Helena Norberg-Hodge: Globalisation and Local Futures

Hello and welcome back to another episode of the Unstress Summer Series. Today, I want to turn our focus on regenerative agriculture. In line with this, I'd like to look back and share my conversation from September last year with Helena Norberg-Hodge.

Have you heard the expression “Think globally, act locally”? Today, we are going to explore both terms: Globalisation and Localisation.

My guest today is author and filmmaker, Helena Norberg-Hodge, a pioneer of the local economy movement. She is the founder and director of Local Futures.

In this podcast, Helena and I sat down for a chat concerning localisation, globalisation, the film The Economics of Happiness, neoliberalism, and industrial agriculture.

Health Podcast Highlights

SUMMER SERIES | Helena Norberg-Hodge: Globalisation and Local Futures Introduction

Well, you’ve heard the expression: Act locally and think globally. Well, today we’re going to explore both of those terms, localisation and globalisation, something that affects each and every one of us every minute of our lives. My guest today is author filmmaker Helena Norberg-Hodge, a pioneer of the local economy movement. Through writing and public lectures on three continents, she’s promoting an economic mix of personal and social, and ecological well-being for more than 40 years. In fact, we talk about the economics of happiness.

Helena is a widely respected analyst of the impact of the global economy and international development on local communities, local economies and personal identity, and is a leading proponent of localisation or decentralisation as a means of countering those impacts. She is the founder and director of Local Futures and the International Alliance for Localisation (IAL) based in the United States and UK with subsidiaries in Germany and here in Australia.

Local Futures examines the root causes of our current social and environmental crises while promoting more sustainable, equitable patterns of living in both North and South. Helena is also the founding member of the International Commission on the Future of Food and Agriculture, the International Forum on Globalisation, and the Global Eco-village Network. Helena’s seminal books, and she’s written a few, was Ancient Futures Learning from the Ladakh, and it has been described as an inspirational classic. Providing insightful solutions to the unintended impacts of development based on her decades living and working in Ladakh in India. Together with her film of the same title, it has been translated into more than 40 languages and sold about half a million copies.

Her most recent book, Local Is Our Future: Steps To An Economics of Happiness outlines how a systemic economic shift from global to local can address the world’s social, economical, ecological, and spiritual crisis. It’s been described as a must-read for our time. Helena is also the producer and co-director of the award-winning film The Economics of Happiness, which we discuss in this podcast, and also co-author of Bringing the Food Economy Home From The Ground Up and End. Another book From the Ground Up, Rethinking Industrial Agriculture.

Earth Journal countered Helena amongst the World’s 10 Most Interesting Environmentalists. While Carl McNeil’s (sic) [Correction: Carl N. McDaniel’s] book, The Wisdom for the Liveable Planet, she was profiled as one of the eight visionaries changing the world. I have been so looking forward to talking to her later and having run as a guest. I hope you enjoy this conversation I had with Helena Norberg-Hodge.

Podcast Transcript

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:00:00] I’d like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which I am recording this podcast, The Gadigal people of the Eora Nation and pay my respects to their elders, past, present, and emerging.

Hello and welcome to Unstress. My name is Dr Ron Ehrlich. Well, you’ve heard the expression: Act locally and think globally. Well, today we’re going to explore both of those terms, localisation and globalisation, something that affects each and every one of us every minute of our lives. My guest today is author filmmaker Helena Norberg-Hodge, a pioneer of the local economy movement. Through writing and public lectures on three continents, she’s promoting an economic mix of personal and social, and ecological well-being for more than 40 years. In fact, we talk about the economics of happiness.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:01:03] Helena is a widely respected analyst of the impact of the global economy and international development on local communities, local economies and personal identity, and is a leading proponent of localisation or decentralisation as a means of countering those impacts. She is the founder and director of Local Futures and the International Alliance for Localisation (IAL) based in the United States and UK with subsidiaries in Germany and here in Australia.

Local Futures examines the root causes of our current social and environmental crises while promoting more sustainable, equitable patterns of living in both North and South. Helena is also the founding member of the International Commission on the Future of Food and Agriculture, The International Forum on Globalisation, and The Global Ecovillage Network

Helena’s seminal books, and she’s written a few, was Ancient Futures Learning from the Ladakh, and it has been described as an inspirational classic. Providing insightful solutions to the unintended impacts of development based on her decades living and working in Ladakh in India. Together with her film of the same title, it has been translated into more than 40 languages and sold about half a million copies.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:02:31] Her most recent book, Local Is Our Future: Steps To An Economics of Happiness, outlines how a systemic economic shift from global to local can address the world’s social, economical, ecological, and spiritual crisis. It’s been described as a must-read for our time. Helena is also the producer and co-director of the award-winning film The Economics of Happiness, which we discuss in this podcast, and also co-author of Bringing the Food Economy Home From The Ground Up and End. Another book From the Ground Up, Rethinking Industrial Agriculture.

Earth Journal countered Helena amongst the World’s 10 Most Interesting Environmentalists. While Carl McNeil’s (sic) [Correction: Carl N. McDaniel’s] book, The Wisdom for the Liveable Planet, she was profiled as one of the eight visionaries changing the world. I have been so looking forward to talking to her later and having run as a guest. I hope you enjoy this conversation I had with Helena Norberg-Hodge. Welcome to the show, Helena.

