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May 12, 2021

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Helena Norberg-Hodge. Photo Jeff Dawson.

Mandy Nolan

There are some people you meet who have a powerful impact on you. For me Helena Norberg-Hodge is one of those people.

I met her just over a decade ago and I was simply astonished. How incredible to have one of the pioneers of the worldwide localisation movement, the recipient of the Alternative Nobel Prize, the Goi Peace Prize, and the Arthur Morgan Award living right here in the Byron Shire. Specialising in linguistics, she was educated in Sweden, Germany, Austria, England, and the US and subsequently she’s fluent in seven languages.

A remarkable woman

She got her doctorate at MIT with contemporary Noam Chomsky and she has lived and studied numerous cultures at varying degrees of industrialisation, Ladakh being her most famous research as it became the foundation of localisation, the worldview that underpins what she calls ‘The Economics of Happiness’.

Helena is a remarkable woman. She has been talking about systemic change for decades, and it seems finally the world is ready to listen.

I spoke with Helena on the release of her new book Local is our Future: steps to an Economics of Happiness just a few days before she went to Tokyo to present Economics of Happiness on of the many International forums she hosts worldwide through Local Futures.

Localisation became the touchstone for all of Helena’s work, with her time in Ladakh, as documented in her first book Ancient Futures, showing a community before and after globalisation.

Before globalisation there were no mental health issues, no obesity, no poverty, no addiction. Like cockroaches hatching from eggs on an imported container – the varied malaise of Western society – depression, chronic health issues, poverty, and addiction embedded themselves in community. It became clear the way forward was to embrace the connected ways of old.

Helena believes that localisation isn’t just the key to solving climate problems; it’s also the key to finding deep connected happiness

Helena believes that localisation isn’t just the key to solving climate problems; it’s also the key to finding deep connected happiness.

Moving to localisation and focusing on systemic change that creates economic change becomes much more when you apply it – it creates transformation of self and of community. It’s very empowering and a joyful process when you really get it. How we live in western society – the process of disconnection has gone on for a long time – anxiety and depression have increased in the last 30 years. The imagery of how we live is that we are sitting alone in a highrise flat completely isolated from human beings, totally dependent on the techo-economic system trying to persuade us that robots will make our life better!

The whole AI thing is going to just be even more alienating! A giant leap forwards technologically is not always a leap to happiness…

We need to slow down – to connect the mind, heart and body

Which is completely true! Weren’t computers supposed to free us up so we’d be enjoying long luxurious hours of leisure?

‘There was all this propaganda that computers would allow us to have the lovely life of the village because information could be shared instantaneously – but the opposite has happened. Everyone is running harder and faster. We need to slow down – to connect the mind, heart and body!

Helena is one of the few economists who talks about human happiness. In a world driven by finance and corporation the simple equation of our human happiness is often forgotten. Here’s one equation that is easy to understand: Globalisaton is about alienation and corporate profit. Localisation is about community connection, self-reliance, and happiness.

‘I have been invited to these high-level economic summits, and to the European economic forum in Brussels – talking economics in the EU – definitely people are wanting to understand what localisation is – but they are not going to be the people who are going to make change, but they’re not evil bastards either; we have to have a clearer message about what localisation means.’

‘My message is that you can start taking steps at the community level. You can build genuine community economic structures. The very first one is food – food is the thing we are going to need most if we have major climate upheaval.

Working with local food provides connection to the land. It’s how the human race evolved

‘Working with local food provides connection to the land. It’s how the human race evolved. From the plants to the seeds to the cooking to the celebration of food – the whole thing is the cornerstone of what it is to be human in evolution; every culture does it differently, but they do it,’ says Helena.

The worldwide practice of monoculture Helena believes is at the heart of the climate emergency we currently face.

‘We need to operate small scale. Big monocultures are a disaster because the are unnatural and they need an enormous amount of chemicals to increase productivity and yield.’

Localisation, Helena believes, is seen as a direct threat to big business. Systemic change will mean a loss of profits for the top end of town and a better quality of life for all.

‘I am promoting localisation but I worry people who don’t have enough experience of what is going on worldwide.

‘Health is being seen in terms of what will provide profit for big business. Doctors in mainstream medicine believe food has nothing to do with your health – look at what they feed you in hospital! We can’t even begin to calculate how much we could cut down our emissions from transport of goods that are sent back and forth. Australia exports 20 tonne of water to the UK and the UK exports 20 tonne of water to Australia! That’s just one product!

‘These are some of the things we will be talking about in March at the Economics of Happiness Conference in Byron Bay. It’s a 3-day event featuring David Suzuki and Charles Eisenstein.’

Helena’s book Local is Our Future is available online through her website – also, to find out more and to be part of the upcoming conference in 2020, called Going Local: Hope In a Time of Crisis, 20–22 March, go to www.localfutures.org.

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