who] don’t need to lift a finger, actually choose to do this.[This] is something we should be filming and sending around the world as an antidote to the propaganda for the urban consumer culture that is destroying self-respect in the less-industrialized…parts of the world, where young people are getting the impression that getting your hands dirty and farming and living in a small town or even in a village is an anachronism and is something backwards, stupid, and primitive. This is a very, very important psychological pressure on billions of people around the world, combined with financial and structural pressure. [In] rural areas, where partly though big mining companies or forest companies coming in and grabbing land, or essentially other extensions of corporate global industrial economy are destroying livelihoods, the most highly subsidized…food [is] coming into the local market.
These psychological pressures are combined with financial and structural pressures. As I mentioned before, in Ladakh I witnessed the many ways in which the corporate global economy destroys local economies and livelihoods. Governments subsidise large scale global infrastructure and global trade, creating a completely unfair playing field in which small businesses can’t survive. And throughout the developing world, corporations, whether for mining, forestry or agriculture, are grabbing land. So there is an avalanche of people being driven off the land, into slums in megacities.
So there are financial and structural pressures that are emanating from the same systems. They’re very different from the psychological pressures and it is very important that we understand both. For the psychological side, we could be…highlighting this fact of the privileged choosing to do something that is otherwise seen as shameful and backward. I think that even within the industrialized world it would be very helpful to highlight the fact that people who have a choice actually enjoy physical, productive work and long for more contact with nature. The message that eating organic food or farming is only an elitist thing is one that corporate think-tanks love to promote.
Localizing is not elitist. Localizing is about survival of the human race. We need to rapidly move away from this energy-intensive, debt-based, capital-intensive path towards something that is more directly linked to the real economy, which is the natural world. So, we should not be joining the corporate think-tank chorus of voices, which tries to paint this move as elitist, and we should be very, very aware that we are shooting ourselves in the foot when we do that.
We of course also need to do everything we can, again, to make it possible for many more people to participate in this vitally important shift, which is also a shift towards what we call an “Economics of Happiness.” We want people to have more options.
We’re told that the mainstream economy offers us choice. In fact it offers us very, very, little choice when it comes to clean air, healthy food and water, peace of mind, community, etc., etc. … What the consumer economy offers is a choice of a lot of different brands containing toxic and unwanted ingredients.
Ken: It sounds like you’re describing something of a framework. I wondered if you had something that was where you have laid it out the somewhere.
Helena: Yes, I do have something where I’ve laid it out. It’s still a work in progress, it has taken forever to write. I do mostly speaking. But I have this document called Essential Steps to Economics of Happiness. We are also working on—perhaps we can collaborate on this—a sort of toolkit or handbook for communities that would lay out the steps needed to rebuild local economies and communities.
I think it’s important to say that we feel the Transition Town movement and Post Carbon Institute are in many ways closest to us within the Western context. We believe that understanding the global system from a global point of view can make the localization movement much more powerful in the West [and also for] places like China and India, where so much of the increase in CO2 emissions and pollution is happening. We see the need for a globally relevant toolkit, so basically so we would like to see a more international perspective in those localization tools.
When you do look at [the world] today…from the point of view of a multitude of cultures, what emerges is the need to see, as I keep saying, the techno-economic system as a system, rather than focusing only on fossil fuels and global warming. We also need to look at the creation of money and the inextricable link between the money — as it’s being generated now — and the corporate structures that are being pushed and imposed on the world. The consumerism that’s being encouraged, the urbanization that’s being encouraged, this is all part of the systemic context. It’s coming from the same nexus. I would love to try to show these relationships visually, perhaps as an animation. But it might be better with talking heads and some animation to show these structures. Seeing these broad structural relationships is extremely helpful because it then becomes much clearer on what to focus on and what to do.
Ken: You mentioned something earlier about urbanization and you just brought it up again—there’s a certain tendency in the West to…have lost all context about how to have a human-scaled community. But with the urbanization in other parts of the world, it seems like that may be being lost there as well.
