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Helena Norberg-Hodge is a filmmaker and activist who spent who spent decades living and working in Ladakh, where she learnt about the power of a strong community and a localised economy to combat wasteful consumerism and a neglect for the planet we’ve been developing in the west.

Words by Ella Liascos

As someone concerned about the climate crisis, I sat opposite Helena, high among swaying trees in her peaceful Byron Bay living room with a burning question I’ve been asking myself lately. What are the most effective things we can do as individuals to reverse the climate crisis? 

A well regarded activist, filmmaker, linguist and author, Helena Norberg-Hodge is a leading advocate for economic localisation through her organisation, Local Futures. Her story begins in Ladakh, where she spent decades watching it transform from what was once a harmonious and naturally beautiful town, to increasingly westernised with the first unemployment, homelessness and pollution the town had ever seen.

“I was meeting people who were just so radiantly at ease with themselves.”

Otherwise known as ‘Little Tibet,’ Ladakh had been isolated from the rest of the world before it was reopened to outsiders in the mid 1970s, when Helena arrived with a film team. 

Due to a serendipitous torn ligament in her ankle, she stayed two years after the film ended and became fluent in the language, culture and customs of Ladakh. “I was totally in love with the people. I was meeting people who were just so radiantly at ease with themselves. The best way I can describe it is that most people are like the Dalai Lama, so if anyone’s sort of heard him or seen his sense of humour, that’s what most people were like. They had a remarkable sense of humour, they were very witty, they were very wise and peaceful.”

Her friend John Cobb, a well known writer who had also spent time in Ladakh, brought to her attention that whenever a baby cried, it was always a Eurasion baby, rather than a baby from Ladakh. These, among other observations led Helena to question what it was that the people of Ladakh had in the early days, that people in the western world don’t. What she discovered after 14 years of observation, was that deeper connections and more extended family meant that one child was often raised by the whole village. “Every mother has at least 5 to 10, 24-hour care takers for every baby” she shares, “that’s a huge wealth and you can’t imagine how fundamental that is in shaping your identity as a child.”

Attributing the small ‘nuclear families’ of two parents and two children in the west to much of the psychological stress we accumulate during childhood, she believes that “the archetypical western model is a totally unnatural situation, which is so demanding on the mother in particular.” Relieved to send their children to kindergarten, this environment then creates a “universe of elbows and competition” very different from Ladakh, where she witnessed the “totally natural process of the three-year-old helping the one-year-old to walk or the five-year-old and the 100-year-old interacting and always teaching and learning. The oldest and youngest made the best buddies. Seeing the 80-year-old uncle walking with a two-year-old baby and they’re both toothless, they’re both hairless, they both can barely walk, they both eat really slowly. It’s like full circle.” 

“Ladakh represented a culture that had been allowed to thrive in nature, based on the idea that we’re okay the way we are.”

Aside from being separated from our wider community, Helena links the individual rooms and houses we grow up in to a culture of exhibitionism, which in turn drives consumerism. “We’ve created these huge walls between that unit and the rest of society. So in the nuclear family, we’re more ourselves. We’ll pick our noses, we’ll fart, but we’ll also behave very differently. With other people, we’re on our best behaviour and that wall between this separate unit and the rest, creates a culture of showing off to be someone other than who you are.” This, paired with being raised only by our immediate family who, between work and the demands of life, cannot provide children with all the emotional nutrients that being raised by a village can offer them, is what Helena believes makes us particularly vulnerable in the western world to advertising and the media.

“The separation that’s happened has been accompanied by more media influence — so in the meantime, the media starts shaping a child’s sense of who they should be and meanwhile the reality of who they are; with problems, feeling lazy or depressed or having eating disorders or anger and feeling unloved, all these problems are covered up with a ‘show-off’ of who we want to be. The deepest need of all is to feel loved for who we are, really loved for who we are with all warts and everything. We all long to feel accepted that way.” 

