Stories Of Belonging
By Helena Norberg-Hodge
10 September, 2010
In the industrialised world today, most of us feel overwhelmed by a seemingly endless series of crises. The climate is changing; conflicts rage around the world; the global economy may be on the verge of collapse. On a more personal level, we are experiencing what appears to be an epidemic of psychological disorders. Few of us are completely untouched by the increasing rates of depression and a pervading sense of isolation and low self-esteem.
It is clear that something needs to happen quite soon, and on a large scale, if we are to avoid further social, economic and ecological breakdown. I am convinced that the solutions are simpler and more easily attainable than most people believe, but unfortunately, certain deeply held assumptions prevent us from seeing some rather obvious truths. So in order to be part of the solution we first need to be able to look at the situation with open eyes. This requires a" big picture" approach, one that is not so readily available.
The dominant view promoted in mainstream media and academia is narrow and reinforces the notion that the problems we face are rooted in an innate human tendency towards competitiveness, dissatisfaction and greed. I grew up believing this to be true—thinking that in order to make any positive changes we had to somehow overcome these “faults” in our human nature. It wasn’t until I was in my late twenties that I had an experience that helped me to question these assumptions. I came to realise that the source of the problem was not human nature; it was a consumer culture that was being imposed on people. This commercial culture, which is central to our economic system, is being foisted on societies all over the world, generating insecurity and greed and contributing to a whole range of social and environmental problems.
I was living in Paris in 1975, when I was asked to go out as part of a film team to Ladakh or "Little Tibet". In my work as a linguist, I had travelled to many parts of the world including Africa, North and South America and all over Europe. Nothing had prepared me for what I encountered in Ladakh. High up on the Tibetan plateau, I came to know a people who had not been colonized and were still living according to their own values and principles. Despite a harsh and barren environment of extreme temperatures, the Ladakhis were prospering materially, but also, and even more importantly, emotionally. Over time, I came to realise that they were among the freest, most peaceful and joyous people I had ever met. I also discovered that their happiness translated into a remarkable tolerance, an acceptance of difference and of adversity.
Ladakh belongs politically to India and had been sealed off from the modern world for strategic reasons. But around the time that I arrived, the region was opened up to economic development. Suddenly, the Ladakhis were exposed to outside influences they had not encountered before: advertising and corporate media, tourism, pesticides, western-style schooling, and consumer goods. The process of development centralised political power in Leh, the capital, and created dependence on an outside money economy to meet even the most basic needs. Because of standardised education, tourism and glamourised images in the media, Ladakhis began to think of themselves and their culture as backward and inferior. They were encouraged to embrace a Western urban lifestyle at all costs. Over the next twenty years I watched Leh turn into an urban sprawl. The streets became choked with traffic, and the air tasted of diesel fumes. ‘Housing colonies’ of soulless, cement boxes spread into the dusty desert. The once pristine streams became polluted, the water undrinkable. For the first time, there were homeless people.
Within a few years, unemployment and poverty, pollution and friction between different communities appeared. All of these things had not existed for the previous 500 years. Fundamental to these negative changes was a shift away from an economy based on local resources and local knowledge to a global economy based on capital and technology from the outside. Countless similar examples can be found in every country in the world. In some cases, as in industrialised countries, the process is more difficult to discern because it began so long ago. It is partly because of this that the example of Ladakh is so important to the outside world. It is a vivid illustration of how the global economy undermines the connections vital to sustaining life on earth. It equally helps us see how we can make the shift from the current system towards local economies and real cultures that are based on belonging to each other and the earth.
Belonging to Place
When I first arrived in Ladakh, I found a culture so attuned to the needs of people and the environment that it was unlike anything I had ever known. An important factor in the environmental balance in Ladakh was undoubtedly the fact that people belonged to their place on earth. They were bonded to that place through intimate daily contact, through knowledge about their immediate environment with its changing seasons, needs and limitations. For them, ‘the environment’ was not some alien, problematic sphere of human concern; it was where they lived. They were aware of the living context in which they found themselves. The movement of the stars, the sun, and moon were familiar rhythms that influenced their daily activities. The understanding that was gained through a life rooted in the natural world seemed to create a sense of kinship with plants and animals that nurtured a profound respect for the humble creatures that shared the world of the Ladakhis. Children and adults who witnessed the birth, rearing, mating and death of the animals around them were unable to view those animals as merely a “natural resource” to be plundered.