Helena Norberg-Hodge: [00:03:40] Thank you. Very glad to be here.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:03:43] Helena, there is so much you do. There are so many things you’re involved in. And Local Futures is the main focus for your activities. I wondered if we might just start with Localisation 101. What does that mean?

What is Localisation?

Helena Norberg-Hodge: [00:03:58] Localisation is essentially both a new economic paradigm, which is arguing that we need to reject the dominant economic trajectory that we’ve been on for a very long time, which has been creating more and more dependence on global businesses while destroying local businesses and economies. And we need now instead to reverse that process to start supporting more localised structures and that means shortening the distance between production and consumption, particularly around basic needs like food. 

But it also means adapting the economic activity to particular ecosystems and places. So it’s particularly important in primary production — food, fisheries, and forestry. We need to rapidly wake up about the absolute necessity of supporting local instead of global.

There’s a lot more to say about it, the path that our governments have ended up supporting and often out of just a blind belief that the only way to grow the economy is through more global trade. And that path is actually responsible for most of our crises, whether climate, extinctions of species, health epidemics, epidemics of depression, insecurity, poverty, etc. So it’s a very important issue that needs to shift towards localising instead of globalising.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:05:38] I know that often the availability of seemingly cheap food is often held up as globalisation’s greatest achievement. And we’re going to talk about globalisation, too, and how seemingly cheap it’s not. But you are also involved in a film called The Economics of Happiness, and there are two words that often don’t find their way into the same sentence. Tell us about it.

Film: The Economics of Happiness

Helena Norberg-Hodge: [00:06:05] Yes, the film The Economics of Happiness came out in 2011. Still as relevant as ever and I have to say, ever since my work in the Ancient Tibetan Culture of Ladakh and Bhutan, I’ve been trying to raise awareness about happiness. Very often in the West, I would be, you know, I’d be told that happiness you can’t measure. 

And how do you know that people are happy? And for one thing, I’ve always tried to say, we all know the difference between when we feel happy and when we don’t feel happy when we feel sad or angry, we know the difference and the difference is huge. And we also know now medically how important it is for our health, our general well-being, to have a happy state of mind.

Helena Norberg-Hodge: [00:06:55] So essentially, I saw this link between what’s happening in the economic system out there and our inner personal well-being. And again, with a globalising, large-scale, speeding, competitive path, we were being taken away further and further from the deep connection, both to family, to community, to our own place. And what was happening was we were being essentially tossed about like sort of little atoms. 

And because of economic pressures, it’s a very different thing to travel because we like to see other places and like to learn about other cultures, that the imposed mobility and speed and competition that the global economy has created is responsible for major health issues and mental, both mental and physical. So localisation, again, is about reversing that. It’s about rebuilding more stable, more place-based, more community-based structures and economies. And we can see the evidence that it brings about greater health, both emotional and physical.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:08:16] I mean, one of the books you’ve written and been involved in is about that: Ancient Future Learning from Ladakh. I wondered if you might share with us a little more detail you touched on it is the inspiration for the movie. But what were some of the lessons you learnt from that book? 

Helena Norberg-Hodge: [00:08:34] From my experience, that’s when was I arrived in this place called Ladakh, which is West Tibet, part of Tibet that belongs to India. It had been sealed off from the outside world and was suddenly throw open. I arrived there as part of a film team in the mid-70s. I was going to be there for six weeks but fell in love with the place and people. I was a linguist, so I started working on the language and the spoken language had been written down before. So it’s very challenging, very interesting work. 

And in the process, I came to know the most sort of chilled-out, relaxed, humorous, joyous people I’ve ever met. Quite a big region about the size of Austria, but with only one hundred thousand people in what was essentially a desert. But as I went through the region, I was collecting folk stories and doing work that was going to be doing a huge deal on the language at that point.

Helena Norberg-Hodge: [00:09:35] But what I found was everywhere I went, people never, ever said, “Oh, we’re so poor, we’re so backward, can you help us?” They said, “Oh, why don’t you stay in the winter? The winters are wonderful because they don’t have any work in the winter.” “Have you tasted all our different kinds of food?” And, you know, actually and by all measures, the foods are fairly limited. But basically, people were deeply satisfied with their lives and had deep personal self-esteem.

And I witnessed then how the advent of a consumer culture pushed by advertising and also by tourism in the way all of that imposed this sort of image of what you’re supposed to look like and how it’s supposed to be this urban, westernised consumer to have any respect and to be considered important. And it gave the illusion that if you lived in that urban consumer way, you never worked in infinite amounts of money. 

So it’s a very seductive image, that particularly appeal to young children. And I saw how this led to a loss of self-esteem, how it had to also ultimately to conflict between local groups. So ever since that time in trying to raise awareness about the impact of this consumer culture economy on different parts of the world and what we need to do to change it.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:11:13] Yes, well, I think one feature of globalisation that it runs across the board is the holding up of growth as the measure of success of a government or a society. This is, we’re being encouraged always at every level to be good consumers, not good citizens. I mean, are there any benefits to globalisation? Before we lobby into, you know, dissecting it a little more? Yes. Are there any positives?

Are There Any Benefits to Globalisation?

Helena Norberg-Hodge: [00:11:46] Well, it depends on how we define it. The globalisation of the economy, which is something that I’ve been looking critically at for the last forty-five years, there are very few benefits. 

