The Cost Of Development

The "great commercial" of Western industrialization
advertises a product of dubious value

One of the articles in Sustainability (IC#25)
Originally published in Late Spring 1990 on page 28
Copyright (c)1990, 1997 by Context Institute

Development is a good word. In my desktop dictionary, the first definition is "growth to a more advanced or effective state." The trouble, of course, lies in how one then defines the words "growth" and "advanced," for one culture’s growth could be another one’s poison.

Helena Norberg-Hodge has been working in Ladakh, a mountainous province in the north of India, for over a dozen years to help the Ladakhis pick carefully from the overwhelming and even dangerous menu offered by the West in the name of development. But since we interviewed her in IC #17 ("Global Neighbors"), her focus has broadened considerably.

For more information on the Ladakh Project, contact them at PO Box 9475, Berkeley, CA 94709.

Alan: What progress have you seen in your work recently, and what’s changed for you in Ladakh?

Helena: We’ve actually started some small-scale hydro schemes, and we have continued the work in solar energy – and it’s growing. But my thinking has changed quite a lot.

When I first started working in Ladakh, I was trying to show the Ladakhis that there was an alternative to conventional development processes. For example, the government had introduced coal and kerosene for heating, and I wanted to show that solar was possible. I thought of what I did as demonstration and information, not as a development project. But now I see that there is a great need, not just in Ladakh but in the world, to introduce a decentralized, ecologically and socially sustainable model of development.

Alan: How would you characterize the difference between your model of development and the traditional one?

Helena: Development initiated by government is pretty much the same everywhere in the world. It’s the Western industrial model, which always brings with it essentially the same technology, centralization, and infrastructure. It was very clear in Ladakh that this centralization – pulling people toward the cities via roads – is extremely wasteful of resources, as well as being socially destructive, because it replaces local sources of food, clothing, building materials and the like with imports.

Development really needs to come from the bottom up – grassroots, community-based. And a healthy development would be one that’s relatively slow and that pays for itself. At the moment, governments everywhere are in fact paying vast sums for introducing or perpetuating the ever-greater centralization and specialization of industrial development. They are subsidizing this shift, often in hidden ways. But when you start talking about solar heating, for instance, their immediate reaction is, "Can the farmers afford it?" It’s a smoke screen, really. So what I now realize is that if one wants to establish an alternative, sustainable model of development, one has to also subsidize it in quite a major way.

Alan: Like military conversion, it calls for a shift in direction for existing subsidies, not huge additional expenditures.

Helena: Yes. The current status quo means rapid change, and this change now has the potential to affect all life on earth for millions of years – we’re reaching further and further into the future in that way. At the same time, because of increasing specialization, there is a more limited understanding of the effect of particular manipulations on the whole web of life.

Alan: What kinds of things are you doing to try to shift the direction of this change in Ladakh?

Helena: Much of our work is concerned with gathering information from the most industrialized parts of the world and bringing it to bear on decisions in developing countries. I see the greatest hope in a place like Sweden, for instance. Things happening there can affect decisions in the developing world and have a very beneficial effect.

Alan: So the best leverage points for affecting Third World development are actually in the industrial countries?

Helena: It’s a dance back and forth. In the developing world, people want to be up with the latest trends, but often the information they get about what’s "modern" is very out-dated – it’s often thirty years old.

Perhaps I see some of these trends in a very different light from other people, because I go back and forth between one of the least developed parts of the world and the most developed. I also see something that’s very difficult to talk about, which is the psychological side of development. It’s a very touchy subject, and people aren’t very aware of it either.

When I first arrived in Ladakh, for example, people were psychologically healthier than any people I have encountered on this planet. They had a very securely based sense of identity, rooted in close and nurturing relationships with many people around them, both in extended families and community. They had a sense of who they were that was positively nurtured by cooperative, intergenerational relationships. People ate the food that was locally available, their clothes were made of local materials, and so the culture was shaped by a close and intimate relationship with the natural surroundings. It was a very rooted existence.

I saw all that change.

The Ladakhis had an extreme, sudden exposure to modern culture, which meant that young people were suddenly exposed to another model of identity which seemed infinitely superior – and based on what appeared to be infinite wealth and pleasure.

I learned the language fluently in my first year there, and I heard people regularly describing themselves as rich, and very clearly showing themselves to be my equal. But with the advent of tourism, people began describing themselves differently: "Oh, if you could help us Ladakhis, we’re so poor."

Compared to the poverty in the rest of India, nobody in Ladakh is poor. But now people are comparing themselves with what seems to be this infinitely wealthy society. It seems wealthy because of the difference between people dependent on the global money economy and the majority of people who still have many of their needs met by a local land-based economy. The environmental and social problems of the Western model are unknown in places like Ladakh.

Alan: The process you’re describing reminds me of people who think that they’re fine – until they get introduced to a narcotic that shows them how much better they can feel.

