Thinking Outside the Box

Helena Norberg-Hodge is a native of Sweden, a leading critic of conventional notions of growth and development, and the recipient of the Right Livelihood Award, also known as the Alternative Nobel Prize. She is also the founder and director of the International Society for Ecology and Culture and the author of Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh.

BARSAMIAN: The existing economic model of globalized capitalism is reeling, but there is really no alternative that we can turn to and say, "Okay, tried that, didn’t work. Let’s try this."

NORBERG-HODGE: I disagree. I think there is a systemic alternative that is being discovered and actually developed at the grassroots. But this alternative, which is a systemic shift toward localizing economic activity instead of globalizing it, has received almost no air time. It’s a sort of invisible growth, but it’s happening nevertheless. Fundamentally, what that shift is about is recognizing that this global economic system has its roots from 500 years ago, when elites in the UK and Europe started sending people across the world to gather wealth for themselves.

Structurally, they were destroying more self-reliant, localized economies where people were meeting their own needs and producing a range of things for home and regional needs. Trade was in the hands of smaller communities and groups exchanging with each other. When they were forced into the mines or onto giant cotton, sugar, coffee, and tea plantations, there was a shift towards not only an economy that was very exploitative and unjust, but also ecologically unstable because monocultural production inherently works against the diversity of the natural world. Diversified production in localized economic systems works with nature.

You don’t think advocating localization opens you up to claims that it’s quaint and romantic, but not realistic?

It’s a tragedy that often people can’t conceive of smaller-scale units—particularly in places like America. In Europe it’s a little bit different. In Europe you have a fabric of smaller towns, smaller farms, more localized economies. But there, too, the corporate pressure has shifted everything in the wrong direction. We have to do what we can to get people to see that many small can be more efficient and more productive than one big. If you take the number of McDonald’s restaurants around the U.S. and imagine what they would be like if, instead of being owned by a giant corporation, they were family-owned in that locale. Why couldn’t that work? Why is that unrealistic? So many people who have had the experience of going into a family-owned restaurant know how much more delightful it is, how much higher the quality is.

I remember hearing José Bové, the farmer in France who was one of the resistors to the World Trade Organization, using the term McDominacion, the French term for McDonaldizing the world.

It’s similar to another term being used, Coca-Colonization. This large-scale production and consumption controlled by giant corporations means enforcing bigger and bigger monocultural production on the land. The only block between improvement and what we have today is what’s in our heads. There is a huge amount of propaganda against the notion that more localized, diverse food systems can feed the world.

But the so-called efficiency of modern economics creates unemployment. To deprive people of the opportunity to work and to shove them into giant slums is probably the major human rights issue today.

The ideal farm is an Old MacDonald’s farm, where you have a range of animals as well as grains and vegetables. What you get are cycles of production and reproduction that are completely self-sustaining. In order to really make them productive, we need more labor on the land. If we labor is freed up to do the really important work that’s needed, we would be able to reduce our ecological footprint while simultaneously increasing employment and productivity. This is a magical formula.

The local food movement is growing around the world. You have CSAs (community-supported agriculture) in many parts of the world. But in the long run, we need local shops and local permanent structures where food and even processed food can be produced and sold to local communities.

In this process we’re finding that on the farm, as farmers shift away from producing for the corporate long-distance market, they are increasing the diversity on their land. I was talking to a farmer in Australia and he was saying basically he felt like a serf, serving anonymous bosses that were always demanding more and more of the same thing in a standard size, which, of course, goes against nature. You don’t produce exactly the same size bananas or apples if you work with nature. He said that, after only two years of selling in a farmers’ market, his work has become enjoyable and he is having contact and exchange with the consumers. He’s gone from 2 products to 20 in just a couple of years. This is a typical story. If people could both imagine and, ideally, take the time to visit some farms, I think we could see a really powerful movement for policy change in this regard.

There is an attendant crisis in the U.S. of contamination. There have been tomato scares, spinach scares, beef has been recalled. Does that go on in Australia as well?

Absolutely. We know from our research that the long distances inherent in this corporate globalized system mean that food poisoning has escalated dramatically. You have food that’s been prepackaged in plastic and then reheated in microwave ovens. This way of preserving food is a disaster, and it’s known to increase the bacterial activity.