There in the sense that even for the winners and we’re talking about billionaires who are, you know, going towards one hundred billion and more, even their health is threatened because this type of global growth is directly linked to massive increases in emissions and therefore climate change, extinction of species, the imposition of vast monocultures in terms of farming, fishery, and forestry. 

And that always necessitates ever more chemicals because it’s so unnatural. Those chemicals tend to destroy the soil, poison the water, poison our health. So our health is threatened. Our survival is threatened.

Helena Norberg-Hodge: [00:12:48] The idea that globalisation is about us being able to travel, to experience other cultures, to learn about other traditions, or to even import other foods from the other side of the world, that idea is quite a nice idea and there is no reason why that has to be eliminated. There’s no reason why people shouldn’t be able to travel, why they shouldn’t be able to get to know other ways, or even why they shouldn’t import food or whatever from other parts of the world.

What’s happened is that this process of globalisation has meant that all governments have been subsidising and deregulating global business while they tax and regulate local, regional and national business. So that’s created a completely, completely imbalanced playing field. And it explains why in every country that I know of, the gap between rich and poor is growing in such an astronomical way. 

It’s also linked to massive job insecurity and identity insecurity because we are all unique individual human beings and we’re all being subjected now to ideas that tell us that we’re never good enough, that we’ve got to be a perfect beauty and the infinite wealth and the power of the people that are portrayed in the media as some kind of heroes. The idea that we should perhaps instead be looking at the wonderful joy of having more connections, too, especially between older and younger people.

Helena Norberg-Hodge: [00:14:35] Part of the system doesn’t just romanticise consumerism and romanticises the idea of perfection, which includes perpetual youth. So ageing becomes a great drama for most people. Well, what have we done to human well-being when we make people fear growing old? That never happened in more traditional cultures. 

So there’s a lot that we need to rethink. And also in terms of importing foods on another side of the world, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t do that. But if we allow heavy subsidies for global trade to destroy local economies, then food from the other side of the world becomes cheaper, than local food. And then again, what happens is global businesses become richer and richer and millions, hundreds of millions of farmers and small businesses go under. 

It’s not really in our interests, but if we import and we pay the genuine price of the transport and the packaging and everything, then, of course, those products will be more expensive than local products. But right now, around the world, the opposite is true.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:15:51] That seemingly cheap food that we are often held up is the benefit. When we factor in health and environmental costs. It’s actually rather expensive, isn’t it?

The Real Cost of Cheap Food

Helena Norberg-Hodge: [00:16:04] Well, that is something that I think many people are aware of, but I don’t think they’re aware of the fact that our government so literally actively supporting this process whereby the local becomes more expensive than the global, whereby those highly processed and often unhealthy food becomes cheaper than fresh, organic local food. Now actually with organic food, we’re talking about not using lots of chemicals which have been produced in factories which were, you know, connected to the fossil fuel industry. 

We’re actually talking about fewer processes. So those things would naturally be cheaper. You know, locally fresh organic food in a natural, healthy, non-manipulated economy would be cheaper. I believe that if most people understood that, they would vote across left and right for changing government policy to make fresh, healthy food reasonable for everybody.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:17:11] I know when it comes to the environment, I was really shocked to read a few years ago the IMF report on fossil fuel subsidies. And I was having dinner with someone who was in the government position and said all these renewables just wouldn’t survive without subsidies. They’d be unsustainable without subsidies. Hang on. In the time you and I have just been talking, I think ten million dollars a minute. The fossil fuel industry gets every year, year on year. I mean —

Helena Norberg-Hodge: [00:17:42] This also what’s extraordinary about that is the ignorance of the bigger picture. And it’s not to blame that minister, whoever it was from the government itself, that almost no one has been charged with stepping back to look at the bigger picture and to do that from a global perspective. 

And so to me, that’s hopeful. And I feel that the main reason we’re in this mess and if we’re not careful, government policy is going to take us even further in the wrong direction. That’s mainly because of blindness and I would argue blindness at the grassroots amongst activists as well as amongst government ministers. So it’s that’s I think, in a way, hopeful. I do feel that it’s more podcasts, boy. So getting the word out that we —

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:18:35] Well, you may be interested. There are three words that I like to use and that is collaborative, inclusive, and proactive. And I think that needs to be across the board. But I digress for a moment. Globalisation and sort of started really with neoliberalism, didn’t it?

I mean, in a way, it cut the legs out from underneath an emerging labour movement of the 60s and 70s and transferred it elsewhere. And one of the things that are held up is that we’ve lifted a substantial number of people out of extreme poverty. Isn’t that a wonderful thing? And so there’s this double-edged sword, if you like, a paradox. How do you see that when people say that to you?

The Effects of Neoliberalism

Helena Norberg-Hodge: [00:19:19] Well, I mean, first of all, I would really ask people to go back to the foundations of this modern economy, to actually go back to the 1700s and look at how the very beginnings of this economy were about global traders from Europe who gained access to resources across the world through force. So we’re talking slavery. We’re talking genocide. 

And I think it’s really important that we realise if that had not been created, giant global banks and corporations would never have been as wealthy as they were by the time of the world wars. So we have a historical rise of power in the hands of global operators, even starting early with the Dutch East India Company. 

