Thursday, March 26, 2009

Ordinary Hero: Helena Norberg-Hodge

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Image copyright L. Kathryn Grace, 2009
All rights reserved

In 1975, a young linguist, Helena Norberg-Hodge, traveled to the tiny Indian state of Ladakh, so far north, and so Buddhist in culture, it is known as Little Tibet. She has returned to Ladakh for six months every year since, living with her friends and teachers, learning their language and assuring it continues to live in both written and spoken form. What she has witnessed in nearly thirty-five years is the near destruction of a self-sustaining, peaceful culture where crime was almost unheard of and the people were so efficient in providing for themselves that they partied during most of the harshest winter months.

To what does Norberg-Hodge attribute this change after more than 500 years of contentment and plenty? Western encroachment. The following film, in three video segments, nicely contrasts the genteel, traditional lifestyle of the Ladakhi with the noise, crime and dirt that symbolize the new, progressive lifestyle imported, along with gasoline and monoculture crops, from the west.

You can learn more of the story in Norberg-Hodge's book, Ancient Futures: Learning from LadakhAmazon page image, which is the inspiration for The Village of Ordinary. Ancient Futures shows us that Ordinary is not merely a vision, but a reality in one of the harshest climes in the world.

Founder of the International Society for Ecology and Culture (ISEC), Norberg-Hodge spends much of her time away from Ladakh promoting ecological, economic and political strategies to save the earth. That last phrase, Strategies to Save the Earth, is also the name of a short videotaped conversation with Doug Tomkins, founder of NorthFace and Esprit. In the film, Norberg-Hodge says:

For about 35 years I've been trying to raise awareness about the way in which the economy--economic development, globalization--lies behind almost all the social and environmental crises we face. ... A lot of issues converge in the same root causes. ... It would be a lot better if we could focus on the need for change and look upon the key levers that could bring the economy in a direction that would support life, support our water systems, the land, and help to rebuild the fabric of society.

That means looking at the way in which deregulating global trade and finance is responsible for most of the social and ecological destruction we see. So we need to be looking at re-regulating finance and trade, and one of the things we can do is start already at the local level to create protected local markets where producers and consumers collaborate to create a new economy that really supports diversity.

Sound familiar? But Norberg-Hodge is hopeful for a better future:

The most important idea is to realize is that we're dealing with a man-made economic system. It's not evolutionary. It's not happening at its own natural progression, that things just get bigger and bigger. In Nature, everything that waxes, also wanes. We're not talking about evolution. We're not talking about something natural. It's very unnatural, made by people, and we can change it. We just need to have the courage to look at the bigger picture, and the courage to realize that we are capable of changing a man-made system.

For her love of the Ladakhi people and their culture,
For her ability to recognize the economic and social genius of the Ladakhi,
For her resolve to work with her Ladakhi friends to preserve their way of life,
For her efforts to bring westerners to Ladakh to work and learn,
For her active promotion and training in shortening the distance from farm to fork through her Local Food Toolkit,
For continuing to speak, write, publish and travel to encourage all of us to make more sustainable, life-enhancing choices,
For her faith in humanity to do the right thing, eventually,
For her perseverance and refusal to give up despite the setbacks life throws at her,
For making the story of the Ladakhi available to us all,

the Ordinary Heroes award is offered with deepest gratitude to Helena Norberg-Hodge.

[Edited for typographical errors on 3/28/09]

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