Helena: That we’re losing the community fabric? Oh absolutely. I mean, urbanization…is throwing people on this heap, literally on top of each other. In the process, it’s cutting us off from one another, and the ability to depend on one another. You become dependent on structures over which you have no control…huge, faceless bureaucracies. And as those bureaucracies become more and more commercialized — in the hands of corporations instead of governments — it’s even worse, because the corporate layer on which we depend, we don’t even see. We don’t know the names, we don’t vote for them, and yet we’re completely surrounded by the tentacles of that system at every level.
So, we should really reflect on how weird it is that people who live so much more closely together, literally on top of each other in a high-rise building, don’t know each other’s names, don’t look each other in the eye. Whereas when you live in the way that we evolved, basically in more human-scale groups, not only do we know each others’ names, but we help one another. We know that, because I can rely on help from you, it is in my interest to help you. So you get a situation where you are simultaneously helping yourself and others.
Ken: Here in the U.S. there’s a completely appropriate and understandable focus on economic justice and environmental justice and social justice and just plain justice. I’m wondering if you have thoughts on how justice and community resilience interact with each other.
Helena: First of all, this relates to the question about how…people are regaining interest in hands-on skills, how, in many ways, they are going back to the land. As I mentioned earlier, in the developing world, people are being made to feel primitive if they are not dressed in a suit and sitting in front of a computer. However, many people who are well-off are choosing to go back to the land—including Prince Charles, who gets up first thing in the morning and goes out to collect the eggs before he’s even dressed.
There have actually been corporate-funded think tanks that actively send out the message that this is elitist and therefore this idea of eating local, fresh, organic food is simply an indulgence of wealthy people. They put out the message that if we care about feeding the world, we’ve got to have big industrial farms, the equivalent of WalMart. We’re told that we have to support the big farms and supermarkets to deliver food at a price that people can afford. The same think tanks put out the idea that white middle-class or elite people who are also protecting the environment, and trying to rebuild local economies, again, are elitist and racist. And, this movement will only be taken seriously if it is led by the poorer, marginalized peoples.
I think we will all have to think very carefully about this. I would like to turn it around and say, “How can we expect the people who are most marginalized to be leading movements when they are fighting to keep a roof over their head? When their mortgages have been pushed on them and then they are literally pushed out on the street? How can we expect a person like that to be gathering everyone together to build a new local food economy?”
Of course it is important to include people of every background in any movement but these corporatized voices argue that unless marginal people are taking the lead, the movement is no good. I think we really have to say instead, “You people who have a roof over your head and have a little bit of extra time and a little bit of extra money, you need to take responsibility. You need to help us get out of this mess, and do everything you can to ensure that your efforts will benefit the less well-off.”
This juxtaposing the privileged against the less-privileged within a country, is paralleled on the international stage where the argument has been, “How can you rich countries who benefited from this wealth and who have created all these CO2 emissions, how can you be asking poor countries to lower their CO2 emissions as rapidly as you do?”
This is a completely corporate agenda. We have seen Exxon in China a long time ago letting the Chinese government know that they should absolutely not ratify the Kyoto protocol etc., etc. The big giant corporations are in a rat race, and they themselves are running scared and competing like crazy. They’ve got to go scouring the globe for where labor is cheapest. So by definition, the production is being shifted to countries that are the poorest, where labor is cheapest. And of course they are going to want to have lots of CO2 emissions freely emanating for those countries. We really have to update our thinking—we have to essentially think globally.
We have to understand that…our food, as well as everything we use, even our identities, are being shaped by that system. So we really have to wake up to how it is actually operating. Again, the justice argument has been used there as well, in terms of, “Western elite imposing these eco ideas on these poor countries.”
Another aspect to all this is… particularly [relevant to] those relatively well-off Westerners who want to support peoples who were colonized for generations. There is definitely a sense of trying to repay a debt and I’m very, very, keen that that should happen. In terms of energy, that would mean rapidly helping to build up a renewable energy infrastructure, one that allows more human-scale cities and villages to flourish, rather than smart, green mega-cities. That’s the “corporate green” that we have to avoid. A decentralized model would be much, much, less expensive, and in a multitude of ways much more beneficial.
