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The Economics of Happiness 

An Interview with Helena Norberg-Hodge

Scenes from the film "The Economics of Happiness," a documentary about the worldwide movement for economic localization, featuring commentary by Bill McKibben, Vandana Shiva, David Korten, Michael Shuman, Juliet Schor, Richard Heinberg, Rob Hopkins, Andrew Simms, Zac Goldsmith, and Samdhong Rinpoche.

Scenes from the film "The Economics of Happiness," a documentary about the worldwide movement for economic localization, featuring commentary by Bill McKibben, Vandana Shiva, David Korten, Michael Shuman, Juliet Schor, Richard Heinberg, Rob Hopkins, Andrew Simms, Zac Goldsmith, and Samdhong Rinpoche.

We talk a lot about localism in Chronogram. We explain its value, feature its adherents, and extol its virtues each month in ways explicit and implicit. For the most part, we discuss localism on a purely economic level, reporting on its salutary monetary benefits: Locally owned businesses keep more of the money spent on goods and services in our communities actually in our communities, they create sustainable jobs that pay living wages, they tend to reflect the real costs of goods, and source locally.

In The Economics of Happiness, linguist, writer, and activist Helena Norberg-Hodge explores an oft-ignored aspect of localism— its benefit to our general well being, and the social and psychological costs of the globalization-driven consumer culture. The film, created by the International Society for Ecology and Culture (Norberg-Hodge is the founder and director of ISEC), argues that an economic model based on endless consumption is not only ecologically unsustainable, its also causing an epidemic of depression and societal breakdown across the globe.

A case in point for Norberg-Hodge is the region of Ladakh, in northern India, which until the mid-'70s was largely untouched by modern economic development. Once the region was opened to outside consumer goods by the Indian government, Ladakh inherited problems typical of any developed country—unemployment, stress and anxiety, loss of social focus—that did not exist there before. Norberg-Hodge's work with the Ladakhis over the past 30 years has convinced her that localism, or localization as she terms it, is not only crucial for ecological and economic reasons, but that it is vital to our very happiness. "Instead of a global economy based on sweatshop in the South, stressed-out two-earner families in the North, and a handful of billionaire elites in both, localization means a smaller gap between rich and poor and closer contact between producers and consumers," Norberg-Hodge says. "This translates into greater social cohesion: A recent study found that shoppers at farmers' markets had 10 times more conversations than people in supermarkets."

Why is fostering conversation so important? According to Norberg-Hodge, community is a key ingredient to happiness, and that on a structural level, economic globalization undermines genuine human interaction in order to makes us better consumers, grasping after material goods in the belief they will provide the love and appreciation we crave. The choice is clear to Norberg-Hodge: We can continue down the path of greater economic globalization, which threatens our very survival; or, we can rebuild our communities and economies on smaller scales and try to find the foundation of happiness that seems so elusive to us.

You've spent a lot of time in the Ladakh region. What first brought you there and what keeps bringing you back?

I first went there with a film crew in 1975, when the area was still sealed off from the outside world. I was only supposed be there for only six weeks but I became absolutely enchanted by the people and the place. The Ladakh people were very interesting, and among the most chilled out, relaxed, deeply contemplative and actively, vitally joyful people that I've ever met, full of humor and lightness. Also, the Ladakhis were better off materially than I had been taught to believe was possible without development or Western-style progress. They didn't know hunger, and there was no unemployment.

What happened when development was introduced to the region?

The changes came very quickly, very dramatically, and made a lot of things clear that in other parts of the world we don't see because they happen much more slowly. I saw how within a few short years unemployment was created. That was in part because the local economy, much of it based on farming, was destroyed. But there was also house building, carpentry, metal work, weaving, and building houses. All the basic needs were essentially met from the region.

All of these basic needs were suddenly trucked in by importers that came from the other side of the Himalayas, transported on expensive roads and a lot of expensive fossil fuels. But the process was so heavily subsidized that within a short period these outside things were selling for less in the marketplace than local products.

And with development came unemployment and competition for scarce jobs and with that came serious psychological problems, among the youth in particular. In the West we look very glamorous and very rich in the media and advertising. But what we have to recognize is that this creates a deep sense of inferiority. Globally, it creates an inferiority complex. So in a way, I've been doing work that I often call Cultural Therapy, as I spend time in different cultures around the world, trying to raise awareness that rural people are not inherently inferior, stupid, or backward. But of course, it's a big job because the media only enforces that idea.

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Speaking of...

  • Writer, linguist, and activist Helena Norberg-Hodge talks with Brian K. Mahoney.

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