What The Happiness Balance Sheet Looks Like

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Sun-drenched images of rural life in Ladakh in the 1970s where Himalayan villagers in traditional clothing sow and winnow before sharing joyous meals with their extended families are all very evocative. But what relevance can this view of life in an exotic locale during a much earlier era possibly have for our highly urbanised modern world? A great deal, according to Helena Norberg-Hodge, whose documentary The Economics of Happiness, has been showing around Australia.

Norberg-Hodge knows lots about the remote region of Ladakh, or Little Tibet, as it is also known. She first went there in 1975, and during the intervening years as the country has been opened up to development she has witnessed it deteriorate from a place where the sense of community was highly prized, where homelessness was virtually unknown and people saw themselves as particularly fortunate to a case study in inflation, pollution, alienation, racial tension, poverty and lost identity. Norberg-Hodge’s classic book Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh, published in 1991 and translated into 40 languages, outlined this transition. And 20 years on as the world simultaneously faces "an environmental crisis, an economic crisis and a crisis of the human spirit" the Ladakh experience is just as relevant as ever, according to the filmmaker.

Usually the world of finance and the search for happiness are seen as quite different spheres of human activity. But as the film title suggests, Norberg-Hodge contends that the economy and the human spirit are intimately linked and a single unified strategy is necessary to ameliorate them both. Vandana Shiva, Bill McKibben, David Korten, Michael Shuman, Juliet Schor, Richard Heinberg, Rob Hopkins, Andrew Simms, Zac Goldsmith and Samdhong Rinpoche, who also all feature in the film, share Norberg-Hodge’s view that nothing less than a total revamping of our current global economic paradigm is required.

These social commentators and activists pull no punches; they are unequivocal in their contention that globalisation is the root of the world’s current problems. "People often think of globalisation as something that brings us all closer together — through faster communications, easier travel, and so on," Norberg-Hodge told New Matilda. "But at its core, it’s an economic process. It’s about deregulation, and that means freeing up big banks and big businesses to enter local markets worldwide. The focus is on profit, not people. That doesn’t bring us together. On the contrary, it’s leading to increased competition and division."

By means of compelling footage and input from experts juxtaposed with the views of ordinary people from all around the world, the film builds a strong case for the destructive nature of globalisation at the personal, national and international levels. For example, at a personal level, brainwashing by advertisers, which glamorises the lives of a minority in the West, promotes feelings of inadequacy in everyone else, with the result that many people pursue unattainable material goals and amass debt — which further fuels depression. And at the global level the movement of the dispossessed from small farms that have been taken over or made unworkable by big business to the cities, where unemployment is rife and living conditions appalling is a huge and rapidly-growing problem.

A strength of the film is that it grapples with some of the key arguments advanced by the proponents of the necessity and indeed inevitability of globalisation. The high-profile Indian environmentalist, Vandana Shiva, has this to say in response to the popular notion that access to Western markets is a boon for poorer countries:

"We have limited resources. There’s limited land, there’s limited water, there’s limited energy. And if we have to use that land and water and energy to produce one extra lettuce head for a British household, we can be sure we are robbing Indian peasants of their rice and their wheat. We are robbing India of her water. We are in fact creating a situation where we are exporting to the Third World and the South famine and drought."

A group of Indian beggars poignantly echo her in the film. "All we want is our land! Give us some land and we’ll work hard to make something, to make a life."

So if globalisation is the problem, what is the solution?

In a word, localisation.

From San Francisco, where all the food for public facilities — hospitals, schools, even prisons — is now sourced locally, to places as far apart as Ogawamachi in Japan and Lewes in England, where each town’s own currency can be used to buy goods and services from local providers, more and more people are appreciating the benefits of keeping money at home. One single organisation, Via Campesina, a powerful advocate for food security, now boasts 400 million small farmers worldwide.

Community gardens, farmers’ markets, community supported agriculture, Slow Food, food swaps, the 100-Mile Diet movement, transition towns, ecovillages, goods exchanges, trash recycling — local initiatives are burgeoning. The documentary is full of examples of local innovations and highlights the numerous benefits they bring to individuals. A research finding that struck me, in a world where loneliness and social isolation are such grave problems, was that the average shopper at farmers’ markets has 10 times as many conversations as the average shopper at supermarkets.

The Economics of Happiness is particularly successful in making a clear link between the personal rewards of going local and its economic benefits for the wider community.

"Localisation is a systemic, far-reaching alternative to corporate capitalism," Norberg-Hodge says. "Fundamentally, it’s about reducing the scale of economic activity. That doesn’t mean eliminating international trade or striving for some kind of absolute self-reliance; it’s simply about creating more accountable and more sustainable economies by producing what we need closer to home."

Yet what I felt the film did not address sufficiently was the crucial question of how to sell this notion of localisation to governments and big business increasingly hell bent on economic growth at any price. When I interviewed Helena Norberg-Hodge at her home in northern NSW, she agreed: this is the $64,000 question.

Norberg-Hodge’s hope is that with increased economic literacy the public will realise that further deregulation of trade and finance needs to be resisted, that government readjusting the rules of the game to facilitate foreign trade and investment with concomitant lowering of global environmental standards comes at too great a price. The next step, she told New Matilda, is "to start rolling back the power of the multi-nationals, to insist that business and banking belong to a country and therefore have to abide by its rules." She also believes that if the social and environmental movements could shift their priorities to incorporate a strong economic focus this would inevitably precipitate fundamental political shifts.

Way back in 1972, Ladakh’s neighbour, Bhutan, took a revolutionary step. The then King instituted a GNH (Gross National Happiness) index as the basis for the country’s future planning. The GNH was carefully selected as a measure rather than the usual GDP (Gross Domestic Product), which the Bhutanese believe reflects only one aspect of national development. Like the Bhutanese adherence to treasured principles as the basis for public policy, Ladakh’s tragic transformation under globalisation also offers rich economic and life lessons for others to ponder.

 

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