For the Ladakhis, there was no need to “manage” their resources; they themselves were a part of the natural balance and, out of this belonging came the knowledge that enabled them to survive and prosper in such a harsh setting. For example, virtually all the plants, shrubs, and bushes that grew wild, either around the edges of irrigated land or in the mountains—what we would call “weeds”—were gathered and served some useful purpose. Burtse was used for fuel and animal fodder; yagdzas, for the roofs of houses; the thorny tsermang, for building fences to keep animals out of fields and gardens; demok, as a red dye. Others were used for medicine, food, incense, and basket weaving. The soil in the stables was dug up to be used as fertilizer, thus recycling animal urine. Dung was collected not only from the stables and pens, but also from the pastures. Even human night soil was not wasted. Each house had composting latrines consisting of a small room with a hole in the floor built above a vertical chute, usually one floor high. Earth and ash from the kitchen stove were added, thus aiding chemical decomposition, producing better fertilizer, and eliminating smells. Once a year the latrine was emptied at ground level and the contents used on the fields. In such ways Ladakhis traditionally recycled everything. There was literally no waste. With only scarce resources at their disposal, the Ladakhis managed to attain almost complete self-reliance, dependent on the outside world only for salt, tea, and a few metals for cooking utensils and tools.
Yet, they enjoyed more than mere subsistence. Through adapting their activities to the exigencies of their natural environment and the rhythm of the seasons, the Ladakhis had a remarkably high standard of living. No one was poor; no one went hungry. Although Ladakhis spent a long time accomplishing each task, they worked at a gentle pace and had a surprising amount of leisure. The traditional way of life was based upon and continually fostered a deep connection with place, which in turn supported community. Ladakhis were thus raised in an enveloping network of extended family, friends, plants and animals.
Growing up and Aging
I became close friends with a young Ladakhi woman named Dolma, who had just given birth to her first child. Spending time with her family, I saw something of how children were brought up. Dolma spent more time with little Angchuk, who was six months old, than anyone else did. But caring for the baby was not her job alone. Everyone looked after him. Someone was always there to kiss and cuddle him. Men and women alike adored little children, and even the teenaged boys from next door were not embarrassed to be seen cooing over little Angchuk or rocking him to sleep with a lullaby. Taking responsibility for other children as one grows up has a profound effect on a child’s development. For boys in particular, it is important since it brings out their ability for caring and nurturing. In traditional Ladakh, masculine identity was not threatened by such qualities; on the contrary, it embraced them.
Children were never segregated into peer groups; they grew up surrounded by people of all ages, from young babies to great-grandparents. With the exception of religious training in the monasteries, the traditional culture had no separate process called "education." Education was the product of an intimate relationship with the community and its environment. Children learned from grandparents, family, and friends. They learned about connections, process, and change, about the intricate web of fluctuating relationships in the natural world around them. When villagers gathered to discuss important issues, or had festivals and parties, children of all ages were always present. Even at social gatherings that ran late into the night with drinking, singing, dancing, and loud music, young children could be seen running around, joining in the festivities until they simply dropped off to sleep.
Old people also participated in all spheres of life. For the elderly in Ladakh, there were no years of staring into space, unwanted and alone; they were important members of the community until the day they died. Old age implied years of valuable experience and wisdom. Grandparents were not so strong, but they had other qualities to contribute; there was no hurry to life, so if they worked more slowly it did not matter. One of the main reasons old people remained so alive and involved was their constant contact with the young. The relationship between grandparent and child was different from that between parent and child. The very oldest and the very youngest formed a special bond; they were often best friends. In the West, we would say the children were being “spoiled,” but in fact very soon, by the time they were five or so, Ladakhi children learned to take responsibility for someone else, carrying infants on their backs as soon as they were strong enough.
Comparing what I have just described with the experience of growing up and aging in the West, the differences are obvious. And our children are bearing the brunt of it. From the technology and pharmaceutical-based hospital birth to the crowded day care center, from the Ritalin prescriptions to the television babysitter, from standardized, segregated education to video games—growing up in the West is a world away from what I saw in Ladakh. We cannot lay the blame on Western parents; for they too are victims of the global economy and, in most cases, are doing the best they can. As corporations scour the world for bigger subsidies and lower costs, jobs move with them, and families as well. For example, the typical American moves eleven times during a lifetime, constantly severing connections between relatives, neighbours and friends. Within almost every family, the economic pressures on parents systematically rob them of time with their children. As a consequence more and more young children are relegated to the care of strangers in crowded day-care centres. Older children are often left in the company of violent video games or the corporate sponsors of their favourite television shows. Globalisation and the spreading consumer culture thus work to displace the flesh-and-blood role models - parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, friends and neighbours - that children once looked up to, replacing them with media and advertising images: rakish movie and rock stars, steroid-enhanced athletes and airbrushed supermodels. Time spent in nature - fundamentally important to our psychological wellbeing - is increasingly rare. But it hasn't always been this way. Only about 50 years ago, child-rearing in the West was much more of a community endeavour.
