On Radical Cultural Change

A conversation with political thinker and activist Helena Norberg-Hodge.

Ever since I was an undergraduate two decades ago, I’ve been inspired by political thinker and activist Helena Norberg-Hodge’s books and films. Serendipitously, I met Norberg-Hodge in person in England recently. She knows, perhaps better than anyone I’ve encountered, how to connect re-localization, the reclaiming of the Commons, and the importance of direct participation in community with the transformation of big corporate dominance. She also spent decades working and living with Indigenous people in Ladakh, India, and is a pioneer in integrating traditional and Indigenous worldviews into a coherent critique of techno-industrial society, politics, and finance.

Norberg-Hodge speaks eight languages and was educated in Sweden, Germany, Austria, England, and the United States. She specialized in linguistics, including doctoral studies at the University of London, and at MIT with close mentor Noam Chomsky. She founded and directs the groundbreaking nonprofit Local Futures, and is now on an international tour leading conferences on the penetrating documentary she produced, The Economics of Happiness.

This conversation, which began in Norberg-Hodge’s Totnes, England home and continued via Skype, conveys both her keen intellect and personal warmth.

What is globalization? What’s wrong with it?

Globalization is a process of deregulating global traders who already have near-monopolistic power, stretching all the way back to colonialism and slavery. These are big companies creating wealth on a scale that has increasingly made it nearly impossible for local or national businesses to compete. And since the mid-1980s, a whole series of new trade treaties, both bilateral and multilateral, have continued this process, and it’s become more of a relationship between giant, mobile transnationals and nation-states than a relationship between countries.

In short, we’ve ended up in an absurd situation where — because we’re not shedding light on it — we as individuals are more and more squeezed for taxes along with small- and medium-sized regional businesses, and those taxes are used to basically subsidize global monopolies. One of many ways we subsidize is by building up a global trade-based infrastructure, including ever bigger ports and airports.

We need, urgently, new trade treaties that are about re-regulation instead of deregulation.

So, the deregulation of global transnationals has been accompanied by ever-greater regulation of local and regional businesses?

Yes, and this is a vital issue because from our point of view what’s happening is that the smaller businesses are becoming more and more angry at government because of what they see: over-taxation and overregulation. And as a consequence, they vote into the hands of neo-fascist leadership because they have been persuaded that the laissez-faire free trade economy is the way out of our situation, not understanding that there is this greater injustice that began centuries ago, and kicked in, in a much more extreme way, since the mid-1980s.

They then keep voting for smaller government, not realizing — and this is where progressives really need to help us out — that yes, we do need to look at what some of these regulations mean and how virtually impossible it is to survive as a small business in this unfair playing field. We need to spell out how and why it’s unfair because we need government to regulate and tax the giants. We need, urgently, new trade treaties that are about re-regulation instead of deregulation.

Imagining a genuine alternative to corporate globalization is difficult for people who have only known a “modern” way of life.

Yes, it is a bit like trying to imagine a new color. People who have their eyes to seeing another color are usually those who have had multiple experiences, particularly those with exposure to less modernized, less urbanized, less technologized and industrialized ways of living, and — and this is key — also at least some exposure to living in the heart of the urban, speedy, competitive industrial world. That’s the sort of experiential base that helps people look at a more life-affirming culture and start understanding how destructive this urban-industrial way of life can be.

What about people who haven’t had such cross-cultural experiences?

There are other entry points.

Urban experiences sometimes force folks to start deeply examining what has meaning for them, leading to a search.

Great suffering, for example, like losing a child, or other deep, deep suffering that forces people to go inward can be dramatically eye-opening in terms of questioning the dominant path, which we also have to recognize centers on a fundamentally unsatisfying consumer identity.

Another entry point is a deep experience of nature — perhaps very profound relationships with animals, people who have farmed and know the language of nature — where one begins to recognize how this consumer path, this so-called “modernizing” path, is taking us away from nature.

What about people who live in cities, far from daily contact with nature?

Urban experiences sometimes force folks to start deeply examining what has meaning for them, leading to a search. The archetypical urban industrial high-rise experience can generate a thirst for connection because it’s nested in a consumer path which is fundamentally alienating from nature and community. …

If it weren’t for the fact that we’re still allowing big global financial interests to continue to escalate the current economic-development path, I’d feel quite confident that we’d be instinctually moving back towards a balance with nature and recovering community.