Another aspect that is really important to keep in mind is: colonialism—and remember this was Europeans spreading across the globe and through force, using genocide to force people into slavery and into submission to produce for Europe. [This] meant shifting people away from diversified production for local needs. “Self-reliance” is described as “subsistence,” and subsistence in this [context] is synonymous with a dark, brutish, Hellish way of life that we all want to get away from. [Yet] we have countless reports…that many of those subsistence economies and cultures were actually incredibly rich and flourishing places with high levels of philosophy, art, music and spiritual traditions.
So we really need to rethink that foundational belief, and my book Ancient Futures contributes to that rethinking. What we also need to realize is that from the very beginning of colonialism, Western elites worked with local elites, who benefited greatly…. When you then add to that [an understanding of the huge gap between rich and poor in “third world”], then you’re talking about the rich there being fantastically wealthy. Therefore, talking about rich countries/poor countries doesn’t really paint the picture. We have to be looking in a much more differentiated way, and we have to realize that when we are talking about working with third world governments, we’re often talking about supporting an elite that is very corrupt and that benefits from keeping the price of labor low…They benefit from having lots of very, very, poor people whose labor they can offer on the global market in a competitive way.
Now this whole global market thing is a monstrous creation because it is built on those relationships. The elite European traders that expanded across the world, had also enclosed their own people, pushing them off the land to create cheap labor for the industrial production back home, while getting cheap resources—cotton and so on—from other parts of the world. We have to remember that this global economy, where some people earn a dollar a day and other people earn a thousand dollars a day, is born of slavery and genocide, and therefore it’s not a naturally occurring thing.
We are told that things just naturally become bigger. We [need to look honestly at this situation] without assigning blame, without therefore saying that, “All white western wealthy persons are evil and all poor people are noble.” It’s not about that. It’s not that simple.
It’s understanding the structures, so that we don’t run around chasing our tail and in the end reinforce these structures. So this global trading system functions beautifully for the giant middlemen—or corporations—to be buying where labor is cheap, and selling where it is expensive. [The system] keeps thriving on inequality, both within countries and between countries. But the way that the system has created this corporate powerful elite is through global trade, going way back. [From the beginning.] it’s been based on injustice, and [in the modern era] it has been accelerated and exacerbated by global trade treaties. That’s a very central, systemically central, trajectory that we should be keeping our eyes on.
Ken: I’m going to ask you two questions that are kind of unfair. And they are unfair because you are describing both the meta and the micro. And so, [first], outside of money, what’s the one form of support that would most help your efforts?
Helena: Getting the word out. Our work is about getting the word out. We think of ourselves as an activist think tank trying to get this perspective out to encourage strategic activism around the world. To the extent that we are a think-and-do tank we try to present these ideas in plain English to reach a wide audience. Our target audience is those people who still have some time, space, and money to do something to make the world a better place.
Ken: And do you see in the West that that pool of people is getting larger or getting smaller?
Ken: And why is that?
Helena: Because the economic system that, at the same time that it is chewing up more and more resources, is chewing up more and more people. The trajectory fundamentally has been based on the idea [of] support for global traders, which then means that they go to find where labor is cheapest. So it’s a moving feast; it doesn’t create any security for labor. At the same time, we have the idea that…substituting technology for people is always progress. This means that our governments have been subsidising the development of technologies that end up replacing people. And of course, ever-more technology relies on ever-more energy. The biggest, most fraudulent shift has been managing to market the communications technologies as being efficient. You know, reducing use of paper etc., when actually the reliance on these electronic tools has massively increased the demand for high-quality energy. The end result is that more and more people feel extremely insecure, and those who have jobs are working longer and longer hours. This means that there are fewer people who have the luxury to devoting their time to make this world a better place. In addition, systemic subsidies for global trade and ever more high technology [This makes] it extremely difficult to rely on what we could easily rely on, much smaller-scale, diverse renewable energy technologies.
Ken: It’s interesting you mention quality of energy because it’s not just energy, it’s very specific forms of energy: reliable, stable, and highly tuned. Here’s the second unfair question: What one structural or political or other policy would have the greatest impact on supporting you work?
