Excellence Reporter: Helena, what is the meaning of life?
Helena Norberg-Hodge: Before I went to Ladakh, I would have answered this question very differently. Like many Westerners, I thought meaning was to be found in personal accomplishments. Our fast-paced, competitive, consumer culture moulds us into believing that our worth is determined by how we look, the money we make, how much success we have—whether it’s as a banker, a teacher or an artist. The emphasis is always on the individual. Advertising and the media convince us that to be worthy, to belong, even to be loved, you need to have the newest gadgets and keep up with the latest fashions.
Fortunately for me, my approach to life changed dramatically after experiencing the ancient Tibetan culture of Ladakh. I first went to this remote region in the Himalayas in the mid-1970s and have spent much of the last forty years dividing my time between there and the Western world. There I experienced the most joyful people I had ever encountered. And I learned that what gives true meaning to life is connection. To the natural world and to other human beings.
I have experienced this in many other more traditional communities, which has reinforced my convictions. Despite differences in geography and race, these cultures have this one thing in common: a deep connection to life. This expands outwards from the connections we form with others in our communities and to the living world around us; to the landscape, to the plants, to the animals. When we are deprived of these connections—isolated in a cut-throat, “me-me-me” world, we become not only unhappy, but ill from this deprivation.
Another lesson I learned in Ladakh is that this modern individualistic culture is not an inevitable product of human nature. It is actually our global economic system that severs connections at every turn. Nature has become a commodity and our time is owned by the market. This economy also breeds a kind of thinking that blinds us to what is essential for happiness and wellbeing. It takes away our sense of belonging, to community, place, and the earth, and replaces it with feelings of insecurity, inferiority and disconnectedness. This in turn fuels greed and increased consumerism. Most of our major ecological and social crises—climate change, inequality, terrorism—stem from this breakdown of community and our spiritual connection to the living world.
Over the last few decades, I have seen a heartening countercurrent to the direction the global economy has been taking us. Around the world, countless initiatives have emerged, reweaving the meaningful connections of life. Structurally, these take the form of farmers markets, decentralized renewable energy, local business alliances, outdoor schools, community credit unions and many, many others. They are all part of a growing movement for economic localization.
We can overcome the system that encourages greed and rampant consumerism. This requires both resistance and renewal: resisting the policies of globalization that are socially and environmentally destructive, while renewing the structures that foster connection and genuine sustainability. By rebuilding human-scale communities and local economies around the world—what I call small-scale on a large-scale—we can maintain some of the true benefits of modern society, while reestablishing the connections that give our lives meaning. We can learn from the past and other cultures without going backwards, but instead towards a more humane and meaningful future.
~Helena Norberg-Hodge, author, filmmaker and a pioneer of the ‘new economy’ movement. Helena is founder and director of Local Futures/International Society for Ecology and Culture and producer and co-director of the award-winning documentary The Economics of Happiness.
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