And so not all the time, essentially, consisted of telling people it’s not in your interest to maintain self-reliance, don’t try to grow everything you need, just specialised for export. And that’s a central principle of the modern economy. It’s called Comparative Advantage that, you know. On the surface, it makes sense. You know, in Scotland, if you can grow oats really well, don’t bother. You obviously can’t grow bananas anyway. So just focus on oats and then export. 

Helena Norberg-Hodge: [00:20:46] Well, up to a certain point this makes sense. But like I said, if it hadn’t been for slavery and genocide, we wouldn’t have a system where global traders were so powerful so that after the Second World War when oil landed on the doorsteps of these countries, not cheaply connects you to the wars, but this oil was then used to ramp up massively, ramp up what had started happening with this sort of slavery and colonialism where huge landowners would have, you know, maybe thousands of people just standing in a cotton field all day. 

Now, you had oil and then it looked like progress to say, oh, yeah, let’s replace those people with machinery. But in the process, even more, people were driven off the land, even more, massive urbanisation took place and more investment, fossil fuel-based investment in building up the high rise modern architecture again, fossil fuels — cement, steel, and so on. Very energy intensive.

Helena Norberg-Hodge: [00:21:57] You know, I came back from this ancient culture of Ladakh. I had also worked in Bhutan on several years. And as I went back to the West and I came to realise that in my native country, in Sweden, after the Second World War, the same basic process had taken place. More and more small farms, more and more small towns, smaller cities were destroyed in favour of centralising and urbanising the population. So by the mid-70s, more than half of all the dwellings in Stockholm were inhabited by one person living alone. 

Because part of this process was also to create a structure where we didn’t need each other because we were dependent on big, distant institutions. And you had a relatively benign government in Sweden. They were looking after people quite well. But there was this huge unhappiness, quite a lot of alcoholism. People were lonely, separated from each other. And separated from nature. And anonymity was already an issue.

Helena Norberg-Hodge: [00:23:04] Now, after the Second World War, at the same time, these political processes started taking place where a lot of idealistic people thought that if we can integrate all the economies of the world into one global system, we won’t have another world war. And we need to do this integration also to avoid another depression. 

They see what was also happening then is that corporations were being charged with figuring out how to get people to consume more and more of these mass produced, fossil fuel produced products. They were actively creating consumerism and pushing it.

Helena Norberg-Hodge: [00:23:46] And then so we had actually it’s not just the neoliberal economy, it’s the liberal economy that, if you like, was wrong from the outset because it was never ecological. It never looks at the costs of telling people to produce monocultures instead of working with the diversity of the land. 

And yes, of course, some specialisation is fine, and especially if that takes place between genuine partners and players is not an exploitative system with giant monopolies that then does dumb farmers and use labour in a very exploitative way. So there’s nothing inherently wrong with specialisation or with trade up to a certain degree, but it becomes very wrong when it starts literally ignoring the rules of nature. And one of them is diversity.

Helena Norberg-Hodge: [00:24:44] As another one is that it can only take so much pollution without starting to scream back at us, now with climate change. The distinction of species is just as important and the consequence of this economy that has been out of sight. 

The mechanisms have been out of sight. People haven’t been addressing them. They’ve been looking at symptoms and in a narrow way, a lot of blame, you know, blaming the rich, blaming the right, blaming the left. But actually the systemic path that’s been pursued for a long time.

It did take off into this sort of just also to say after the Second World War, what was set up was not only the World Bank and the IMF, but this process of trade treaties called the GATT, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. And many people were critical of the World Bank and the IMF didn’t pay attention to these trade treaties because people generally thought trade is a good idea. 

They didn’t really understand that it’s not so much about trade between countries as it is the relationship between big business and government. So the neoliberal side of it has kind of build up because, after the war around the world, there was an attempt to protect people from the ravages of this system and to protect the environment. 

So we had the beginnings of the environmental movement already by the 60s and we had before that even people insisting that government protect them from these giant monopolies, that that was then with the help of big business, big banking, not a few individuals in some dark rooms, but huge structures that were already operating like nation states.

Helena Norberg-Hodge: [00:26:36] Again, very specialised and very blindly, you know, looking at their own growth as part of this. So they managed to increasingly pivot and persuade into this neoliberal project so that about 40 years after the Second World War, by the mid-80s, there was this take off with a big propaganda machine called globalisation. 

It was economic globalisation. And we, you know, what they were saying is to people in Australia, America, and Europe, don’t complain if we move our factories to India or China or Africa. You’re just being selfish. We are going to be lifting these people out of poverty. And that was all rubbish. Instead, they lifted them out of relatively secure rural livelihoods to become slave-like labour in huge factories.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:27:30] Trade agreements are another thing that is often held up similar to growth. GDP as a measure, trade agreements, how successful we are, not everything they’re cracked up to be, are they?

The Impacts and Reality of Trade Agreements

Helena Norberg-Hodge: [00:27:44] No, but I think it’s so important that we realise that just like the average punter industry doesn’t know that that is true of the average government minister as well. So, again, that sort of gives me hope that if we can just try to get out of the bigger picture, more people will say, wait a minute, my big hope is at the very least, that there’ll be enough voices who call for a pause, you know, push the pause button. Let’s examine this. 

There’s a lot of criticism. There are reasons why we have to look at the fact that we are importing and exporting the same product. The UK’s exporting 20 tons of bottled water to Australia and Australia, exporting 20 tons of bottled water to UK. But not just that. It’s going on a massive scale and fish flown to China from Europe, from America, from Australia to be processed, flown back again. 