Helena: Halting further trade as the first step. Halting, and starting a step-by-step reversal. New trade treaties that give banks and corporations the time to plan splits rather than ever bigger mergers. It’s not out of the question… It’s a shift that would be much easier to implement than the current path. The current path is incredibly resource-intensive and goes against the grain of nature and human nature, and what we’re talking about here is going with the grain of nature and human nature….
I think most CEOs would welcome the idea if they could just be presented with the big picture that this so-called “free trade agenda,” is a shift that forces them to go scouring the whole world for the cheapest labor. [They are also] attacked for using slave labor, [being] forced to use larger quantities of energy to have everything from our socks to our potatoes coming from China.
Already [some] CEOs [are] saying, “Stop the world I want to get off!” With their tickers and their mobile phones and everything else, they have to be on 24 hours a day. It’s not humanly possible, you cannot act out of kindness and compassion and wisdom when you’re doing that. The other part of this rat race is that you’re running, running, because the next merger may mean that you lose your job. When two merge into one there’s going to be one CEO.
So what we’re advocating is a path of splitting, and saying, “Wouldn’t it be a great thing to know that you could actually help recruit another CEO for a sister company? [These smaller corporations] will not be interlinked, and they’re going to have to adhere to the rules of individual countries.”
To the extent that there’s global trade, there [should] not [be] the ability for corporations to say to governments, “If you don’t do as we say, we’re going elsewhere.” Society needs to determine the rules. I believe that we could paint a pretty good picture to show how much more appealing [this] would be to the average human in the system, including the CEO, including presidents of countries, including workers. It is a win-win-win strategy.
Ken: What about at the local micro level? What sort of policy or structural change?
Helena: We really feel it’s our responsibility to encourage people to get their act together at the local level as soon as possible. [W]e want people to understand just how blind and disastrous the path is that governments and big businesses are imposing on us behind the scene…. Rejection of democracy is becoming more visible from Scandinavia to America; globally, it is clearly getting worse. It’s not as bad in some countries as others, [but] everywhere [governments are moving] in that direction, because they’re being pushed by the same global economic forces. As that becomes more visible, sadly many people’s reaction is to just feel despair. Many are concluding that it’s all happening because of humanity’s innate greediness, and this is of course extremely depressing.
I feel we have such a positive message because we want to say loudly and clearly, “This is not because of human innate greed, it’s not because you didn’t change your car or your lightbulbs, it’s not because you felt compelled to keep up a lifestyle that you had been guided into… [The destruction] is primarily happening because of these global structural relationships, and a vicious cycle reinforcing a dangerous marriage between over-specialized blindness and large-scale enterprise.”
That [system] is the enemy. Let’s not blame individual businesses, let’s not blame consumers, let’s not blame the CEOs… Let’s not go down this track that some people are doing now of starting to call all the people in power “psychopaths” and “sociopaths.” But let’s be aware that, at the top, they are the least likely to listen. They are so far removed from the realities, and they are so speedily caught up that… you know, in some ways you can call them psychopaths in that they are so out of touch with reality….[Back to your question]: At the local level, we encourage people to really reflect on the fact that if we have a major interruption to our infrastructure, food shortages [will be inevitable]. In most areas the water they drink comes from relatively close to home — in other words the water they drink isn’t coming from China. But the food…the supermarket shelves will be empty within three days, roughly—we’ve already seen it happen. Please reflect on the fact that you could wear the same clothes you have now probably until the day you die, without freezing to death. You could probably…manage with the buildings you have. So when it comes to food, clothing, and shelter, food is just way, way, way, up there in terms of a priority.
At the moment, in many places the only thing you could eat within reach is going to be cotton or coffee or roses. So really prioritizing human-scale and reliable means of getting food from the region is just so important. We need to establish community collaboration to create local food economies. I don’t think we’re going to be effective if each and every one of us tries to plant our own garden.
