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THE ECONOMICS OF HAPPINESS AND SUSTAINABILITY
Helena Norberg-Hodge

Helena Norberg-Hodge is Director of the International Society for Ecology and Culture. This speech was given at the "Restore the Earth" conference, Findhorn foundation, April 3, 2002.


I am basically trying to interest people in having more meaningful work at a relaxed pace with adequate remuneration. This is about reducing pollution and poverty at the same time, but unfortunately we have been subjected to many myths for a long time.

Sigmund Freud's nephew Edward Bernays helped shape the advertising industry in the 1930s in order to make people more insecure at the level of their innermost psyche. We've created a system which is so large scale, so specialised that people who contribute to this psychic destruction are often not aware of it. We need to identify the central points at which we must intervene in order to arrest these developments. We have to juggle with the complexity of the problems in the sense that we don't have much time, ecosystems could flip unpredictably, but also bear in mind that nature may have a way of adjusting, it may not be as bad as it seems.

The paradox is that we have to act quickly, but the thing we need to do is to slow down. We need to look at that economy as a system. While there has been a loud demand for interdisciplinary knowledge ever since Silent Spring - when we realised we needed a science which could deal with the interconnections of a complex ecology - at the same time in the industrialised world we realised our fossil-fuel based economy was not sustainable, we knew we needed more renewable, decentralised energy sources. We recognised that as a society 30 years ago, with many books and research programmes at major Universities. What happened to all of that?

I knew some of the people that were involved in undermining that agenda: Limits to Growth sent a shudder through the Board of Shell, but their futures forecaster was asked to come up with a scenario of how to go forward. The problem was not a conscious agenda to change the citizen's agenda, but the very wealthy corporations when they went back to planning, their planning seemed to forget their own shadow, their own need to grow relentlessly, their own role in the future. It's difficult to recognise that your corporations should be shrinking when you're inside the system.

They came up with the idea of sustainable development, which was about reforming the economy to be more sustainable, not about fundamental change. They are now putting more money into green speak than into real change to research the things we need to do. The pharmaceutical companies, for instance, spend almost the same amount on advertising as on researching and developing new drugs. Similarly with aid. The Scandinavian aid agencies changed their rhetoric and moved their funding away from energy and intermediate technology toward poverty alleviation, gradually telling NGOs, like those doing work in Ladakh, that they should not be involved in renewable energy. It's become more and more difficult to get a message out to the general population.

But in the last 3-5 years there has been a radical shift in the message about huge corporations controlling things. There have been some very surprising things getting into the media recently. I think the process of slowing those corporations down has begun. I think looking back we will see Seattle as a landmark, there are more and more speed bumps to their progress.

Remember globalisation is about paving the way for international corporations to move more easily. But at the same time there are more and more restrictions on the ability of local people to protect their economies. Many environmentalists have inadvertently helped bring in regulations that have helped the corporations and hurt small businesses. What happens is that regulations are brought in that destroys the small farmer with just ten chickens; or the small catering business who cannot afford to pay for the stainless steel kitchens - they go out of business. Meanwhile the production of our food is in the hands of ever bigger agribusiness.

If we are aware of this, it is not that difficult to change, but we need this awareness. I can think of no more effective way of reducing our dependence on multinationals than to bring the food economy back home, not just buying locally, but supporting local farmers to create local labels for local food. We need to encourage local restaurants to carry local food; farmers covered markets at least once a week in every city where you can buy food from the region on a daily basis. We need to help farmers who are producing in a really sustainable way, with local committees that can inspect local farms.

With every mile more, that food is moved to get to us, the bigger scale it has to be produced on. The movement of food is linked to size. In that system the big retailers can't cope with diversity, and we end up throwing away lots of food just because it is not the right shape. The way I am suggesting, will help create a market for more diverse types of local food, which increases biodiversity. Big agriculture is not more productive, it is not true and never has been - except measured in terms of labour. We need as rapidly as possible to encourage farmers to localise and diversify.

We also need to look at the diversity of seeds, we need to teach children the joys of cooking together, celebrating food together. Children in modern society are losing contact with the real joy and pleasure of being involved in the whole process of caring for and nurturing the natural world, reawakening their senses through producing food from start to finish. It rebuilds our connection to the natural world, our sense, our place.

At a practical level we are reducing transport. Britain exports roughly as much milk, wheat and butter as it imports. This mad trade of the same goods going back and forth also pertains to live animals and needs to be stopped, and could be stopped immediately without causing dislocation if those products were eaten at home. What we would be talking about is the empowerment of local traders. This is a strategic solution to a lot of problems. It would massively reduce packaging and the need to deal with waste. Food is the only thing we produce which is needed in such large quantities by every human every day. It is so important to start localising.

We can start this internationally - there's a positive wake up going on right now among many organisations. Many environmental NGOs are seeing that the heart of the crisis is the economy. RSPB is now advocating that we buy local, because globalisation is making agriculture ever more destructive. I feel optimistic - this is an idea that has got out of the bottle. No politicians advocating corporate economic growth have put it back in. Their agenda leads to fear and insecurity world wide. For these reasons as well as psychological ones we need to change quickly.

It's not a pie in the sky wish, you can track this change that is going on. It hasn't changed yet in terms of policy, but the growth curve of the ideas has taken off. We need all to become more economically literate and see this information exchange and mutual education as activism. One of the most exciting things that is happening is labour and environment organisations linking hands because they see they have a common agenda in stopping megamergers so they have more secure jobs.

The gap between rich a poor is getting wider all over the world. I am not asking people in the north to make sacrifices on behalf of the third world, but to protect themselves from increasing poverty and the third world from increasing poverty. Let's have a moratorium on international trade, a shift in energy because of global warming, to stop the same things going backward and forward.

People in the third world are being told that we do no work and that we have got this far by being clever with technology, not through tremendous exploitation. We have brought people from the third world on reality tours to the West, and when they see what it's like here they see that our way cannot work for them. Hopefully through that we will jointly be able to invent the third way.

   
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