How can we allow that while we talk about climate change? You know, it’s just insane. So we’re calling it insane trade. And I think if most people would hear about that, they would be interested in understanding it better. And I believe most sane, intelligent people would say, yeah, yeah, let’s push the pause button and let’s really examine this and see how we can move forward in a better way.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:29:05] It’s interesting, though, to think how that will change, considering so much power is being more and more centralised. And the narrative, what we actually are hearing in our news services on our devices is very much being controlled by a very small proportion of the global population. Well, actually standing to benefit from controlling that narrative. How do we change that?

Centralisation of Power and Media Messaging

Helena Norberg-Hodge: [00:29:32] Well, I think the first question is the first issue is to recognise the problem and that, again, it has not been stated clearly enough. And I don’t think it’s been clear enough to most of the large number of people who are devoting time because they don’t like this gap between rich and poor because they are concerned about the environment. They’re concerned about ill health. 

All of those hundreds of millions, billions of people who are concerned and actually taking time to do something about it have not understood the need to focus on the economy as a joint agenda, as the main reason why we have such enormous social, environmental and environmental crises now, including the pandemic. So it’s really it’s happening.

Helena Norberg-Hodge: [00:30:22] I feel very encouraged, particularly because we’ve put out this clear message about the need to strengthen local economies worldwide. And there is a huge upsurge in interest in that, particularly since COVID-19. But already after 2008, when it was so clear that the financial casino should not have the right to play with our lives in this way. But the fact that what was needed was regulation and that would benefit the vast majority of people on this planet wasn’t clear. 

So how do we do it? We basically try to persuade more of the groups who are already focussed on trying to do something to make the world a better place, to focus a bit more on this and our message is, do not think get your head around it by studying economics. We’re talking about a few basic truths and principles that need to be exposed — the measurement of GDP, as he said, the trade treaties, those are the main ones, but they’re also to do with what governments tax, what they subsidise, and what they regulate because the trade treaties are accompanied by overregulation at the local level. 

And this overregulation at the local level gives a huge push to the right-wing that says away with government. We don’t want any government interference. Let’s have laissez-faire economics because they don’t realise that the laws of economics is not about helping them, but helping giant monopolies.

Helena Norberg-Hodge: [00:32:07] So again, these few basic building blocks are what we need to look at and understand. And one of those blocks is definitely the media. And the media is part of this system of enormous corporate control. And it’s linked to a financial casino where money is being generated literally on thin air. And that money is basically fictional wealth. 

Through our ignorance, we’re allowing this crazy, crazy casino to drive destruction and to prevent us from looking at the cause of the destruction. On the Internet, in every form of media, in science and technology, in universities, big money is shaping the story. So we are hoping that more and more of the small we put out the big picture as quickly as possible and we’re constantly hoping that it will trickle upwards. And it is to some extent.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:33:15] Yeah. I mean, I think this pandemic offers us many challenges, obviously, but also many opportunities to reflect. What are the lessons do you think we’ve we could learn or we are learning from this pandemic?

Helena Norberg-Hodge: [00:33:30] Well, for us, it’s very clear because we’re working quite internationally. And then when you see from so many different countries, similar statements and so on, we’ve decided to launch something called World Localisation Day recently, last year. And then this year we worked with about 70 groups on six continents. And so a very clear pattern that from the grassroots, there is a demand for ways of living and doing things that are working with nature instead of against nature. 

There is a demand for restoring some kind of social cohesion, and that means not accelerating this widening gap between rich and poor. And in COVID-19, a real hunger for community and connection was developed. And many people were also lucky enough to experience a certain rebuilding of family and community as many of the younger people came home and people lived together. This is not always an easy issue. I’m very aware, but it was definitely, it definitely boosted the interest in localisation for sure.

Helena Norberg-Hodge: [00:34:47] However, at the same time, the retreat into isolation, the dependence on the screen is strengthening what is now the most dangerous aspect of the global economy, which is the marriage of big tech, big money, and the war machine. And so out of this within the war machine, there are published reports from the military about how they want to use technology in humans, and they really see this as the way forward. 

And now we’re seeing more and more propaganda for robots. We’re seeing regularly, even activists saying things like, well, human beings are just greedy and selfish and, you know, just made a mess of everything. Let’s hope the robots will do a better job. They are reiterating a message that is being put out there by big business that all of this mess is caused by us, that it’s just human beings. We’ve told them about climate change, and yet they’re not they’re still driving around in their cars. They still want to go on holiday and have plans. They don’t care. They don’t learn from the information.

Helena Norberg-Hodge: [00:36:01] Now, the truth is that we have not been informed of the really efficient and systemic way of reducing emissions. We haven’t had the information we need. Instead, the finger is pointed at the individual and it’s made to seem as though the average person in the West is not only responsible for climate change and they are unwilling to change their habits, but they are responsible for keeping people in the Third World poor. 

So it really is very sad that without the big picture, without a look at what’s actually going on, there is all this self-blame and more than anything, blaming human nature rather than blaming a system which, yes, many people have contributed to supporting that they didn’t create it. It’s a creation. As I said, a started 500 years ago from the leaders who forced changes that led to this ability to amass wealth at the global level.

