Sharing lessons from ‘Little Tibet’

Chris Tucker
Posted 10/17/17

The remote region of Ladakh, in northern India, seemed idyllic at first, recalled Helena Norberg-Hodge of her first visit to the area in 1975. She worked as a linguist in this part of the world known …

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Sharing lessons from ‘Little Tibet’


The remote region of Ladakh, in northern India, seemed idyllic at first, recalled Helena Norberg-Hodge of her first visit to the area in 1975. She worked as a linguist in this part of the world known as “Little Tibet.”

“It’s a part of Tibet that belongs politically to India and it was opened up to the outside world very late in the mid-1970s. I came out there ... and encountered people who were not only so much better off than I had ever thought was possible without economic growth, without the modern economy, but also the happiest, most vital and even healthiest people I had ever met. I became totally fascinated.”

She has worked with the people of Ladakh for 40 years now, she said.

“But after about [the first] 10 years, I started seeing the dramatic changes that happened when Ladakh was opened up to the outside economy, which really is a global economy. And I got a bird’s-eye view of how, in a systemic way, this consumer culture that’s being promoted worldwide – from Port Townsend to Beijing to North Africa – is really a global consumer monoculture that everywhere destroys the unique identities of our children, and their cultural and national and regional identities, in an extremely destructive way, creating insecurities and, with that, addictions and anxiety, depression.”


Norberg-Hodge is to share more about what she learned from Ladakh during an Economics of Happiness conference, Oct. 27-29 at 200 Battery Way, Fort Worden, in Port Townsend.

“We’re going to be talking especially about the movements around the world that are showing we can actually have much more happier lives, much more meaningful lives. And we could transform what has become a very dangerous and a very toxic economic system into economies ... that really work for both people and nature,” Norberg-Hodge said.

“We call this the ‘Economics of Happiness,’ and what we’re describing is not just a theory of how – if we supported local economies worldwide – we would have these multiple benefits. We are now able to report from all over the world that these things are happening and that they really work. I think it is a very hopeful message.”

To Norberg-Hodge, her experience in Little Tibet was clear how the change had taken place.

“It wasn’t to do with what the parents were doing ... it really was to do with an economic system.”

She shared what she learned in a book and movie called “Ancient Futures,” which she said has been translated into 50 languages.

“And from all over the world ... I kept getting this message from people, ‘The story you’re telling from Ladakh is our story, too.’”

That led to another book and film, “The Economics of Happiness,” which aims to bring voices from every continent to show that the crises being faced are connected.

“And it’s so helpful when you can see it that way, rather than what just seems like an endless list of problems. Many people feel depressed and overwhelmed by that,” Norberg-Hodge said.


Western systems have greatly impacted “less developed” areas of the world, Norberg-Hodge said.

“When the consumer culture comes in, it leads so dramatically to these negative effects of obesity, but also with that: drug addiction, alcohol addiction.

“We’ve seen it in Native American communities in America, too, and, of course, now obesity is becoming a problem, a widespread problem, not just in indigenous communities, but it’s particularly in these remote areas where people have no information about the detrimental effects about these foods. In Mexico, they put more sugar in the Coca-Cola, and people don’t know how bad it is. They’ll give that really sugary Coca-Cola to babies.

“We’ve often taken community leaders on what we call ‘reality tours’ to the west, because they’re getting the impression in the media that our life is a complete paradise, that we don’t do any work and that we just have these incredible lives of leisure. And when they come and see how hard the average American is working just to pay the rent or the mortgage ... and when they come and see how much we long for community, for connection, connection to each other and connection to nature, it’s a huge eye-opener for them.”


Natural resources can be better managed, she said, by using land and water carefully.

“That would require more people doing the farming. More people doing the teaching. More people caring in health care,” she said.

“We’re not saying that everyone should be out on the land farming, but we’re saying that we need many, many more people in the important work, particularly of food production, forestry, fisheries. But we also need more caretakers for our children. We need more caretakers for the elderly. We need more caretakers for the infirm. Instead of doing that, we’re actually creating a job scarcity.”

The global economic system is subsidized to use more energy and more technology and to “dump people on the rubbish heap,” she said.

“It’s deep in our system because it goes back to the beginning of industrialism and the beginning of thinking we had plenty of fossil fuels and that it was efficient to replace people with oil and machinery. Well, today, we have a bit of a problem with climate and we have a bit of a problem with employment. We should be reversing those subsidies.”

The existing systems aim to push everyone into larger cities, she said.

“Even in the United States, the smaller towns and cities are dying, and all the jobs are concentrated in these enormous, suburbanized conglomerations and more and more high-rise buildings.

“We must rethink that in order to revitalize smaller towns and cities, and decentralize work and jobs. With that comes a very different form of consumerism. We’re looking at people who are starting to value a whole array of really fresh, healthy food, who really enjoy knowing where it comes from, and who value a hand-made plate from pottery rather than mass producing. They value knowing someone who has actually made the clothes they wear.

“Now, all of that would be less expensive if we got off this industrial track, which really is an extractive model that’s linked to making five people so wealthy that they own more than half the global population.

“As I see it, we are on this sort of automatic pilot based on really outdated assumptions,” she said, such as the idea that using fossil fuels and technology, supermarkets and large farms are efficient.

“It’s highly inefficient on a crowded planet with limited water, limited land.... I see it being led by blind fundamentalist thinking that is constantly scaling up and speeding up a direction toward a globalized economy which concentrates production and power in the hands of fewer and fewer. So, we’re sort of ruled by a few media conglomerates, banking conglomerates, and the financial casino that links the banks, the media, the seed companies, the food corporations.”


The system is blindly accepted and promoted by both sides of the political spectrum, she said.

“But I don’t think it’s a question of good guys and bad guys. It’s not like everybody who works in HSBC bank is a nasty, greedy person and everybody who works in a small business is a good guy. It’s really about structures.”

Financial deregulation has wreaked havoc on the world, she said. The solution isn’t “narrow nationalism,” but understanding and international collaboration.

“Society needs to be involved in taking some of these decisions. But unfortunately, both left and right, politically, have been pursuing the same path” of energy-intensive, toxic and wasteful systems across the globe.

That path is being followed “even in Sweden, where I come from,” she said, “what people are calling a neoliberal economy. And it’s been promoted by socialists as well as conservatives.”


By stepping back and seeing the big picture, she said, citizens of the world can enact change.

“It is leading to movements in other parts of the world,” she said, adding that there is a lot of grassroots action that is shifting food production away from giant corporate monocultures to diversified farms.

That sort of change can happen at the local community level, she said, and need not only happen at the higher political level.

“The real economy is the living earth, and we’ve got to get back to the basics. We mustn’t get lost in this techno-utopian world where we somehow think we’re going to live off information and that money represents our real wealth.”

“That GDP – the measure that our governments use to measure success – actually measures breakdown. Literally, it is true that if our water is so polluted we need to buy water in bottles, that helps GDP. If we clean up the water and people aren’t buying water, that’s bad for GDP. The same thing, if we stay healthy, that’s bad for GDP, where it would be really good if we all get cancer and need years of chemotherapy. GDP simply measures economic transactions.”