The new film from Helena Norberg-Hodge The Economics of Happiness was premiered in UCC last night to a full house, with Helena herself arriving in time to join a panel discussion afterwards.
I met Helena over 10 years ago in Dublin where I remember debating her on whether the people of Ladakh, where she has based her organisation the International Society for Ecology and Culture, really were happier than us in the west as she seemed to think, and whether their “consciousness” was really more advanced than our own, as she maintained.
Why I wondered, if that was the case, did they appear to have no premonition of the problems that might accrue once the Evil Modern World was let in. Apparently their culture was so fragile that not only could they do nothing to stop it but the whole fabric of their society fell apart as soon as it encountered consumerism, commercial advertising and globalisation.
In this new film, I was surprised to see some of the material from Norberg-Hodge’s earlier film Ancient Futures- Learning from Ladakh simply recycled as she recounts once again the story of an early visit to a Ladakh village where she asked a young man to show her the poor houses in the village. After thinking for a while he responds that there are not really any poor houses; but revisiting the same village 10 years later, after the arrival of tourism and their western values, she overhears the same man complain, “oh, we Ladakhis, we are so poor”.
It is a poignant story and the message is one of changing perceptions in a changing world. This must have made a particularly strong impression on Helena as she worked as a translator in Ladakh when visitors from the outside were rare, and had the unusual experience of seeing an ancient culture transformed almost before her eyes in just a few years as the modern world moved in for the first time.
ISEC has a twin approach to this issue of perception and the problem of dissatisfaction engendered by advertising: one is to take westerners to the villages where they can stay for a while and live with the locals on working on the farms. This brings in an income, but perhaps more importantly, helps with the Ladakhi’s self-esteem as they come to understand how valued their farming life-style, traditional community and local crafts are to disaffected post-modernists from the west.
More interestingly still, ISEC has arranged to take Ladakhis who had never previously left their villages to visit the west where they are wowed out by washing machines and other gadgets but also get the message that behind the bright lights and glitz the west has serious social problems unknown in back home. When they return their message is: “The west is not all it’s cracked up to be. Don’t go down that path.”
This is a very interesting take on East meets West and there is much to be learned from it but I’m not sure I take the same message that Helena presents in the new film. In fact, although there is a partial truth here, it is a blatant over-simplification with some glaring errors and misrepresentations.
Clive Hamilton is one of the interviewees and his message is: “Material wealth has never brought us happiness.” Excuse me? This is a central and prevalent myth of the environmental movement: poor people are happier. They have community, family, traditions- things we have lost and yearn for. There are certainly serious and real problems caused by affluence, which may include depression, but they are trivial in comparison to the problems of poverty. The Ladakhis do look very appealing to the neurotic romantic westerner who has so much mobility they are always feeling homesick, and a volunteer holiday working on a farm there for a few weeks could be a great thing to do, but we do not actually want to trade places with them. The lack of mobility in traditional communities would stifle us and we would I think find it more like a prison if we didnt know we had a plane ticket out of there.
(There are studies that suggest we dont get much happier beyond a certain level of wealth, but we still get a little happier; I think it may be the wealth of the wider society that would count here, the availability of expensive surgery perhaps when we need it, that would make a difference also.)
Nor would we be likely to admire the feudal political system, or the complete lack of any opportunities apart from those designated by circumstance at birth, the vagaries of the weather causing sporadic crop yields (shame about all that cheap subsidised food coming on the new road in smelly trucks, but it might save you from going hungry in a bad year) or the complete absence of that other Evil product of globalisation and modern technology, modern medicine and such things as hip replacements (my Mother just had her second at 85 years of age, now she’s like Riverdance).
(I havn’t been to Ladakh, but trekking in Nepal 20 years ago I was struck by how often I was stopped by locals who showed me wounds and sores or sick children and implored me for medicine. They wanted western medicine because they knew it worked.)
The film’s central message is: globalisation and the modern world are terrible; traditional communities are happier; we need an entirely new approach based on localisation. Not complete self-reliance, we are told, but local needs should come first, starting with local food, but also decentralised renewable energy in the form of wind and photovoltaic.
The latter point about energy is the most ridiculous part of the film. Who in their right minds in making general proposals of -not just renewables- but decentralised renewables? I myself do live off grid like that and I’m not advocating it!
Never mind that these technologies are absolutely the product of globalisation, they could scarcely be created locally, and mostly are manufactured in China using probably quite polluting processes that require rare Earth metals of which China has 95% of the world’s supply;
or that running decentralised energy systems to any extent is basically prohibited currently by limitations in storage- batteries- which is still very costly, and that such systems could only supply relatively very small amounts of power.
There is a big emphases on food of course. Vandana Shiva is there telling us that “our research” has proved that small farms consistently deliver 3-5x the yield of- what? large scale conventional farms? I think not, but one of the problems with films like this is that references are rather forgotten so it is hard to check. But anyway, all that “science” and “evidence” stuff is all part of the problem, innit? After all we are also talking a crisis of the Human Spirit, one really should try to avoid THINKING too much.
Conspicuously absent in the film was any mention of Genetic Engineering but in her brief talk afterwards Helena came out with the old canard about “for-profit seeds that have terminator genes in them.” Crikey, do these globe-trotting super-greenies not bother to read even basic information about the stuff they are promoting? Doesnt she listen to Skepteco??
Arch-doomer Richard Heinberg is also featured, claiming that globalisation is propelling us into a “universal famine”- forgetting perhaps that historically agrarian cultures have always been subject to intermittent famines, and the Green Revolution- which Shiva and Norberg-Hodge would be completely opposed to- has succeeded in more than keeping abreast of population and the incidence of famines has declined since the 1980s.
There are some contentious points about localisation made by Goldsmith in the film: “food miles” are not such a big component in food, especially if coming by sea (airfreight is another matter); but there are other difficulties with localisation of food: in a famine, you cannot just import food from somewhere else unless you have a global economy functioning; and some areas are better suited to some crops than others, so local food might lead to less choice.
Farmers markets are much promoted in the film of course and in the discussion afterwards, but it is questionable that lots of people driving to a farmers market as may be the case involves less “food miles” than them all walking to a central supermarket. And one other issue noticeably missing from any discussion: farmers markets, like organic food, tend to be more expensive, often supplying fancy artisan food rather than basics. Delicious, healthy, wonderful, I love farmers’ markets, but they are inevitably criticized as being middle-class and elitist, and cheap food is surely one of the great successes of globalisation.
Farming as a career is appealing to some, but I think of the essay written a few years ago by Heinberg himslef calling for 40 million more farmers in a post-peak oil world in America alone- this would completely reverse the trend of the last 50-60 years. Most people do not want to be subsistence farmers, it is too hard. I really wonder how many in the packed audience would really want to give up their electronic gadgets and all the other trappings of globalisation they benefit from and work on a farm for the rest of their lives, because for the localisation project to gain any real traction, must of them would have to do just that.
And would Helena really want to give up her jet-setting lifestyle of international travel as award-winning author and environmentalist and become grounded permanently and localised, perhaps in a remote village in Ladakh -or anywhere- herself rather than just romanticizing the lives of others?
There are important lessons to be learned from Ladakh, including issues around community, how we treat our old people and how to manage development; but this film has no depth and just regurgitates the same old over-simplified post-modern dirge we have been hearing for years.