Q&A: Helena Norberg-Hodge

Filmmaker, campaigner and environmental pioneer Helena Norberg-Hodge talks to Jemima Roberts about her latest film - The Economics of Happiness - the damage globalisation is doing, and what can be done to counter it

Filmmaker, environmentalist and one of the pioneers of the localism movement, Helena Norberg-Hodge knows a thing or two about globalisation. A visit to Ladakh, a remote village in the Himalayas in 1975, inspired Ancient Futures, a book about her experiences, along with the foundation of the International Society for Ecology and Culture [ISEC] to promote the concept of localism.

Her latest venture is the documentary, The Economics of Happiness, which premiered at the Royal Geographic Society last month. The Ecologist caught up with Helena to discuss the film, economics, happiness and the work of the ISEC more widely.

Jemima Roberts: Helena, how would you introduce yourself and your work?
Helena Norberg-Hodge: ‘As an expert on the impact of the global economy: on culture and on agriculture.’
JR: Tell me about The Economics of Happiness and the impetus behind it?
HNH: ‘The film is an offshoot from the work that my organisation, ISEC, [International Society for Ecology and Culture] and I have been doing for more than three decades: raising awareness about the impact of the global economy and pointing out that localising, rather than globalising, can bring us back from the brink of environmental and social breakdown.’

JR: What are your hopes for the film?
HNH: ‘That we can contribute to the creation of a movement for economic change – helping social and environmental movements see the multiple benefits of linking hands to form a new movement for a new economy.‘

JR: You have been working on these issues for the last 35 years. Are you able to stand back from your work, with some distance and see positive changes?
HNH: ‘I definitely see movement, but unfortunately the movement is from ‘above’ – with lots of foreign funding for a fossil fuel-based, urban consumer culture – this is where I see the most movement.’

JR: How would you respond to the premise that the environmental/alternative economic movement as a whole is 'guilty' of talking more to each other than to wider society?
‘I think it’s a fair criticism. There could definitely be more emphasis on getting the word out more widely. There has been too much emphasis on talking to government and big business and not enough on talking to ordinary citizens. I don’t think the problem is that society at large is keen to shirk responsibility. Even in America people have said again and again that they would be willing to sacrifice for a cleaner environment.’

JR: Do you think there is some truth in the charge that these 'issues' have become clouded by the issue of class in the context of the UK?
‘I think this charge is unfair. Unfortunately, the most marginalised and impoverished people are not generally in a position to give the same amount of time and energy to movement building that middle class people can. I think we should focus more, rather than less, on mobilising the middle classes. They often have a bit of time and money to contribute to change.’

JR: Are we facing a crisis and if so, is it environmental, economic or moral?
‘I think we are facing a crisis of ignorance and blindness to the bigger picture connections and underlying causes of our crises. Most of our crises are caused by the economic system, but there is little analysis of this connection.’

JR: You highlight the danger of homogenisation, that the Western model encourages competition, friction. But you also argue that we are not intrinsically greedy or competitive?
‘At a deep psychological level, convincing young people that they will get the respect, admiration, love that they are looking for, through consumerism is a manipulation of a deep human instinct to want to belong. Advertising and the media reinforce this message, in the process, destroying the community structures that provided people with the affirmation that they need. We have evolved in groups – deeply interdependent and connected – the separation and competition of the modern world is antithetical to our deepest needs.’

JR: How, in the average daily life of an individual living in the West, can globalisation be countered?
‘It would start with liberating the mind and opting out of the many myths that keep us locked in their grip. Most effective is to link up with likeminded others to create a culture of liberation and then to start taking community steps away from economic enslavement.’

JR: You have said that we all need to become 'economic experts'. Can you suggest how, in real terms, this could happen?
‘We need to understand the impact of the economic system, not get trained in economic ‘theory’, but rather understand how the actual economic system works and how it affects society and the natural world. This understanding can best be gained by looking at alternative sources of knowledge.’

JR: Helena, last question: what keeps you motivated after 35 years of working on these issues?
‘What motivates me is the conviction that our problems are mainly a consequence of a lack of holistic understanding of the man-made system in which we are entwined. I was forced to see it from a different angle; an angle that I believe can help shed light on the root causes of our crises. I feel highly motivated to share this perspective. What sustains me is faith in the basic goodness of human beings, or rather, in their preference for co-operative and peaceful relations. Also, my love of wild nature and the realisation that so much of nature is still intact and healthy enough to keep providing deep inspiration and joy.’

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