Helena Norberg-Hodge: [00:37:07] So, again, the idea of localisation is let’s start getting some grip on the economy, lets the average citizen really see what it consists of. Let them know that GDP has become the most outrageous, outrageous indicator of progress. It goes up if you and I are ill chronically and has to go in and out of the hospital, have dialysis, have a constant pharmaceutical rate for GDP. So we pollute the waters. We have to buy our water. 

And if we do it now, that could never happen at the local level. If people actually saw this is how we’re measuring progress, it’s never happened. You’d have to be insane to sit there clapping your hands and call it progress. And more people are ill. 

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:38:04] One of the books you’ve written is From the Ground Up: Rethinking, or you co-authored, Rethinking Industrial Agriculture, and this programme and my interest in regenerative agriculture over the last ten years has been really profound. It’s had a profound impact. How scalable and well, firstly, let’s rethink industrial agriculture. What is that? Tell me. I mean, talking locally, but is it scalable? Because ultimately that’s the thing that’s thrown up in support of globalisation.

Book: From the Ground Up: Rethinking Industrial Agriculture

Helena Norberg-Hodge: [00:38:38] Yeah. Well, first of all, industrial agriculture is that agriculture that came in particularly after the Second World War with lots of fossil fuels, believing that using more and more machinery, more and more chemicals was a wonderful step of progress, alleviating people from the hardship and labour, which, as I said previously, had been created because of the injustice of very wealthy elites and corporations being able to keep slave-like conditions and already landholdings that were far too big and monoculture. 

So when you were standing in a cotton plantation all day long, bending over, then bringing in the machinery definitely looks like progress. But what we have to look at now is that if we go back to earlier stages now, as it were, evolution, we evolved as humans species in smaller intergenerational groups more deeply connected to the land, and there are many examples of farming that was very successful for thousands of years. 

Right now you’re familiar with the controversial stories about that in Australia. But I am absolutely convinced that they did manage the land very well and they did farm and and and again, from what I’ve experienced, myself personally in more traditional countries, including Myanmar and, you know, Mongolia and lots of places, it’s clear that when people had a closer relationship with the land on which they depended, generally they manage that much, much better than distant elites or corporations that again were importing monoculture.

What is Industrial Agriculture?

Helena Norberg-Hodge: [00:40:30] So industrial agriculture is this factory way of farming. We know now what it means for animals. It’s completely unnatural, the cruelest toxic imaginable. But with trees, with tomatoes, with avocados, it is equally wrong. It’s torturous. It destroys the soil. It’s created great dust bowl. 

Now, what we’re up against is that justice with this neoliberalism and neo globalisation, the money and the power to disseminate ideas is so humongous that we have to be so careful that we sift out the ideas now so that we don’t support a shift in agriculture towards even more of this madness of importing and export in the same problem, bigger and bigger monocultures. 

And right now, the U.N. will be having a food summit in September. And we and local futures are part of networks of groups, many of which are in the collective represent hundreds of millions of farmers and people around the world who have studied agriculture from a global point of view. And they are boycotting the summit because it sounds great because there’s so much language about diversity and bringing in lots of voices.

Helena Norberg-Hodge: [00:41:58] But actually, it’s supporting an escalation exacerbation of this system, amongst other things, promoting your words and the argument that people don’t want to farm, but they like to be on the screen. So we’ve given them a little screen and then they can control their robots. The robots will be so good at spraying more efficiently and effectively and they’ll be linked to drones linked to satellites to monitor carbon. 

And there’s a lot of imposition on farmers from the climate lobby, which is mainly of the corporate lobby. And reducing everything to carbon is a huge problem. It was brought in by big business as a way of creating a tradable commodity carbon.

So from the grassroots, also want to mention, about six years ago there was a big study called IAASTD, the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development, and it was actually commissioned by the World Bank and the UN, and several governments. So there was something like fifty-three countries involved and involving scientists. And as they worked in the mills and also farmers.

For three years studying this assessment of science and technology for agriculture, when the results came out, this study was squashed because it said very clearly, we can not continue in the direction of going now. We’ll be living on a planet that will be uninhabitable. So there was a clear mandate that we need a major change, but it was squashed and it was particularly the Anglo countries, as usual, that support this report that refused to ratify that.

Helena Norberg-Hodge: [00:43:59] From the grassroots, there are also countless reports about how small farms actually grow the majority of food on this planet, that the big are less productive. You can take any two bits of land and put monoculture, one diversity on the other. You would always be able to produce much more with diversity. And the ideal way to do that is with more people. In other words, it’s job rich on a crowded planet. 

There’s no justification to take another huge leap towards using more energy and technology to replace people, but that’s another fundament in our economy, is continued support subsidies, even including R&D and so on, that supports replacing people with technology. And right now, we should be doing the opposite. And a lot of these technologies that seem so clean, you know, are actually dependent on mining, which is becoming more and more disastrous. 

We really need to be looking at how can we, again, push the pause button and look at the truth of what’s happening and where technology makes sense, where it doesn’t. But a blind rush into 5G faster and faster, more and more competitive fusing humans and technology. 

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:45:30] I mean, I thought it was so interesting to hear that Elon Musk has posed one 100 million dollar prise for anybody who can come up with an idea for sequestering carbon, you know, to technological. And my response to that was we should really get all the year seven biology students in high school to make a submission because, in the first year biology, we learn about photosynthesis. 