What do you say to people who feel the change you are talking about is just too huge?

Recover sanity and joy and physical health and emotional health by staying right where you are, but explore how to consciously connect more deeply to others and to nature. In my work with Local Futures, we help to create this through our ongoing “Economics of Happiness” conferences, bringing together like-minded and mature people in your proximity with whom you start a process of reconnection. We create settings where people can to be more vulnerable, to be more deeply honest about their deepest fears and move away from the mask of perfection undergirding consumer culture.

What do you mean by a mask of perfection?

We’ve been taught to pretend: I’m absolutely fine. That is the mask of perfection, and it keeps us isolated and separate. It’s particularly painful to see it among young people where they are isolated into their peer groups; it’s one of the crueler structures that we create. The fact that I might suffer from anxiety, or I have an eating disorder, or I’m still wounded by my relationship with my mother is something that I cover up. Some of us, in our commercialized and rather individualistic way, try to gain some help through therapy, but it’s not the deep help that we need.

There’s more and more coming out about the number of people who’ve had immense benefits simply from being sure that they have activity on the earth — like outdoor exercise and gardening — rather than on asphalt. Another aspect is a very conscious attempt to rebuild deeper intergenerational relationships.

Norberg-Hodge spent decades working and living with Indigenous people in Ladakh, India. Her work there helped crystalize her understanding of the need for decentralized political and economic structures as well as holistic knowledge of local ecologies. Photo by Local Futures.
Norberg-Hodge spent decades working and living with Indigenous people in Ladakh, India. Her work there helped crystalize her understanding of the need for decentralized political and economic structures as well as holistic knowledge of local ecologies. Photo by Local Futures.

In the conferences you have been hosting in places like Vermont, Ohio, and New Mexico, and also globally, what would you say has been a take-home message for participants?

What we hear quite often is people saying, “Thank you for this bigger picture which puts things together into a way that I haven’t seen before, one that feels uplifting.” Another take-home is that people are not realizing the extent to which — not just in the mainstream but also in alternative and progressive circles — there is this dominant sense that human nature is all wrong. In other words, that it’s in our nature that we all are greedy and aggressive. That is a deeply depressing message, and I do see a lot of people, especially people my age, saying that they’ve given up on humanity, alas, that we deserve to extinguish ourselves.

No, there is actually a cultural story here. It’s not human nature, but rather the culture into which we’ve been subtly manipulated, to the point where we cannot see that recovery from this sad and addictive culture can be surprisingly rapid. We face climate chaos, too, and things that are very alarming, and of course there’s great reason to be concerned. But there’s simultaneously a deeply uplifting message in realizing that not only can recovery happen faster, but it is happening.

Your views on technology have been controversial …

It’s really been only over the last couple years that I have come to see that we must speak out on technology. You see, in the 1970s large numbers of people and organizations pushed governments to decentralize renewable energy, and governments started making these changes. But sadly, there wasn’t enough awareness of the heavy propaganda for computers as “the” way to help us decentralize. Computers and later the Internet being championed as the way to [decentralize]perversely helped co-opt large movements of people who wanted a more generally decentralized, and more nature-based, culture and development path, people who basically wanted to go back to the land, to leave the big cities.

If you had to sum it up, what’s the message you’d like to share in terms of technology?

It’s too big for a soundbite. But for now, think of how the barcode on every product is linked to the needs for a firm like Walmart, in using satellites and fleets of lorries, to not even have a warehouse, and how this is linked to destroying local businesses. We should be talking about what is essential in an economy: the ways people use nature and other people to make ends meet, and basically, it should be about providing for our needs, not about a system that artificially creates needs.

Using psychological manipulation to encourage people to consume was tied to economists arguing that the only way to avoid another economic depression was to integrate economies around the world, in other words to create one global system. This amalgamation was linked to the creation of the EU and so on, to the idea that to avoid another war we need one single system.

Most people see the EU as a relatively benign force and often as the only counter-pole to the American system. But actually, it was an attempt to amalgamate and integrate to suit the needs of big business. Big business wanted to grow beyond national boundaries, and they didn’t want to have to deal with different languages, different ways of measuring, with some people driving on the left side of the road and some on the right.

Part of the big shift that we need is a better balance between masculine and feminine — finding a more deeply interconnected, nurturing side.

They needed standardization, and the computer and the Internet were an integral part of that.