We need to really look at turning the “I” to a “we,” and collectively figure out how we can work together. Part of the reason for that is that it’s much more fun, again it’s in our DNA. For most of our history, most of these things were done in groups — intergenerational groups, so even the youngest and the oldest could contribute. Some of the models that we’ve helped to start include saying, “Why don’t we garden at my house on Wednesdays, and then we’ll all come over to your house on Fridays?” That type of thing can work. And “permablitz projects,” in which young people have started a nonprofit, and they’ll come and [turn your lawn into] a permaculture garden with you. All you have to do to repay for that is to help do it with somebody else.
It’s important to realize that there are certain corporate interests that encourage a focus on urban agriculture alone, including high-rise agriculture, which is insanity. It’s of course wonderful to have urban farms and permaculture gardens, but it is vital that we reconnect with the hinterlands. I just want to stress too that in supporting really diversified, job-rich food production, we also immediately help protect wildlife. It’s a way of allowing the worms and the birds and the other critters to come back. And when we do that in a more conscious way, again it’s such a win-win-win strategy because even on the farm itself you can help to bring wildlife back, and by supporting much more localized diversified food production, we can increase the productivity of each parcel of land.
So, on this crowded planet, the most important thing we can do to reduce our collective ecological footprint, and thus leave more wilderness to thrive. This understanding is now being reinforced by recent international UN studies. But it’s very late. It is so urgent to get this out. [We encourage people to] do what they can locally, but also to help get information out and support projects in the global South. We need community initiatives, and a powerful movement that can bring about policy change.
Raising awareness about how governments are currently creating a completely unfair playing field in terms of global players vs. localized or even national businesses is vital. We have to be very strategic in terms of figuring out how to control corporations. Campaign finance reform is not enough, because if we allow our supposed representatives to ratify treaties that allow foreign investors and foreign corporations to sue our governments if we don’t comply with their needs for profit, it doesn’t matter what we’ve done at the national level: the door is going to be open for supposedly cheaper goods to come in, and for floods of money to come pouring in….
These destructive influences are criss-crossing the globe: Chinese companies come in and start fracking water in the US, Middle Eastern companies buying water in Devon in England…. So campaign finance reform will not have much of an effect if we allow global corporate media to [effectively] elect the next president. Even if you are able, within the national arena, to pull some of that money away you’re not going to be changing things if the door is open to the foreign much, much, bigger conglomerates.
The media, the banking, and fossil fuel industries are interlinked. When I say that, it sounds so big, and it can sound so hard to change, but if we understand that it’s through global trade that these conglomerates have gained so much power…, then it becomes clear how effective it would be to focus on global trade in order to address global warming, poverty, loss of democracy, injustice, depression, isolation, breakdown of the social fabric, and breakdown of democracy. All these multiple problems emanate from the same single trajectory: conglomerated corporate global power behind the scenes, and we just haven’t been paying attention to it. Maybe partly we don’t pay attention because it seems too big. But the longer we keep thinking that, the longer we will be ignoring a really strategic way forward. We’re talking about a battle of ideas now.
Even at the local level one of the most important things we can do is “education as activism” — spreading information with the goal of building up a people’s movement that can insist on meaningful policy change. We need to spread economic literacy — it doesn’t need to be complicated — just some very basic facts. We need to get over the fact that there’s a huge and growing thought meme that is being actively promoted, which is that people don’t need information, people don’t change from information. The thinking that’s being spread around is that we don’t need to inform people because it’s become clear that all these environmentalists informed people about the environmental problems but it didn’t do any good. So now many ecologists are in discussion about finding new avenues and sadly many others are just giving up.
From my distant perspective (coming back and forth from the global South) it was quite clear that what was happening was that the information was becoming very fragmented over the years. This was happening as the trade treaties were handing over more and more power to global corporations and banks. A big step in this direction was the big environmental meeting in Rio in 1992. By this time, governments and multinational corporations had been pressured enough by the people’s movements, to start taking environmental issues more seriously. However, these large, centralized institutions were wedded to the notion that economic growth is essential. And of course, the reality was that the giant corporations that benefited from that growth were not going be questioning it. So, the earlier critiques of the economy, like Limits to Growth and Small is Beautiful, and the demand for decentralized renewable energy were getting buried under a more narrow framing that looked at biodiversity, forestry, climate — all of it treating symptoms rather than root causes.
