Helena Norberg-Hodge

Helena Norberg-Hodge’s life changed forever in 1975 when she visited Ladakh, a largely Buddhist corner of India high in the Himalayas. For Norberg-Hodge–a linguist and painter living in Paris who had been born in New York, raised in Sweden, and educated in Germany and Austria–it felt like coming home for the first time in her life.

“What was so transformative,” she recalls, “was that these people had the most remarkable joie de vivre and an amazing tolerance and harmony. They seemed to be so at peace with themselves.”

Although the people of Ladakh endured a harsh climate (frigid temperatures eight months of the year) and primitive living conditions by Western standards (no indoor plumbing, and dried animal dung as the chief source of heating fuel), Norberg-Hodge was struck by how content they seemed.

“Despite the lack of labor-saving devices, the Ladakhis had an amazing abundance of time,” she says. “They worked at a gentle pace and had an amount of leisure time unknown to working people in the West. Indeed, they spent most of the winter at festivals and parties. Even during the summer, hardly a week passed without a celebration of one sort or another.”

Returning to Ladakh almost every year since then, Norberg-Hodge has seen profound changes as Western culture poured into this once isolated region. “Ladakhis started thinking that their culture was backward, stupid,” Norberg-Hodge says. She noticed that the young men in particular were dazzled by Western technology and came to scorn anything old or slow.

While the modern world can bring benefits to this ancient people–alleviating health problems caused by burning dung as fuel is one example–Ladakhis need not abandon their own culture, says Norberg-Hodge. In 1978 she founded the Ladakh Project, a group dedicated to helping Ladakhis understand that they can choose to adopt some Western ways while also keeping their traditions. The project has introduced sustainable technologies that do less damage to the fragile desert ecosystem than typical development. Trombe Walls, for instance–an inexpensive solar heating system that takes advantage of the region’s 325 sunny days each year–have been installed in many homes, reducing the need for costly and dirty fossil fuels.

Even as globalization takes its toll on traditional cultures in Ladakh and elsewhere, Norberg-Hodge notes that Westerners suffer their own form of impoverishment. People everywhere face less economic security, less free time, less community, less connection to natural rhythms, and more stress, more junk food, and deeper feelings of inadequacy about their income and physical attractiveness.

Globalization, she explains, is not an inevitable fact of human progress, but a jerry-built economic system created by corporate-controlled politicians and paid for with our tax money. Toys from China, butter from New Zealand, and clothes from Central America are cheaper than what’s made just down the road because of enormous public expenditures on highways, deep-water ports, energy production, global communications networks, the military, and high-tech research.

Revitalization of local economies and a swing back in the direction of small-scale, geographically rooted businesses and culture is Norberg-Hodge’s alternative vision of development. The proliferation of farmers’ markets and community-supported agriculture, in which households contract with a local grower for regular deliveries of fresh organic produce, is one sign that modern people are yearning for a different kind of life, she adds. Meanwhile, people around the world are reviving regional cuisines, gardening with native species, and incorporating local materials and building styles into architecture. “We feel more at home in the world when we know the farmer who grows our food,” she says.

“I am not advocating asceticism. I’m advocating wealth, richness, joy, culture,” she adds. “The modern-day mantra ‘we cannot go back’ is deeply ingrained in our thinking. Of course we couldn’t go back even if we wanted to, but our search for a future that works is inevitably bringing us back to certain fundamental patterns that are in greater harmony with nature–including our own human nature.

From the book Visionaries: People and Ideas to Change Your Life ($17.95 Utne Reader Books/New Society Publishers). Call 1-800-880-UTNE or visit your local bookstore.

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