Helping a culture choose its future

One of the articles in Being Global Neighbors (IC#17)
Originally published in Summer 1987 on page 18
Copyright (c)1987, 1997 by Context Institute

For more than a decade, Helena Norberg-Hodge has been helping Ladakh, an isolated Himalayan culture, to preserve its strengths and choose carefully from the West as it modernizes. In 1986 the Ladakh Ecological Development Group (of which she is the director) was awarded the Right Livelihood Award (also known as "the alternative Nobel Prize") in recognition of their remarkable work.

For more information about, or to contribute to, this important project, write to The Ladakh Project, Open Space Institute, 122E. 42nd St. Rm. 1901, N.Y., NY 10168.

– Robert Gilman

Helena, what is the story of Ladakh?

Helena: I think Ladakh was one of the last cultures on the earth to come in contact with Western culture. It is on the Tibetan plateau, surrounded by high mountains, and culturally Tibetan. Over the centuries it had very little contact with the outside world because of its remoteness. Then in the modern era, when tourists and western influence reached many places, Ladakh was closed off for political reasons. It is presently part of India, and since it was so sensitive strategically, no foreigners were allowed to go there. When the Chinese invaded central Tibet, a road was built by India to protect Ladakh, but it was still closed to the outside world. Then for some reason in 1974, the Indian government decided to open it up to foreign visitors, and I went out with a documentary film crew and came in contact with this culture. I think probably the closest approximation would be something like the Spanish coming to Hopiland.

I had previously been in touch with a very remote tribe in a place called San Cristobal de las Cartas in Chiapas. Those people seemed very unchanged, and I was very impressed by them, a sort of very deep dignity and rootedness in their own way of being and doing things. But they didn’t exhibit the same incredible openness and joyousness that I found among the Tibetans and Ladakhis, and I now attribute that lack of openness to the influence of western culture, which became increasingly more threatening to them.

So it was quite an experience to come in touch with the Ladakhis in 1975. Their way of life had of course been changing over the centuries, but evolving out of their own principles, out of their own environment, and on their terms.

Robert: How did you get involved?

Helena: Well, I came as part of a film team to help do an anthropological documentary, but my training was in linguistics, and I immediately became fascinated by the place and by the language, which was very challenging and very difficult. The spoken language hadn’t been written down and analyzed in any meaningful way before, so I became involved in that, and I eventually did a thesis on the Ladakhi language. For the first two years I worked on that, travelling all through the region, collecting folk stories. It’s quite a large region, about the size of Austria, but the population is only 100,000. They live in isolated small villages, so I covered most of the area where I was allowed to go as a foreigner.

I was the only foreigner to speak the language, and in a sense I was an ambassador from our world. Suddenly these people saw all these westerners coming in who looked so incredibly rich and seemed to have a life of total leisure. I found myself often explaining that yes, we did have these things, but we didn’t have the incredible peace of mind and happiness that they did. I was trying to give them a more balanced and realistic picture of our life. Gradually I became more involved in the broader issue of cultural change, and I think I developed, relatively speaking, an insider’s understanding of some of those changes. I started bringing them more information, informally at first, so that they wouldn’t become overwhelmed and feel totally inferior.

Robert: What were some of the ways that you did that?

Helena: Well, initially it was simply by talking and telling stories about our way of life, which gave them a fuller picture. When I first went, in the early days, I found people who thought of themselves as very rich and literally said so. They very proudly served their own food and played their own music and wore their own clothes. I came to a particularly beautiful village in the early days, and just out of curiosity I asked a young man to show me the poorest house in the village, and he thought for a minute and then he said, "We don’t have any poor houses." Eight years later, I heard the same young man saying to a tourist, "Oh, if you could only help us Ladakhis – we’re so poor." Within eight years his self-image had changed dramatically, literally from one extreme to the other, because of the contact with western tourists and the sense that this other way of life was one of complete luxury and leisure and incredible wealth.