Insidiously, at the Rio meeting, there was also a very strong message telling northern environmentalists that they would be eco-fascists if they questions growth in the global South. What was needed was »sustainable development« in these countries. This of course was linked to what I talked about earlier; that most industrial development was actually in the hands of global corporations looking for cheap labour in so-called »poor« countries.
This means that the Rio meeting was a giant step backward and that there was virtually no information about the real behind-the-scenes agendas and actions that were actually the reason for the increase in pollution. In other words, the globalizing economy through trade treaties—people had no idea about them. In the meanwhile, people were trapped in this scenario where they were told as individuals, “You’ve got to buy that more expensive ecological product, otherwise you don’t care about the environment.”
Truly natural products are naturally cheaper in an economy that has not been manipulated by false and misleading information, by taxes and subsidies that are skewed. There is no way in the world that a local apple could cost five times as much as an apple from the other side of the world, if we didn’t have this manipulated false economic situation with hidden subsidies and so on.
If we could get that message out clearly, I think we could see a huge shift rapidly. [It’s encouraging that] the Left has started realizing that they didn’t put anything like the amount of money into think tanks as the NeoCons did. Going back to the Chicago school, going back to Milton Friedman, Ayn Rand et al., the conservatives put money into promoting ideas — the survival of the fittest, competition, the individual supremacy, hyper-individualism, progress through economic growth and technology, etc. The Left didn’t do enough in terms of ideas, or ideology, but the localisation movement that I’m a part of, is often antagonistic towards the idea that we should be spreading the word. Often they will say; ‘We’ve had enough talk, let’s get on with the action. We know the system isn’t working, lets just get on with building something else.’
The trajectory that I’m a part of — from Gandhi to Schumacher to the people that I work with today — representing decentralization, or localisation, is founded in the conviction that diversity is a principle of life and that human societies and economies need to adapt to that diversity, and to build structures that are more human scale. The Left is often encouraging the need for bigger government. But we believe we need to be supporting smaller businesses instead of scaling up government. We’d be solving a whole range of both social and environmental problems if we took the issue of scale seriously.
Unfortunately what I’m finding is that the people who wake up to the importance of localization or decentralization are generally [simply] wanting to get on with the action. So there’s been almost no money put into how we can get this…paradigm shift out, how we can inform people. [The shift] is not just another way of looking at things, but it’s about looking at things we just haven’t been looking at. [The environmental movement has] not been looking at the trade treaties behind the scenes and has not been looking at the transformation of life in so called »poor« countries. Many people were led to believe that ‘sustainable development’ really was beneficial when in most instances, it simply involved different language. In practice, even under the label »sustainable«; development was becoming more destructive — the scale of development projects, big dams etc., was increasing.
There’s been so much misinformation so I don’t want anyone saying that we don’t need information; we need a whole slew of counterinformation [to the mainstream propaganda from media and academia]. Rather than [just] setting up yet another new local food system, new local business alliance…, or new ecovillage, [we need urgently] to provide information and vision to rapidly empower millions of people around the world to start powerful movements that can change regulations and start implementing »small scale on a large scale.«
Information, or “education as activism” has been overlooked in the localization movement, as a consequence, it’s remarkable to find, that in Totnes, where the Transition Town movement originated, even to this day there are people who are not familiar with the Transition Town Initiative. In Portland, Oregon, one of the localization capitals of the world, there are large numbers of people who are oblivious to the number of initiatives that are going on. The dearth of good information, of people being well-informed, is something we need to be writing about in the era of the Internet, where the assumption is that everyone is being better informed. But actually what I see happening is that the fragmentation of knowledge and movements is extreme today. People are conencting with a particular website or group, but it’s unclear whether this is really contributing to movement building or whether it’s keeping people in a bubble.
Ken: That brings me beautifully to our last question. Which is, what are the resources that you’ve found particularly helpful? The thinkers and the books and the frameworks and everything else that you’d want people to know more about?