Helena: That’s a good metaphor. And like a narcotic, it isn’t really making them feel better, it’s making them feel worse. This phenomenon has less to do with the attraction towards modern culture than with the concommitant rejection of their own culture – who they are. It’s easier to talk about this in specific terms in relation to Ladakh, but it is in fact a global problem.

You could think of it as having spread a giant commercial around the world that essentially tells people that they should be blond and blue-eyed and slim and a certain height. They should be a two-car family, they should sit in a chair and eat hamburgers and drink Coca-Cola. In other words, they should adopt a complete change in diet and way of life. That giant commercial produces within people a sense of inferiority if they can’t live up to that image.

These days many of the more idealistic, sensitive development groups are saying, "We’ll just demonstrate a few solar ovens to farmers, we’ll show them a few pumps, and then if it’s a natural development, they will pick it up and somehow the economic system will support it." But of course, when you look again in a broader, more contextual way you can see that the economic system doesn’t support it at all. Nor do the psychological pressures that people are under from being exposed to images of idealized modern life.

Alan: So what is the overall state of appropriate technology in the third world?

Helena: Generally, it’s not doing very well. We in Ladakh can still see growth. But as the head of one small country’s power authority said to me this summer, "Well, if small hydroelectric turbines are so good, why aren’t they manufacturing them in the West?" He, by the way, has gone completely against appropriate technology. If the characters on "Dallas" did their cooking with solar ovens, why then it might spread rather well.

Alan: A devil’s advocate might say, isn’t there a bright side to this process of internationalization of the economy? Won’t third world nations benefit in the long run?

Helena: What we’re really doing with the internationalization of the economy is handing power and money into the hands of a few multinationals. We do need to increase our aid to the Third World – but we need to put that money into trying to find out how to increase our knowledge of local ecosystems, and to promote greater self-reliance in food production and basic needs. At the same time, we need to do exactly those same things right here to get ourselves off the back of the Third World.

Alan: It strikes me that the introduction of the "great commercial" takes people’s innocence away from them and, in a peculiar way, brings the double-edged gift of consciousness. What they once had unconsciously – an economy that was very self-reliant and sustainable – they now must learn to choose consciously over the other option presented.

Helena: Yes, in a limited way, that’s true. In Ladakh, it was very extreme: for generations people had been doing what they do with a collective consciousness, but not an individual consciousness. There was a group consciousness, because a wealth of philosophical literature had been transmitted for centuries – and the main message was a reminder of the interdependence of all life.

That’s another term that’s superficially used and often misunderstood. In more earth-bound economic structures, people are profoundly aware of their interdependence with the earth under their feet, the sky above them, the whole web of natural relationships where they live. At the same time, they are extremely aware of their real interdependence with other people – they depend on one another.

In the modern sector, by contrast, people are dependent on money and technology, and they also have the illusion that they’re not dependent on other people, that they’re completely free. It’s very frightening to me when people in the industrialized countries think that everybody watching the same MacDonald’s commercial at the same time on television around the world is a sign of "interdependence," or that the whole of Europe can be a "community."

Alan: So are you advocating a bioregional perspective?

Helena: That’s a very useful concept, but I wouldn’t necessarily say that we have to jump straight to the bioregional extreme. At the moment all governments are locked into economic patterns pushing them towards greater centralization and specialization – a sort of super-technosphere – and away from the biosphere. With concerns about the ozone and the greenhouse effect, it often seems that the solutions lie in high-tech, scientific directions, especially to government bureaucrats. The overall trend is pulling us further away from that more intimate knowledge of diverse ecosystems and local possibilities. It’s useful to look at the general structure of this trend and recognize it for what it is: an attempt to introduce essentially the same culture everywhere.

Alan: Traditional development seems to bring with it an increase in social tension, especially between ethnic groups. What’s the general shape of that process?

Helena: The introduction of roads links people into a global economy. Then you introduce a type of education which will make development possible. You pull that newly trained manpower away from the local food producing economy to live as wage earners – paid, specialized urban consumers. The new agriculture needs all these products that come from far away, are usually very expensive, and require foreign exchange. In this way you produce an artificial scarcity.

This whole process also helps to produce anger, violence and tension. Suddenly people are pitted against one another, competing for very few, limited jobs. It’s only natural then that group differences, which previously were there but were not a source of dissension, suddenly become huge dividing lines.

But scarcity bumping up against kinship ties isn’t the whole story. At the same time the psychological pressure that I talked about earlier is producing very troubled people who don’t feel alright about themselves, who essentially have rejected their cultures, which means rejecting who they are.

Alan: Is this process primarily unconscious? Or is there some conscious manipulation of these forces by those pushing Western-style development?

Helena: There is a certain amount of conscious manipulation at the level of multinationals and even of governments. But when you start getting closer to the individuals in the organizations, and you know them and speak to them, you see that another way to describe it is a type of willful blindness and ignorance. If your job requires you to turn a profit, you have your children to support, the peer pressure is on you, and so on, it’s very easy not to look at the whole picture.