Our culture is incredibly seductive around the world, because technological development has transformed our way of life, and we seldom use our bodies to do work. We sit, we write on paper, we push a few buttons, but we use a lot of energy to make sure we don’t use our bodies. We’ve gone to such an extreme that we now suffer from that. What the Ladakhis saw was this way of life in which it looked like we never work, because to people in countries where this development hasn’t taken place, our sitting around looks like just having a good time. If I’ve been working all day in Ladakh writing letters, and I haven’t been able to go outside, and I have a headache, and I’m exhausted, and I say to the Ladakhi family where I stay, "Oh, I’m so tired, I’ve worked so hard", they laugh and think that I’m trying to make a joke, because to them it looks like I was doing nothing, and they were the ones who were out working.

It’s a two-way misunderstanding and an imbalance, in that we look at people of the third world, and we see them lifting and carrying things and walking, doing a lot of physical work, and we tend to think, "Oh, that’s terrible, constant drudgery." The fact is that there are many benefits to that physical work and that actually – I see this especially with young children – they benefit in terms of using their bodies and running through the fields. But the end result is that for the vast majority of the third world, and even to some extent within the industrialized countries, the rural populations look at the city populations with a misunderstanding of what our way of life entails.

That tends to develop a sort of inferiority complex in young Ladakhis, especially young men. And in addition, you have two different ways of life when it comes to the economy: in Ladakh you have a subsistence economy, where people have all their basic needs met – food, clothing, shelter – without money, and in our society we have to have money for everything in order to survive. So when a tourist comes to Ladakh and spends $100 in a day, that is a lot of money, but it’s not as much as it seems in the Ladakhi context. It’s rather like a tourist coming from Mars to America and spending $100,000 every day. And that’s really not an exaggeration. A family would not have $100 in traditional Ladakhi society, and yet people are not poor, because their basic needs are met. But for the young Ladakhis, especially the teenaged boys, who are looking for an identity and a role model, this image has a very powerful impact.

I think this at least partly explains why, if you travel around the world, you see that in almost every culture on this planet, teenaged boys are desperately trying to get blue jeans and cassette players and sunglasses, the symbols of modern life. More than anything, the drive is a psychological one. We need to be much more aware of our impact on other cultures. And often, because they’re not aware of that, the impact of westerners’ presence is a very destructive one. But there are ways that one can try to change that.

Robert: You’ve worked with that quite consciously in Ladakh. The contact was happening, and you couldn’t prevent that. How did you help the Ladakhis to adjust to it?

Helena: The motivation of the young people became primarily to prove that they were modern, and the symbols of modernity were very eagerly sought. Some of them would buy blue jeans that were three sizes too small. And they developed what I would describe as a terrible inferiority complex. It occurred to me that there was a lot going on in the West that was very modern and yet very different from what the Ladakhis were imitating as being modern. I saw patterns in industrial society toward something on a more human scale, something that connected people – to one another, to the cosmos, to the earth. It was an awareness of spiritual connectedness, which was changing our values. But this was not happening on such a large scale or in such a visible way that the information was reaching the Ladakhis, so I started bringing it to them. I tried to choose aspects of what you might call post-modern, post-industrial change that reaffirmed the Ladakhis’ way of life and also showed ways in which the standard of living might be raised without destroying that basic pattern of connectedness.

There’s a lot happening in every area. There’s how we look at the foundation of reality, through modern physics, a shift towards a more holistic, systemic process. This is an understanding which is very close to their traditional Buddhist philosophy. In child rearing, there’s the way mothers were starting to breastfeed again, and to birth more naturally, in a way very close to what the Ladakhis have been doing for hundreds of years.

The modernization that was occurring and in some ways raising the standard of living there was based on a conventional western development model, primarily based on fossil fuels. This creates centralization and urbanization and destroys some of their traditional culture. So one of the first concrete things that I helped to do was to introduce solar energy as an alternative, to show that with very simple means, the sun could be used effectively to help raise the standard of living.

Robert: How did the Ladakhis react to what you were bringing in, things like the Trombe Wall project? [A Trombe Wall is a specific type of solar heating system.]