Helena: Schumacher and Small is Beautiful had a huge impact on me. I read it while I was in Ladakh and it gave me the courage to write to the government and to start activities there. The biggest »resource« without a doubt was the actual experience I got [in Ladakh]. It’s [also] been a burden, because I found myself almost all the time on the “outside” of the western social and environmental movements. I wanted to see a more holistic, systemic analysis. Among the Greens, I and my network would be saying “Please, please bring in the social and psychological as well.” And among the Left, social and political groups, we would try to bring in the green dimension, and everywhere the economic.
My organization is very unusual in that we are very small, but we’ve managed to work in both the global North and the global South. Particularly from our experiences in the South, in cultures that were less commercialized, urbanized, and technologized, we gained insights into the way self-respect is born of a community identity. And in the South now, that community identity, as a cultural whole, is what young people are beginning to reject—everything about their whole culture. Their language, their food, their clothing, every aspect comes to [be seen as] inferior, and then they themselves as individuals are seen as inferior.
So there’s a really important discussion about community identity, as opposed to the artificially created national identity. Because national identities were created usually by leaders who sought to build united identity or nationalism for wartime. It’s an artificial, top-down creation.
Jeremy Rifkin has done this thing on empathy, where he spells out that we used to have this tribal identity, where we identified with each other in the local community. Now we’ve [supposedly] evolved into a bigger sense of national identity, and [the next great step is to] evolve into a global sense of empathy with the whole Earth and the whole of creation. This sounds great — of course we want to empathize with all that lives. But…when you have a lived experience of a deep connection to the living world, including other people and nature, that’s when your expanded sense of self is much more open, tolerant, and empathetic generally.
Ken: I think it was John Lennon who quipped, “You love humanity, it’s people you can’t stand.” You have this abstract sense of community which actually doesn’t involve any living, breathing human being who has flaws, and who we have to depend on.
Helena: Another thing that I would like to share with you, I’m in shock over the number of people in the localization movement who have been really affected by a book by Jeremy Rifkin in which he promotes 3D printing. And intelligent people are taking all this seriously! Where do they think this stuff is coming from? It’s corporate patented technology, but people think that this is going to decentralise economic activity.
Ken: The amount of embodied energy in something like that!
Helena: Exactly. Embodied.
Ken: This is something we talk about a bit, “What will be the role of technology in the future, if we assume that not everybody is going to be wearing glasses with heads-up displays?” [Y]ou mentioned » appropriate technology,« as an interesting way of trying to figure out where we should be concentrating our efforts. Or another example, “Do we assume we are going to have global communication? And if so, what will we use it for?”
Helena: First of all, we need to recognize the extent to which technology has been foisted on us, and marketed as being something [it is] not. So there [needs to be] a really honest discussion. I still don’t know the truth about how resource- and energy-intensive the Internet is. I mean I’ve seen the horrific films of electronic waste, and of course there’s mining involved, and major impact in the Congo. I would like to see environmentalists and other people be more honest about it. I imagine…that most people would probably want to have global communications for emergency relief or weather forecasting and possibly for environmental protection rather than for building up a military infrastructure.…
These are complex issues, but we do have quite a reading list on our website, and we developed a »Roots of Change« study group programme (that Richard Heinberg was part of in the 1990s). It includes — beyond Schumacher, Wendell Berry et al. — many voices from the non-western world. It’s fundamentally important to find descriptions of cultures that were outside the Western system. Few people are aware of the extent to which corporations have been selling us on “a better life through technology.”And over the past three decades, much of the evidence of some of the positive sides of pre-industrial, Nature-based cultures, has been eradicated from our collective memory.
Margaret Mead, who was highly respected, has written some interesting things. For instance, she wrote about life on Samoa, and suggested that we could learn something about the relative peacefulness of teenagers. After she died, she was decimated as having been completely wrong. Because by then, Samoa was just like everywhere else: young people on welfare, wanting to go to America, no longer fishing their own fish from their own boats, loss of self-respect, total dependence, etc. So this pre- and after situation is very important, but unfortunately, we are tending to hear the descriptions of cultures that have been torn apart. The notion is constantly being reinforced that life before fossil fuels and technology was short, brutish and hard.
Ken: Anything else?
Helena: No, although I hope you’ll stay in touch and let me know more what you’re doing.