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Time for a new localism, says Norberg-Hodge

First published 2007 by Russ Grayson.

“See education as activism”, she says. “Set up social and learning circles. Have groups of 10 to 15 people who like each other’s company and discuss issues and do things together…

HELENA NORBERG-HODGE has a message. It is a message of concern about the way the world is going. It is a message that a better future would flow from renewed economic and cultural activity at the local level – a new localism.

Now a resident of Byron Bay on NSW’s subtropical North Coast, Helena is a slim 59-year old of Swedish/German/English extraction whose long, blonde hair enfolds a suntanned face. When she stands up to address an audience, they listen. Her 30 years of campaigning, writing and activism on local food, international development and economic issues has brought her an authority that demands attention.

Helens Norberg-Hodge at the annual conference of the Australian City Farms & Community Gardens Network
Helens Norberg-Hodge at the annual conference of the Australian City Farms & Community Gardens Network

Her message is that pessimism about the state of the world is misplaced if we take simple steps to rebuild local economies and local cultural and food systems.

Addressing an audience in the Byron Bay Community Centre recently, Helena apologised for having such a long and difficult name. Watching her in action was reminiscent of the early seminars of Bill Mollison, co-developer of the Permaculture design system.

But Helena is no female Mollison. Her approach is softer than Bill’s and, unlike Bill, she does not confront an audience but relies on the force of fact and persuasion. Helena bases much of what she says on her experience in the Ladakh Project, on establishing local food systems in the UK and on the role of the International Society for Environment and Culture (ISEC), the organization she set up through which to carry out her work.

Coming awake in Ladakh

Helena was awakened to the values of local economic development when she spent time in the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Ladakh.

“Nothing prepared me for what I would find in Ladakh… I was completely amazed. Here was an independent culture free of influence from Europe for hundreds of years. There was a high standard of living and people had big houses. Women had high status. People looked so well and had a relaxed sense of self… they were tolerant, did not feel threatened and were not easily upset”.

That was nearly 30 years ago. Ladakh changed when India, which has political responsibility for the country, opened it to tourism and development. Through ISEC’s Ladakh Project, Helena assisted Ladakhis navigate the tide of change that inundated them. The story is documented in her first book, Ancient Futures (1991; Random House, London).

“Ladakhi people were happier than us”, said Helena, “but Ladakh changed. It is a good case study to help us understand why we are unhappy in the West”.

Seeking solutions

Helena tells the audience what they already know… that modern life has changed… it is hurried… they have less time now… probably work longer hours and, perhaps, earn less money than before. There is little time for family, community or personal development. This, she says, occurs “ …in proportion to proximity to the global economy”.

inequities of the global economy contribute to the conditions that create fundamentalism and terrorism

“That’s not progress”, she asserts.

It is the increasing competitiveness of global business that brings these pressures into communities where it is individuals who experience them most acutely. Those pressures, plus fears coming from new uncertainties such as the September 11 attacks in the USA and the Bali bombing, drive the trend towards conservatism in Australian society. The inequities of the global economy contribute to the conditions that create fundamentalism and terrorism, Helena believes.

To live calmer, less harried and hurried lives, Helena says we must seek first to understand the structures that make us unhappy and then understand what we can do about it on the personal and community level.

“See education as activism”, she says. “Set up social and learning circles. Have groups of 10 to 15 people who like each other’s company and discuss issues and do things together…”.

“There is a lot we can do at the local level”, Helena says. “We can start to rebuild local, live culture. We can start to localise”

One of roles of the learning circles might be to examine the ways in which governments subsidise food products from overseas or interstate, so they can be shipped thousands of kilometres to appear on the shelves of local stores at prices below that of local products. Subsidies of this sort can put local farmers and businesses out of business.

Helena Norberg-Hodge at Randwick City Council's annual Ecoliving Fair
Helena Norberg-Hodge at Randwick City Council’s annual Ecoliving Fair

The new localism

“There is a lot we can do at the local level”, Helena says. “We can start to rebuild local, live culture. We can start to localise”.

Cultural and economic localisation fly in the face of global trends, but they are the keys to a renewed prosperity and to local security at a time of increasing oil prices and scarcity, Helena suggests.

“We can rebuild local community, encourage local creativity such as music… music without the ‘stars’. The thing is to increase local economic activity, to become more economically literate. A part of this is rebuilding the local food economy. We need to build cooperation between producers and consumers… to look at what happens from seed to table, in marketing as well as the growing of food”, she says.

Helena Norberg-Hodge makes a point
Helena Norberg-Hodge makes a point

Farmer’s markets, local food, local music, local culture – it starts to sound like a re-creation of the past. It is anything but.

Australia’s growing number of farmers’ markets are an example of Helena’s ideas about developing local economies. There were few just a decade ago, now there are many.

“I helped set up the Byron Farmer’s Market”, she says, adding that “ …ideally, farmer’s markets should have equal representation of farmers and consumers to run them”. This does not appear to be the case in Byron Bay where, according to one grower, the weekly farmer’s market is virtually a closed shop to which entry is difficult to achieve.

People receive confusing signals about building local food communities when ‘green’ industries, such as organic farming, strive to gain a foothold in the global food markets, Helena says.

Farmer’s markets, local food, local music, local culture – it starts to sound like a re-creation of the past. It is anything but. Helena’s new localism is cosmopolitan, not parochial. It is global in outlook but local in action. And it may be the way to insulate our communities against the ravages of economic globalisation.

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