Helena: Well, that was a very key element, because in Ladakh the weather is brutally cold in the winter. It drops to -40°, and yet there is almost constant and very intense sunshine, so it was very well adapted to that technology. That was the start of a series of attempts at developing alternative technologies which might be appropriate there. In terms of the Trombe Wall, at first, they wondered if this could really work. They were somewhat skeptical that something so simple would really make a difference, but increasingly now it is becoming popular. It isn’t a miraculous thing where every house in Ladakh is solarized, but it’s growing quite rapidly, compared to other projects. However, my main activity has not really been to introduce solar energy as quickly as possible, but rather to bring as much information as possible from the outside world that seems relevant to the Ladakhi situation.

Along with my reminders that our way of life was not quite as luxurious and wonderful as it seemed, I also explained that there was a dark side to our culture which had to do with the breakdown of family and community and our relationship to the earth. I was showing them that they had a lot to offer in terms of spiritual values and in terms of precisely those relationships which were breaking down in our society. I showed them that they had a sort of model society. That was received with surprise, but it certainly was a welcome idea. Everyone in Ladakh would definitely like to hear that. That’s not to say that they all immediately believed. It’s hard to believe. They find it quite shocking that we have crime, or that we have to be afraid to go out alone as women at night. It sounds almost incredible.

But those ideas certainly were well received, because they showed them that it’s OK to be Ladakhi, that it’s nothing to be ashamed of. I showed them that there is interest in the West in herbal and holistic medicine, which supports the traditional Ladakhi medicine, because they use herbal remedies and a more holistic system. The houses they build are made of local materials. In fact, now in Europe there’s an increasing interest in adobe architecture, which is what they have. There are endless examples. Their agriculture is organic, their foods are whole foods, their water and air are clean. There are many values there that we envy, and that’s been a very important part of my work there, to show this.

Another part has been to try to involve as many Ladakhis as possible in thinking about what they want for the future and to have them as fully informed as possible. So I helped to start a local group called the Ladakhi Ecological Development Group, which is growing quite rapidly. It’s still difficult – everything’s relative. I can say that the growth of our project, everything from using solar technology to the growth of the group to the ideas that we’ve been bringing in has been exponential, and yet, the overall change through tourism, the changes that are brought through modern economic pressures and so on, are still vastly bigger. So we are sort of on a knife edge; we still have a very good chance of having a major impact. We’ve had quite an impact, but not as major as we’d hoped.

Robert: Have people who are important in Ladakhi government and other major institutions in Ladakhi society been part of or influenced by your work?

Helena: Yes, definitely, including the Dalai Lama, who is the spiritual leader of Ladakh. He has visited our project and been very supportive. He even wrote to the Ladakhi group saying that he felt sure that all enlightened Ladakhis would support the project. I had a long meeting this year with Rajiv Gandhi himself, which has been very significant, and government officials at state and central levels have stated support. And then, among the local leaders, the royal family, which has considerable influence but not much power, has also been involved in our work. We want to make the group even stronger and more influential, but we have very good leaders and very good people in it.

Robert: In the process of doing this, what have you seen that are some of the genuine gifts that western society has to offer the Ladakhis?

Helena: The greatest gift that the West can give is a more conscious appreciation of what the Ladakhis have had for centuries, because they have something that we have almost lost. The balance with the natural world and the essential harmony in terms of relationships is something we can consciously appreciate better than the Ladakhis can, because we know what it’s like to lose it. The Ladakhis have lived in this context and have not grown up facing the choice of whether to remain in that sort of context or whether to do something else, and their understanding of their own way of life has been more intuitive than analytically conscious.

And hopefully we can also give them certain skills and ideas as to how to raise the standard of living. But it’s important for us to give them awareness of the limitations of western technology. We now have a much greater skepticism and the realization that technology is not a magical tool that can be used without any sort of side effects, and that is a very important awareness to share in the third world. I can give you some extreme examples. Not long ago, a hospital was built in Ladakh made of asbestos, and Ladakhis found pieces of the asbestos and baked their bread directly on it. It’s the same way with pesticides. I found a family using an empty pesticide container as a salt shaker. We need to be very alert and to realize that they have no awareness of the dangers of technology. There are many technologies that are now outdated because we have found that they cause more trouble than they’re worth. One of the things we’re saying in Ladakh is that they would be much wiser to look at where we are heading, than where we just were. Things are shifting and changing all the time.