The psychological impact of being separated from our communities is an idea shared by Yuval Noah Hararri in his bestselling book, Sapiens. He illustrates the huge role our environment plays on our view of reality. To get a culture to believe in an imagined order it “must be embedded in the material world,” he says. Using the example of the medieval morals, which by today’s standards are much less individualistic, he states that their internal reality was crafted by their external reality whereby “the castle rarely contained private rooms,” not even for the King’s son. This, he says shaped the belief in a much more communal way of life where “a man’s true worth was determined by his place in the social hierarchy and by what others said of him.” In turn, being aware of the external influences in contemporary Western society that discourage these social bonds, like isolated living and remote working, means we can find tangible ways to shift our external world to foster connection and belonging. 

Restoring imagined order from one of individualism to one where community takes priority is, Helena believes, one of the keys to healing the natural world. The theory is that a society contented and nurtured by strong social bonds, is less likely to fall into a pattern of looking externally for the new season’s fashion trends, or latest gadget to fill the void where love should’ve been. Ladakh, in its early days, was a living example of how getting the love and connection we need early on, leads to a more sustainable way of life. “Ladakh represented a culture that had been allowed to thrive in nature, based on the idea that we’re okay the way we are and we’re developing our own economy for our own needs.” 

“This is about personal transformation, as well as planetary.”

Today through her organisation Local Futures, Helena raises awareness about how economic globalisation has led to the climate crisis. She’s produced several documentaries on the topic, including The Economics of Happiness and a memoir about her time in Ladakh; Ancient Futures. She urges the need for a shift towards a localised economy. On an individual level, this means turning towards community and the natural world and on an economic basis, it means shortening the distance between producers and consumers, ensuring businesses are prioritising the environment first. “When I talk about healing ourselves and the earth,” she says, “I’m urging people to be more conscious of the multiple ways we’ve ended up isolated from each other and how we unconsciously reinforce the separation and illusion of perfection. So, I urge people to try and come together with others in groups between 3 and 25 or something, on a regular basis and with the clarity that this is about personal transformation, as well as planetary.” 

Community isn’t the only antidote Helena recommends at Local Futures. When I asked her what the most effective things we can do as individuals to reverse the climate crisis, she shared three answers. First, she says we must change the ‘I’ to a ‘we’ and “start that group that can be personally healing, so you have more traction to heal as a collective.” Secondly, Helena shares that we must “support smaller scale local businesses.” Lastly she says, “become a big picture activist. That means standing on the rooftops and shouting that this is the reality of what’s happening and we need to change policy in the direction of supporting local economies. This means less energy worldwide, it means many more secure jobs, it means more meaningful livelihoods.” 

“Unless we question the impulse to purchase and address the void directly… we won’t break the cycle of mall hauls, mindless spending and endless waste.”

Reflecting on our conversation, the message that stuck with me was the need for a collective healing, from a place of ‘not being enough’ to wholeness. Eve Ensler said it perfectly in her letter of apology to Mother Earth, after making the move from the city to the woods where she lives amidst the “oaks, locust and weeping willows.” She says, “My trauma-made arrogance and ambition drove me to that cracking pulsing city. Chasing a dream, chasing the prize, the achievement that would finally prove I wasn’t bad or stupid or nothing or wrong.”

Through healing, the need to hide behind a trendy pair of sunglasses falls away, turning instead to community and love for ourselves and others. Even perhaps the restless need for annual travel, to prove you’re living your best life on social media, might give way to seeing your ordinary surroundings through the freshness of a contented heart. Unless we question the impulse to purchase and address the void directly rather than fill it with life’s fleeting pleasures, we won’t break the cycle of mall hauls, mindless spending and endless waste. To heal the planet, we must first heal ourselves.

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Ella Liascos

Ella Liascos is an Australian writer based in Byron Bay, specialising in writing for sustainable and creative businesses. The rest of the time, she explores ways to live simply and more sustainably on her blog moss journal.