And I think that still is a very good way of sequestering carbon. It’s not particularly technological, but it’s very effective. It’s been going on for millions and billions of years.

Helena Norberg-Hodge: [00:46:10] That’s right. That’s right. Now, it’s really this techno-fix mentality that is at the heart of the problem.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:46:19] And it was also interesting when I heard you talk about Sweden, which is a very social democracy, and whenever you hear anything remotely socialistic or supportive in America, they immediately conflate that with communism. And yet they feel very seem to feel very comfortable with corporate socialism.

Helena Norberg-Hodge: [00:46:41] Yeah, that’s right. I mean, although I don’t think that people feel that. So what’s happened in America as well as in most countries is that the invisible oppressor is seen to be big government. And this becomes very dangerous. 

Again, you know, as things are being regulated at the local level, people to see government coming in, then preventing them, whereas small farmers or small businesses from actually having a good life. So they are not being helped to see that the much bigger problem is the big businesses that are pushing government and they’re often pushing them to bring in regulations at the local and national level because they know that destroys their competitors. 

So it really is a system that both left and right would reject if they recognise it. And the people on the right don’t believe in monopolies. They don’t believe in subsidies. And also spelling out that the role of the big corporation is the central problem and doing it in a way that doesn’t demonise individuals who work there. I think this is key.

Helena Norberg-Hodge: [00:47:52] Now there are so many people inside these corporations who really believe they’re doing a good thing. They believe we must have genetic engineering to feed the world. They do believe you were talking earlier about scaling up. They said this is the problem is that everybody believes that we’ve got to scale up to feed the world. OK, well, that’s even for anything to work. 

And you see, the truth is that when it comes to the production from nature, whether in fishery, farming or forestry, smaller is better, more diversified is better. And then also the more intimate more people, they will only pick the apples that are ripe and let the other ones hang on the tree till another week. The machinery for a long time now has been picking all of it. And now they may tell us where the robots will know the difference in ripe and not ripe. 

But please don’t believe it. Structurally, it doesn’t work. Because even the supermarket shelves, the machinery that washes things, the packaging, they all demand standard sizes. So this is one of the reasons we have mountains of really good food just burned or destroyed because it doesn’t fit into an econometric model. We need to adapt the economy to the needs of nature and that needs to adapt to diversity. And that’s where smaller, slower, more local becomes essential.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:49:31] I love that that the economy to the needs of nature because one of the things I love about regenerative agriculture is that it is very much about enabling rather than dominating nature. What a wonderful concept that is

Bottom-Up Movement In Regenerative Agriculture

Helena Norberg-Hodge: [00:49:46] In regenerative agriculture there are now, as with everything, there is bottom-up movement of people just through common sense experience, closer relationships with each other on the ground, coming up with solutions to work with nature and to work with each other in more collaborative ways to really, you know, come up with literally millions of solutions. 

On the other side, big business is working from the top down, and they’re trying to use their concepts of ecology, sustainability, diversity and regenerative agriculture to actually keep pushing in the same direction. So to avoid that, we need to try to use more holistic language. We need to try to talk about this as a food system, not just about the soil, but how do we build food economies that work and that work for people and for nature. 

And the wonderful thing is with the local food movement is that you can see that it distributes wealth as well as healing the planet. And even more wonderful, it heals people. You know, its people get more engaged in that really probably archaic deep inside of us where we were involved in our evolution with food production, with harvesting and processing, cooking and celebrating together over our food systems.

Helena Norberg-Hodge: [00:51:19] So that is what’s being recreated in the local food economy today. We’re talking about the combination of absolutely regenerating and restoring the source, but also crucial as we talk about diversity try to diversify as much as possible, avoiding monocultures. Because I just heard a talk from the U.N. specialist the other day where they were claiming that sugar plantations in Brazil that are monocultural are not actually monoculture because they’re claiming that because they’re being grown organically, it’s OK and there’s more wildlife in there than in the forest. 

That’s part of the propaganda to prevent us, because once we really start diversifying, it can really only be done with markets that are closer to the farm, ideally closer geographically or at least with scale and with enough time to get on the ground, see what’s happening. So there are some very interesting food or even herbal companies where one can trust that they really are checking on the soil what’s happening to the soil and the diversity in the land. 

But that comes through more intimate linkages, big businesses, Amazon and Bezos and these giants can’t do that. And so for regenerative, let’s talk about diversified organic food systems, localised food systems.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:53:00] Yes, it’s interesting to see these billionaires working out escape routes from the planet they’re destroying. But that’s a whole other story. And actually, interestingly, also, I think the pandemic is reminding us that real connection with each other, there is no substitute. I mean, we might be wondering at how wonderful it is here. 

You and I are talking across Australia from Zoom. That is wonderful. I appreciate that. But the connection face to face with our local people is what we be reminded is so precious.

Real Connection Throughout the Pandemic 

Helena Norberg-Hodge: [00:53:38] Yeah. And, you know, it’s very interesting because again, in terms of physical health, they’ve discovered that we do have the symptoms of stress or other, you know, fatigue and that talking on Zoom can be very tiring, whereas talking face to face can be healing. It’s really interesting that difference. And I think now a lot of people are feeling that you know, they talk about being zoomed out. And I think we definitely need to use this technology now and use that speedy communication to get a bigger picture out. 