Through economic and societal pressures we have been segregated into smaller and smaller social units. Those who are not fortunate enough to be part of a nuclear family are often isolated and alone. This is most apparent during holidays—Christmas, Thanksgiving, Valentine’s Day—but it is actually the case every day of the year. Being single is usually a much more lonely experience in the industrialised world than in a culture where the community is like a close-knit extended family. My husband and I have no children and we feel a much greater sense of loss when we are in the West than we do in Ladakh. There, we are integrated into the larger community and become part of the wider network of caregivers for the children.
Having lived in many different cultures, I have become convinced that we are shaped by culture to a far greater extent than we realise. And this influence extends throughout our entire lives. I discovered that my husband and I would regularly spend many months in Ladakh without having a single argument. But within hours of leaving Ladakh, finding ourselves in New Delhi or London, tensions would have built up enough to cause friction between us. In Ladakh, we lived in a human-scale community where people were seen and heard and recognized as individuals, deeply connected to the people around us. We belonged to a community and benefited from daily exercise in the fresh air and beautiful natural surroundings. Our pace of life was based on natural rhythms; on the rhythms that we, as human beings, have evolved with.
In my daily life in Ladakh, almost everything I needed to have or to do was within walking distance. Going back and forth to Ladakh, I have come to value this more and more. I can walk out of the house and go uphill for about twenty minutes and I’m in complete wilderness. En route, I would have said hello to some smiling cows and sheep, maybe a few donkeys, crossed some lively streams and said hello to one or two people. When I walk twenty minutes downhill, encountering perhaps a dozen friendly faces along the way, I find myself in the centre of town.
The importance of exercise and fresh air for our wellbeing and for a sense of belonging to life cannot be overestimated. Modern scientific research is beginning to back this up: a recent UK study showed that 90 percent of people suffering from depression experienced an increase in self-esteem after a walk in a park. After a visit to a shopping centre, on the other hand, 44 percent felt a decrease in self-esteem and 22 percent felt more depressed.
One of the most important factors contributing to a greater sense of wellbeing is living at a slower pace, with the spaciousness it provides. In traditional Ladakh, time pressures were non-existent. Even at the peak of harvest season, everything was done at a leisurely and gracious pace. There was time for laughter and celebration and constant song. Humans and animals set the speed, not machines. In the West, we have come to belong less to life and more to technology. Instead of saving time, our machine-dependent way of life leaves us less and less time for our families and ourselves.
Yet, Ladakh is not as it was when I first arrived. As “development” got underway, I began to see more of the same trends we take for granted in the West. Village life itself was radically transformed. Subsidies for imports destroyed the local market for local producers, creating a cascade of negative effects. This one shift simultaneously destroyed livelihoods and cultural traditions, undermined cooperation and community, created competition and poverty and severed the connections between people and the land. Losing their sense of connection and belonging meant a concurrent loss of self-esteem. The young were particularly vulnerable. The previously strong, outgoing women of Ladakh were replaced by a new generation - unsure of themselves and desperately concerned with their appearance. Young men rushed after the symbols of modernity: sunglasses, walkmans and blue jeans—not because they found those jeans more attractive or comfortable, but because they were symbols of modern life. I have seen Ladakhis wearing wristwatches they cannot read, and heard them apologising for the lack of electric lighting in their homes – electric lighting which, in 1975, when it first appeared, most villagers laughed at as an unnecessary gimmick. Even traditional foods were no longer a source of pride; when I was guest in a Ladakhi village, people apologised if they served the traditional roasted barley, ngamphe, instead of instant noodles. These changes eroded both the material and cultural richness of the villages.
Some consequences were more serious, even deadly. As I mentioned earlier, because of the political and economic changes in Ladakh, inequalities arose. Although the majority of Ladakhis are Buddhist, there is also a significant number of Muslims. For more than 500 years these two communities lived side by side with no recorded instance of group conflict. They helped each other at harvest time, attended one another's religious festivals, even intermarrying. But within a decade of the imposition of western-style `development', Buddhists and Muslims were engaged in pitched battles — including the bombing of each other's homes — that took many lives. The modern economy had centralized jobs and capital, creating tremendous competition for employment, while simultaneously creating what can best be described as cultural inferiority complex. Because people felt both economically and psychologically insecure, religious and ethnic differences escalated into group rivalry. Fortunately, the conflict in Ladakh has now subsided, but the forces of the global economy are still at work worldwide, contributing to a massive increase in ethnic friction, fundamentalism and violence.