Robert: I’m intrigued by just how you got this to be believable to the Ladakhis.

Helena: Well, I hope I’m not giving a wrong impression about the extent to which we’ve succeeded. It’s hard to give a balanced picture. But I think we have had some impact. One of the key ways has been to demonstrate to the young Ladakhis in particular that these are quite modern. We’ve built a center in the capital where we consciously attract tourists. Thousands of people come to Ladakh, and the typical pattern is that there’s no real communication between them and the Ladakhis. So we consciously attract them to our center, and we have a restaurant where we sell very good food made primarily in solar ovens. And the tourists get very excited about this and say, "You really made this in solar ovens? How long did it take, and how do you make the ovens?" It’s very impressive and convincing, living proof that this is something exciting and modern. So in a sense the thousands of tourists that pass through our center are P.R. people promoting these ideas.

And we have a library there with books from around the world on the trends in the industrialized world towards a more ecological, human-scale, meaningful way of life. The books are in English, because the people we’re really trying to influence are the decision makers, the people who bring in the change, and they speak English. They’ve seen some of the literature and also seen how keenly many of the foreigners read it.

Last year we organized a big conference, and this time we invited very impressive foreign "experts" from around the world. In fact, I call them "anti-experts" because they’re saying the opposite of what experts have said in the past. They were people like members of Parliament from Scandinavia and former ambassadors and ambassadors to India and high level government officials from the Indian government and Sir Edmund Hillary and so on. That really had a big impact, and again the main idea was to make sure that the Ladakhis were informed on these more ecological trends by means of very clear person-to-person communication. If we are really going to have a more ecological balance, we will inevitably return to greater cultural diversity. That was one of the main messages of the conference.

Robert: Can you see ways of applying some of the lessons from Ladakh elsewhere in the third world?

Helena: Oh, yes, very much so. I think much that I’ve said about the influences that are propelling the Ladakhis in a certain direction and their interest in "modernness" is very relevant in other cultures in the third world. And I think that Ladakhi society is very inspiring proof that a more ecologically-based culture can be remarkably rich now, even in the traditional form. We hope to demonstrate that it’s possible for a society to retain in basic principle, its own momentum, its own way of doing things, while still being in touch with the rest of the world, to have unity in diversity. That’s a very big ambition, but we still have a dream of making that possible.

Robert: I gather from what you were saying earlier that in traditional Ladakhi society, there weren’t strong class divisions.

Helena: No. Looking from the outside with certain preconceived western notions, you might see certain divisions. It is important not to compare what Ladakh had traditionally with an abstract ideal of how the world should be, but to look around the world at different societies. If one compares Ladakhi society to others, it rates very highly indeed, and furthermore, the very extreme contrast is between what Ladakh was traditionally and what’s happening through conventional development and modernization. There was a gap between rich and poor traditionally, but the gap between rich and poor in the modern cycle is increasing exponentially. One always has to see things in context, as I’m sure you would agree.

Robert: Of course! Is the development group there doing anything to look at techniques such as land trusts and some of the cooperative ownership project procedures for businesses and other strategies that have been aimed at reducing the tendency towards polarization between the rich and poor?

Helena: Well, we’re starting to think of that. We experimented with a small-scale hydroelectric plant this year, and now we’re thinking of what the ownership will be like. Traditionally, people owned their own land and they also had common property in the monastery. The whole village owned the monasteries and supported them.

On a global level, as subsistence economies move into the money economy, they are always at a disadvantage in the present system. People in the third world who get into cash cropping and move away from their own self-reliance are at the bottom of the pile and end up very disadvantaged. So in our little way, we’re trying to add to the voices who are saying that this must change, that the present economic order and the total blindness to resources and ecological reality have to change if we want to survive. In the meanwhile, we’re biding our time and trying to encourage as much as possible the continued life of the subsistence economy. The only small attempt that we’ve made so far to bring in more cash has been through crops where we feel there’s no danger of moving away from self reliance. You know, it’s so tempting to individuals – it looks like they’re really going to earn so much more, abandoning their self-reliance for cash.