And, you know, it’s using speed to the message about the need to slow down. As a society, we need to slow down. That is not an individual choice. It’s a societal choice. And so we need to be looking at the policies and the community. Possibilities where we come together, not as an individual consumer, but as a member of the community and also as a voice for policy change.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:54:40] Yes, one of the things that we’re always bombarded by negative images, and I think that’s part of creating the angst that consumerism is the way out of that angst. But I wondered and I wonder if that negative imaging about doom and gloom makes it almost any discussion about the environment and puts it in the two hard baskets. 

Perhaps we should be articulating a more positive image that people can say, wow, I want to be in that world. If you had to convey that kind of image in a short period of time, because I know you could go on what does a wonderful world look like that we should all be inspiring, aspiring to?

Helena Norberg-Hodge: [00:55:23] Watch our film, The Economics of Happiness. It’s a world that has learnt from more traditional ways of doing things to prioritise deep connection to others and to nature. It’s a world in which we are not running faster and faster because of technological dictates and because top down structures force us to do so. We’re talking about creating different ways of organising ourselves economically. 

So we’re talking about different types of jobs. We’re talking about getting away from everyone, being a wage slave because things are so centralised. We’re talking about people learning to develop multitudes, skills, a multitude of skills that are not so specialised. And what’s wonderful is that we can point to examples in the localisation movement of what happens when people start coming together in a more human scale community way. 

It’s happening a lot in the local food movement, even the difference between how people feel when they shop in a farmer’s market compared to a supermarket. That image right there, that experience right there in a way says it all.

Helena Norberg-Hodge: [00:56:38] And but people might not think about the different elements in the farmer’s market that make it so rich, because as I was saying earlier, I think they have something to do with a deep, archaic longing to reconnect to the really important thing. And that’s why a farmer’s market is so much more inspiring than many other types of markets. That can also be really nice, you know, with artisan production and so on. But there’s something far more fundamental going on. 

This another aspect is that it suits young children and old people. It’s almost always in a pleasant environment, slower pace. We’ve done studies and found that people have ten times more conversations in a farmer’s market than they do in supermarkets so that that emblem of the farmer’s market versus the supermarket, that’s sort of the picture that I’m talking about. 

And it’s a world that would be absolutely far more egalitarian, but not because of some top-down imposition of some enormous big government imposing it. It’s a natural consequence of allowing for the more human scale and interdependence in places, rather than becoming dependent on distant giant businesses and systems over which we have no control.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:58:07] Well, Helena, I want to thank you for your inspiring work and for sharing your time. I’ve been so looking forward to this conversation and I love what you are doing. We will, of course, have links to your website, your books and your films. And thank you so much for joining us today.

Helena Norberg-Hodge: [00:58:23] Thank you. Very nice to meet you. I hope you stay in touch. 

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:58:27] We will.

Helena Norberg-Hodge: [00:58:30] Yeah. Thank you.


Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:58:33] Well, I have been so looking forward to talking to Helena and as you picked up if you’re a regular listener of my podcast, many themes that she was discussing — the themes we’ve touched on in various podcasts with various guests over the years, and it’s perhaps now more relevant than ever. 

I mean, we’ve moved towards this high tech, globalised world and we’ve got these devices in our pockets, in our laps on our desktops, which connects us with the world. We could have thousands of friends and followers. But are we connecting with the person next to us? Are we connecting with how our food is grown? How do we even know how food is grown? And where is coming from?

This idea that we are consuming seemingly cheap food is a theme that we’ve covered before. When you factor in the individual health costs and the community and societal health costs and the environmental costs, this seemingly cheap food is costing us the earth, quite literally the Earth. We have an epidemic in chronic, preventable degenerative diseases which are largely the result of nutritional and environmental imbalances. That’s it in a nutshell. 

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:59:57] And the food we consume is contributing to both the health of the individual, poor health of the individual and .he crisis in the climate that we find ourselves in. Not just the loss of soils, but the whole warming of the planet, the raping of the seas, clearing out the treatment of animals in industrial agriculture. 

And I thought it was very interesting to ask Helena about how she saw The Great Reset, this EAT-Lancet Report, and this push towards veganism, which is a follow on to the discussion I had with Professor Frédéric Leroy recently as well. And I think this is another example of well-meaning people wittingly or unwittingly joining a movement which is not looking holistically. It sounds like it’s holistic. 

You know, industrial agriculture is bad industrial agriculture. Animal agriculture is cruel. Therefore, we should not be consuming animals or animal products, for that matter.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [01:01:08] And as my all-time hero, Allan Savory, said in an episode very early on, I think it’s three, four, or five. It’s not the resource that’s the problem. It’s not the meat that’s the problem. It’s how the meat is being managed. And agriculture is not the problem. It’s how agriculture is being managed. So this is all part of the same issue. 

Anyway, we will have links to Helena’s website, Local Futures, and I would encourage you all to get on board and see how you can contribute to this more localised movement. And I think there are so many positives there for us as individuals, as a community, and as a society, not to mention the whole planet. So until next time, this is Dr Ron Ehrlich. Be well.


This podcast provides general information and discussion about medicine, health, and related subjects. The content is not intended and should not be construed as medical advice or as a substitute for care by a qualified medical practitioner. If you or any other person has a medical concern, he or she should consult with an appropriately qualified medical practitioner. Guests who speak in this podcast express their own opinions, experiences, and conclusions.