Learning from Ladakh
As painful as it was for me to experience these changes, it was what forced me to understand the root cause of so much of the bloodshed and violence we see in the world.
I became convinced that it is the need to be loved rather than innate greed that drives us as human beings, driving even our desire for the products of the consumer culture. People not only need love but need to give love and they have a great capacity for contentedness, cooperation and generosity. Yet the globalised consumer culture undermines these qualities at every turn. Advertising and the media promise people that they will “belong' and be loved and admired if they wear a certain brand of clothing or have the latest techno-gadget. Children and youth are especially vulnerable to these messages. They hanker after the latest trends in the hopes of gaining the respect and love of their peers. In reality, consuming leads to greater competition, envy, and eventually, separation. The globalised consumer culture disconnects us from one another and from the natural world. It blinds us to what is essential for happiness and wellbeing. It takes away our sense of belonging—to community, to place, to the earth—and replaces it with feelings of insecurity, inferiority and disconnectedness. This in turn fuels greed and increased consumerism. In fact, most of our crises stem from the breakdown of community and our spiritual connection to the living world.
Recognising this truth empowers us. Realising that it's not human nature that is to blame, but rather an in-human system is actually inspiring. Looking at the bigger picture in this way is essential to effecting long-lasting change; it can also help us to realise that the same economic policies that are breaking down community are destroying our environment. As more people become aware of this, we are seeing broad-based support - from social as well as environmental movements - for a fundamental shift in direction.
Awareness is growing. Each year, there are more and more projects demonstrating that deeper human needs are about belonging - not competing or acquiring. And these needs can be fulfilled.
Localisation - Reweaving the Fabric of Belonging
All around the world, people are beginning to understand that we need to localise, rather than globalising, our economies. In order to create the structures that support a sense of belonging we need to rebuild community, and that means rebuilding ways of meeting our needs that allow us to see our impact on others and on the natural world. In other words, we need to adapt economic activity to place - shortening the distance between producers and consumers. In this way producers can respond to the needs of the consumers, and take responsibility for what they produce as they see the effects immediately before them.
Localisation means greater self-reliance, but it doesn't mean eliminating long distance trade; it simply means striking a healthier balance between trade and local production. It is a process that inherently nurtures a sense of connection to community and to the earth. Strong local economies are essential for helping us to rediscover what it means to belong to a culture, to belong to a community, to belong to a place on earth.
In traditional cultures like Ladakh the spiritual teachings are a constant reminder of belonging: a reminder of our inextricable interdependence one with another and with everything in the cosmos. This reminder is ever present in daily affairs, in rituals and in words of wisdom, passed on from the elders to the young ones.
Over the last thirty years my organization has worked with Ladakhi leaders to protect and rekindle these connections. We have collaborated with the youth and with farmers, with traditional doctors and women’s organizations, with politicians and business owners to rebuild a sense of pride in the Ladakhi culture and way of life. We have set up appropriate technology projects that use Ladakh’s natural resources sustainably, such as small-scale hydro and solar energy, greenhouses and solar ovens. We also run educational campaigns that provide the Ladakhis with a fuller picture of life in West, including the negative sides not shown in the media. Although these are small steps and the work goes slowly, we are beginning to see the benefits of our efforts. More and more Ladakhis are interested in keeping their spiritual and ecological values alive. Farmers are now more aware of the risks of chemical agriculture and genetically modified crops. There has also been a resurgence of interest in traditional methods of healing. One of our most successful collaborations has been with the Women’s Alliance of Ladakh, which is now one of the most powerful forces for positive change in the region. Recent efforts have included banning plastic bags, leading courses on traditional handcrafts and opening an organic, local food café.
The story of tradition, change and renewal in Ladakh has captured the hearts and minds of countless people from Mongolia to the USA, from Burma to my native country of Sweden. As a consequence, I’ve been in touch with literally thousands of individuals and projects that are reweaving the fabric of connection, of belonging to place. These movements are rooted in people’s desire to preserve the bonds to family, community, and nature that make life meaningful. At a fundamental level, these are movements for “localisation”—for reweaving the fabric of place-based culture.
Around the world, people are demonstrating incredible wisdom, courage and perseverance and have shown me that feelings of fear, of isolation, of discontent are actually a natural reaction to a system gone awry. From these feelings springs the search for what is real, healthy and essential for life. They give us the inspiration to work together with those who have already started the journey to reclaim their contentment, security and joy.