In terms of land trusts, 90% of the people own their own land, and generally speaking the traditional system is really remarkably harmonious. So we’re arguing that a lot of that should remain intact.

Robert: I can certainly sympathize with that. From your point of view, how can we learn to live with pluralism in a small world?

Helena: The move in the industrialized countries towards something approximating bioregionalism, or getting more in touch with our local communities and local resources, or trying to localize food production more, is a terribly important part of that pattern. People in other parts of the world are engaged in growing food for us rather than for themselves. It’s very difficult to make real change, and I’m not saying that we’re all going to be subsistence farmers, but there’s a need for more localized food production and a regeneration of small-scale, diversified agriforestry. One of the best things we can do is to become less dependent on third world peoples, so that they can get on with taking care of themselves.

And we need to realize that present economic and technological trends are totally destroying small-scale agriculture. In America, farms are disappearing every day, and the same thing is happening in the third world in the name of development.

Robert: There’s a real sense in which this country is becoming "third-world-ized". But we don’t perceive it that way yet – we’re still blind to it.

Helena: I think there’s a big danger when we talk about interdependence that we maybe get very confused and think that interdependence means only that the third world is dependent on us. We need to realize that the profound spiritual and philosophical message of interdependence is that we share the air that we breathe and the soil under our feet. If we understand that, then that automatically leads towards greater diversity than what we have now.

Robert: What are some other things that people in the West can do?

Helena: Well, I would hope that they would work on being more aware. Now everywhere there’s what you might call the grassroots, that is, fairly low-key and fairly silently, there are people and organizations moving in a more ecological direction and towards a greater diversity, and yet the mainstream, what you read about in the newspapers and see on television, is still a very monolithic, distant technosystem propelling us very rapidly in the opposite direction. I think one of the best things readers can do is be more in touch, and I think your magazine would be one of the best ways that they can be in touch with those things.

And when they travel, one of the best things they can do is to share that information around the world and really consciously work at giving that grassroots information that they know doesn’t even reach average Americans, and really doesn’t reach people in the third world, and then they can actively participate in networks where different groups and people help and strengthen one another by being in touch and sharing information. I do think that information sharing is tremendously important.

And then, if they choose to stay and do work in the third world, it’s really more a matter of what they shouldn’t do. They have to tread very lightly and be aware of the dramatic impact of the West on other cultures so that they can have a low impact and maybe even, through information sharing, a positive impact. It also means communicating, and that also means slowing down a bit. When people do quick tours through places, it makes it almost impossible for them to have understood enough to have real communication with people. And they travel in large groups as well, which tend to have a dynamic of their own, so that they insulate themselves from the place where they are.

Robert: I just got back from the Soviet Union, where I was involved in a small way in doing a number of the things that you were just describing there, and that’s a place, too, where there’s a great interest and hunger for the kind of information that doesn’t show up on the TV that much. But it is remarkable how rapidly that information has been getting to Gorbachev and the Central Committee. That’s one of the things that’s helping to drive the changes that are going on there. It’s definitely worth putting energy into, whether it’s in Ladakh or in Novosibirsk or in Beijing. Do you feel that there’s more leverage for change than people recognize?

Helena: Yes, very definitely. And the change could be very rapid in the right direction, as long as there were the critical mass of people who were willing it that way. Another thing I want to say which is very unpopular and difficult, especially in America, is that we do have to look very carefully at our energy choices and technologies, and that we can’t overlook the impact of certain technological options in terms of the terrible centralization. People don’t want large nuclear energy plants or large rubbish dumps or incinerators near themselves, and yet they are not clearly saying politically. "We don’t want them at all." I think sometimes with the New Age and the emphasis on the spiritual connections, we can forget some of those realities which we do have to deal with.

From my experience in Ladakh, I can say with great assurance that it’s not an increased consumption of energy that makes us happier. On the contrary, with a lower consumption of energy, we develop our own energies much more, and I attribute the vitality and the joy that I feel in Ladakh to that. You get a lot more exercise as part of your daily life, and you’re also using your psychic and creative powers much more. And almost all their activities are participatory, whether it’s entertainment or whatever. There is no question that they have at least as much to teach us as we have to teach them.

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