How would you change the situation?

To paint it dramatically: What would it be like to ban multinational companies from using the Internet? (Laughter) Okay, maybe that would be a challenge. But multinationals using the Internet are basically impossible to tax. Look at Apple, at Google. And these technologies are linked to massive manipulation, not just in terms of manufacturing needs, but even [in terms of] the voting behavior in different countries. Ideally, the change toward democratizing the Internet would be in incremental ways.

Using satellites and the Internet for climate monitoring, for emergency needs, and so on makes sense; having built up that infrastructure and having those tools, it would be unwise not to make use of them for many purposes. But, again in an ideal world, we’d be looking at the way that the whole weapons race is linked to the race into space, and we would be putting an end to that. We would be looking at the ecological and social effects of mineral use in technologies. We would be talking about slowing down and shrinking our use of the Internet for global business, the way that several European countries have done with bans on advertising.

With things like driverless cars, and artificial intelligence, there’s an emerging critique that men are the ones promoting such paths, not women.

Many of my young male colleagues are absolutely convinced about blockchain, 3D printing, driverless cars, and so on, whereas almost every woman I talk to does not share such passion for these tools. I think part of the big shift that we need is a better balance between masculine and feminine — finding a more deeply interconnected, nurturing side. But that requires time.

A genuine appreciation of the other, a genuine appreciation of the plants, the animals, and the sun requires free time we cannot get through the speed that these new technologies are imposing on us. You might ask yourself: What happens to us — as individuals, as communities — under the time pressures that nearly all of us experience today?

What could men do, more concretely? Meditation? More hiking? Or do you mean deeper initiation in nature?

Certainly those, and also what they are doing already in several microtrends, like getting more involved in childcare. To see fathers carrying babies on their chest, that’s a wonderful and important leap into the feminine. By the way, to this day, many young boys growing up in pre-modern cultures carry siblings on their backs. That kind of nurturing and care is even linked to changes in their hormone structure, a deep biological effect of being involved in nurturing.

Slower caregiving is necessary, and it is something hard to deliver in a system that is so driven by speed. Take steps right now as an individual to explore what it means to be a balanced, nurturing person, but one of the steps that I hope you’ll make is to get the word out about the broader picture and help build up more collective power to change things.

How are we to find the courage to take the sort of contrarian stances you are advocating?

I’m a woman saying this, but I think it’s really true of men too, that the first step is to identify like-minded people, or at least one or two. To be the contrarian alone is pretty daunting, and we can best do it if we’re part of a group.

A main reason our leaders are taking us faster and faster in the wrong direction … is the desire to belong. Belonging is one of our deeper needs that was borne of the way we evolved for 99.9 percent of our time on this planet. And when alternative voices are nowhere to be heard or seen — since the tools of the master technologies are in the hands of deregulated capital and they continue to promote this isolating, competitive, and speed-based path — then the leaders are desperate to be in the herd. They’re told by peers: “If you don’t go along with this, you’ll be left behind.” That’s been particularly true with adopting technologies, which, as leaders blindly accept every new multinational technology that comes along, ironically takes those same leaders into an unwanted position where they have ceded their own real power to corporations.

The first step is to connect with like-minded people, and then collectively start questioning the dominant assumptions. Part of that is to listen to what really makes your heart sing. Where were you and what were you doing when you experienced moments of deep contentment and happiness? Listen to the answer and use it as a guide.

Increased confidence, then, provides the resilience to speak truth to power?

Those with audacity to play the contrarian tend to be deeply secure people, and that’s why I’m so keen to encourage people to connect to others: It can inspire the confidence of feeling appreciated for who you really are. Deepening the relational sense of self helps provide the confidence to also take on mainstream assumptions. Everything that I’m saying is part of a whole kaleidoscope of complementary aspects, about being part of a systemic shift where there are various interlocking changes.

That’s why our societal path has to be one that works with the natural world, not one that continues to control it. Part of confidence-building is having the ability to make something with our hands. There are so many beautiful projects. Just helping in a community effort to build a clay oven, and then baking pizzas in it, is a fine joint project. Simply being able to do that little bit of building and cooking, that too inspires confidence. Many studies show what happens to your brain when you do that, and the benefits to your whole body.

So I say: Start small and local. It’s a wonderful entry point into a multipronged and mutually reinforcing path to health and happiness.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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