When you study almost any production in this global food system, you end up feeling that you can’t eat it. Strawberries get sprayed with 26 different types of pesticides. The mercury in fish is a huge threat. Fish farming is responsible for poisoning the life in the sea to such an extent that, exactly as with the industrial farming on land, it kills everything around it.

I can understand the localization applicability in the global South where the growing season is much longer. What about the North where the growing season is very short?

It’s remarkable how much can grow and how the growing season can be expanded with smaller-scale greenhouses. You can extend the growing season from 4 months a year to 11 months and do it in a very healthy and sustainable way. We introduced solar greenhouses in Ladakh [India] and now you can have fresh greens in the middle of winter. Because you can start seedlings earlier, you can have tomatoes and artichokes, asparagus, virtually everything you can imagine.

Almost everywhere I go in the world, even in the industrialized world, people have a memory of how there used to be orchards of the most delicious fruits and berries, black currants, raspberries, and strawberries. That wealth of a diversified production, incredible richness, could still be re-established. You can make fruit leathers, just drying the fruit and preserving it, which will preserve a lot of vitamin content.

It seems in order to achieve the outcome that you’ve been outlining we need a kind of decolonization of the mind.

We now have a centralized, top-down system that is essentially rewriting histories. We have a propaganda system that extends into our schoolbooks, even the kindergarten books that are being produced, scientific research, media. Almost every access that we have to information is being shaped by for-profit, corporate interests. Many scientists who are now enlisted in what has become industrial scientific production of food have no idea of the end result: dead, colored, irradiated food that has no nutritional value. So the inability to see the impact of what we do is one of the biggest tragedies of this system.

In villages in the Third World, people have the opportunity to build a house from local materials, to produce food from the land, and, through community relationships, to have a very rich culture. But in the communities that are among the richest in that way, for instance, Bhutan and Ladakh, these countries, on paper, will be described as the poorest of the poor.

And going in and giving someone a loan and getting them to produce fashion clothes for an elite, even if they’re only earning a dollar a day, will look like progress, because we’ve become totally illiterate about understanding what constitutes real wealth.

Ladakh, although part of the Tibetan plateau, is part of India politically. You’ve been tracing Ladakh’s evolution since you first went there in 1975. What can people learn from Ladakh?

In a way, the most important lesson is that rebuilding the community fabric is a prerequisite for a healthier and happier society and for healthier and happier individuals. As it turns out, it’s also a recipe for healthier and happier economies that are truly sustainable, because they’re adapted to the living world and to diversity.

We all want to be seen, recognized, heard, connected to one another. The tragedy of the modern economy is that it has succeeded in separating us from one another. It’s doing that in a multitude of ways. One of them is that the modern media presents children with completely unrealistic role models. They’re comparing themselves to these one-dimensional images of perfection. This is having this enormous effect in the global South. In places like America the demand from young children for plastic surgery is skyrocketing. The self-rejection and self-hatred is translating into bulimia, anorexia, drug abuse, antidepressants. In most industrialized countries now there is talk of an epidemic of depression. In the UK in 2008, 36 million prescriptions for antidepressants were made out. That’s in a country of 60 million people.

Tell me about your film, The Economics of Happiness, and the International Society for Ecology and Culture.

The International Society for Ecology and Culture ( is my NGO. We are unusual because we’ve been working internationally for about 30 years. We have small offices and branches in France, Germany, the U.S., Australia, and Ladakh. We are working with other groups, especially in Thailand, Korea, and Japan. Our main focus is to try to raise awareness about how we can shift from this globalizing path to localizing one.

We developed something called a local food toolkit, which was a way of helping to train local food activists. We have had programs where we sponsor reality tours to the North so they can see that this life is not what it looks like in the media, that there are serious environmental and social crises.

Equally, we have a program where foreigners come and live in a village in Ladakh for a month in the summer and we do workshops on these issues. That’s also been very effective for training activists in the West. We also put together about 20 years ago a curriculum that we call the Roots of Change that examines what’s happened over the last 500 years at this fundamental level, again, of the globalizing versus the localizing path.

The film lays out these arguments in an hour-long documentary. We’ve tried to show it from a global point of view. We have voices from every continent, and we hope that it will be a useful tool for communities around the world.


David Barsamian is the founder and director of Alternative Radio. He is the author of numerous books with Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Tariq Ali, and Edward Said. His latest books are What We Say Goes and Targeting Iran.