Last week-end it was a full house at the Chilmark Community Center to see linguist, author and filmmaker Helena Norberg-Hodge’s, film ‘The Economics of Happiness’ with a Q & A afterwards. Hailed as “one of the eight visionaries changing the world today” Ms. Norberg-Hodge has spent much of the past thirty-five years in Ladakh, otherwise known as ‘Little Tibet’; the most sparsely populated and highest altitude on earth. It is a mainly Tibetan Buddhist enclave which has endured for 2,000 years high in the Western Himalayas.
Over the years, she has received support from many world leaders and counts Prince Charles, the Dalai Lama and Indira and Rajiv Gandhi amongst her environmentalist friends. In 1986, she received the “Right Livelihood Award’ or the "Alternative Nobel Prize" as recognition for her work with Ladakh Ecological Development Group (LEDeG). Swedish born Norberg-Hodge is an economic analyst and founder of the Ladakh Project. She lectures extensively in English, Swedish, German, French, Spanish, Italian and Ladakhi .
After a light dinner of two different kinds of soup, a vegan bean soup and a watercress soup; salad w/strawberries and whole wheat rolls, the lights went down and there was Ladakh as it was in the 1970’s; and then amid the escalating changes globalization has wrought.
Helena’s initial trip to Ladakh was with a German film crew as interpreter. She fell in love with the radiant well-being, vitality and spirituality of it’s people and was so enamored of the self-sustaining way of life that when she returned home she quit her job and went back for two years.
Traveling through villages collecting folk stories, she also wrote a rudimentary dictionary in Ladakhi/English. When language is lost, so is it’s history, as this Island knows well with it’s Wampanoag population. Ladahk’s story can shed light on the root problems facing the planet.
In the traditional culture, villagers provided for their basic needs without money, Helena wrote in her inspirational classic “Ancient Futures”. Along with the book is a film of the same name, translated into forty languages.
Norberg-Hodge returned thereafter for six months out of the year chronicling their downward spiral. Until ten years ago Ladakhi's sustained themselves with their own farming, water and culture. There was no unemployment and no one went hungry. No poorhouses, diversity or depression.
With the advent of satellite television, McDonalds, and ubiquitous advertisements, people had a whole new Westernized view of the world. Kids especially wanted what the Western kids had, which was supremely unattainable and brought shame and despair. They felt backwards, primitive and poor. The mantra is ‘buy more and more and more.’ You can never have enough. Hair color, different colored eyes from contact lenses, bleached skin, blue jeans and t-shirts with logos are must-have items. These products indicate that people aren’t happy with who they are leading to a loss of self-respect and degradation.
Ladakhi’s were introduced to globalization in the mid-1970’s when cheap food and building supplies started being trucked in on subsidized highways spewing subsidized fossil fuels into the once-pristine air. Farmers were forced off their land that had been in the families for generations. Cash-cropping replaced subsistence agriculture as a way of life. The creation of ‘urban alternative’ left the farmers as beggars feeling shame and discrimination. All those displaced farmers had nowhere to go but the city. This mass migration of people brought poor houses where once there were none. This is not unique to Ladakh, it is global. In India alone 100 ,000 farmers have committed suicide.
In 1962 the Indian government built a road linking the region to the rest of the country. Then in 1975 the region was opened up to foreign tourism and ‘development’ began in earnest. Now, 18,000 tourists visit Ladakh annually.
We are at the end of the food chain. Goods travel ever-longer distances. Tuna is caught on the East Coast and sent to Japan for processing and sent back. Apples grown in England are sent to South Africa to be waxed; sent back to be sold, and so on and so on. It costs less than produce from down the road. Where is the sense in that?
In 1986, Carlo Perini founded Slow Food. The manifesto: “A firm defense of quiet material pleasure is the only way to oppose the universal folly of the fast life. Fast life has changed our way of being and threatens our environment and our landscapes. Slow food is now the only truly progressive answer." Slow Food has been embraced and is growing exponentially on a global basis.
Ms. Norberg-Hodge is also a founding member of the Slow Food International Commission on the Future of Food and Agriculture, along with Alice Waters, Carlo Petrini and Vandana Shiva. "Seeds are a gift of nature and of diverse cultures that must be passed from generation to generation”.
Interconnection is a fundamental human need. It’s why Slow Food meets monthly for potlucks. For that connection. You have ten times as many conversations at the farmer’s market than you do at the supermarket. Community-based local agriculture has fed much of the world for millennia while conserving ecological integrity. Support your local farmers.
“There is almost nothing more important than the localization of food. Every human being has to eat three times a day, so to call a system efficient that separates people further and further from their source of food is nothing short of madness.” - Helen Norberg-Hodge