Alan: That picture must be equally hard to see for those on the receiving end of development.

Helena: In Ladakh, young people who’ve had an education but still have a farm – who are by many standards wealthy, with plenty of food, lots of animals, a big house, and so on – but who don’t have a wage-earning job in the modern economy, call themselves "unemployed." And in the government statistics, the subsistence farmers – that mean farmers who earn their own keep – are registered as "non-workers." That has all sorts of implications.

When you demote the position of the farmer, you also demote the status of women. In the traditional economy, the center of decision-making in terms of real economic power was the household. Through development, however, the household becomes the so-called "informal sector," and it shrinks to nothing. You are a nobody if you’re not part of the wage-earning economy, so women are put into the position of having to choose between home and children and paid work.

Alan: Are people in Ladakh and elsewhere waking up to the darker sides of development?

Helena: Yes, but the greatest reaction against the advancement of the super-technosphere is where it’s been developing the longest – in the most industrialized parts of the world. In the Third World it’s in areas that have been exposed to it longer, usually growing out of the urban capitals. And many of the really good leaders are people who often have lived and worked or studied in the West for a while – though of course, many of them do just become part of the western elite.

Alan: So the leaders are people who really know the hollowness of it.

Helena: They appreciate the difference between a Disneyland forest and a real forest, or between a MacDonald’s hamburger and a meal made with more love and care.

Had I known what I know now when I first arrived in Ladakh, I would have done everything I could to raise money to send some thoughtful, intelligent, caring Ladakhis to the West to live and work for ten years. Some of them might have emerged as leaders who recognized, through experience, some of the spiritual emptiness in the West. They might have learned the value of the social, psychological, and spiritual wealth in their own society. They might have understood the constraints of purely material development. They might have sought another way.

Alan: Given your concerns about the patterns of development, what do you encourage individuals to do?

Helena: We have to understand ourselves as part of a socioeconomic system, and concern ourselves with policies as well as individual choices. One of the mistakes that many people make is to think of themselves only as individuals, which is very understandable in our highly individualized society. People think "Well, it’s not good to drive the car so much – but on the other hand, my god, if I didn’t have a car!" In America that’s like telling someone to cut off a leg! If only people could think through the whole process, and realize that collectively – through taxes and subsidies and so on – we support more and more cars and roads, when in fact what many of us would prefer to support are better forms of transport.

The pattern I’m talking about is close to bioregional, but it’s really a question of looking at how to reduce the distance between consumer and producer, and how to diversify local economies. And there are certain key things that can be done. One of the main things is to put more tax on energy use, particularly on energy that is polluting and destructive. We forget, for example, that human energy is a non-polluting, renewable resource.

We also need to nurture simple things like local markets, and trying to eat more in season. It’s not a question of absolutes – it’s a question of finding a dynamic balance between the local and the global in economic terms.

Alan: But we’re not going to find that balance simply by encouraging people to change their attitudes. We have to create economic incentives, we have to pass legislation, we have to develop alternative infrastructures – or change the infrastructures we do have. We’re not going to do away with the worst parts of the industrial engine in one fell swoop.

Helena: Exactly. When I looked closely in Ladakh, I could see there was this tremendous investment in perpetuating a centralizing and very unecological and non-human-scale development that was clearly unsustainable. I realized then that we must do everything we can to raise people’s awareness about that, so that we can start shifting the subsidies, hidden and direct, to support more diversified, smaller scale, regionally based initiatives. Once you start having more direct economic relations with the people and resources right where you live, you start to enliven a real interdependence, and a truly sustainable relationship.


Letter From Sri Lanka

by A.T. Ariyaratne

Just in time for publication, we received the following statement from Dr. A.T. Ariyaratne, leader of Sarvodaya Shramadana, the Sri Lankan people’s movement:

As far as the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement is concerned, the concept and practice of sustainability goes beyond economic or physical environmental sustainability. We go on to five traditional principles of sustainability which bring the human society and nature into a harmonious relationship for happiness and survival. In short, bioregionalism and cultural considerations are the most important factors pertaining to sustainable development.

To reach this level of sustainability, the active adherence to the cosmic laws pertaining to biological, climatic, social, karmic (cause and effect) and mental phenomena are necessary. Sarvodaya in Sri Lanka attempts to live up to these laws.

In 8,000 villages of Sri Lanka, consciousness is awakened in communities to the importance of these basic principles for human survival in a sustainable environment. Sarvodaya’s definition of development is based on the concept of awakening. This is a broader concept than typically understood by the term "development." We see psychological, spiritual and moral dimensions to development in addition to the factors of social and economic development. Governmental and private sector development programmes are working against this type of trend with a very high proportion of inappropriate technological inputs. Educating people and repairing the damage already done is a gigantic task for us. But if sufficient resources are available to the Sarvodaya sector, then we can meet even those challenges.

As national and international development thinkers and administrators are beginning to realize the importance of environmental, ecological and cultural considerations, we are optimistic about the future.

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