The 75th birthday of Helena Norberg-Hodge, the founder of Local Futures, is a cause for celebration. Her 40 plus years of activism, spanning four continents, have truly made the world a better place.
By the age of seventy-five, most people have started to slow down a little, de-clutter their diaries, put their feet up even. Most people, but not Helena.
I knew Helena was special during our first evening together, at a cozy Italian restaurant in London’s theatre district.
Leaving aside her menu choices (she dismissed the convention of main course followed by dessert in favor of two desserts, both chocolate), there was an intensity to her that might have been overwhelming had it not been accompanied by a beguiling Scandinavian openness and a modestly-expressed life history that embraced three continents, a close working relationship with Noam Chomsky, and much more.
A whirlwind doesn’t begin to describe it. I reported back to my flatmates that she was the most extraordinary person I had ever met.
That was September, 1977.
Forty-three years on, and my first impression still stands. Yes, there are times when the British values I grew up with – avoid conflict at all cost and never take anything too seriously – cause me to want that intensity to be dialled down a bit, or the passionately held convictions to include just a chink of uncertainty.
But moderation is not Helena’s thing. In fact, if anything can be said to define her life and work, it is the strength of her core beliefs, rooted as they are, not in academic theory or intellectual debate, but in the undeniable reality of lived experience.
Helena’s achievements in Ladakh, for which she earned the 1986 Right Livelihood Award, or ‘Alternative Nobel Prize’, have been widely reported. Behind them was the rarest of qualities: the ability to connect – deeply connect – with people of all ages, backgrounds and cultures.
Gift for languages
Blessed with an exceptional gift for languages (she mastered the immensely difficult Ladakhi language in a matter of weeks), she was able to immerse herself in Ladakh, almost as an ‘insider’.
At first, she had the privilege of getting to know a gentle and harmonious way of living that had seen little change for more than a thousand years.
But as the region was exposed to the process of modernisation, or ‘development’, she was witness not only to the incremental collapse of the traditional culture, but to the accompanying – and in some ways more insidious – erosion of personal self-esteem.
This was a profoundly sad experience, but one that only served to harden Helena’s resolve to play her part in tackling what she saw as the principal root cause of social and environmental breakdown, whether in Ladakh or elsewhere: the increasingly lawless global economy.
Exposing the fundamental flaws of economic globalisation continues to be a central focus of Helena’s work.
But she’s always been aware that resistance alone is not enough.
At the heart of her activism (and central to the work of Local Futures) is a positive vision of a very different future: a rich and vibrant tapestry of more place-based economies, closer to community and to the Earth.
This ‘local is beautiful’ message continues to inspire people around the world.
It’s a transcendent message that dares to interweave the personal and the political, the conceptual and the experiential.
And in these days of crisis-piled-upon-crisis, it’s a message that the world ever more urgently needs to hear.
Happy birthday, Helena!
John Page is Local Futures’ International Programs Director, and Helena’s husband.