Helena Norberg-Hodge, who has been working to localize our economies for 40 years, knows that what is leading the civilized world to ruin is our penchant for centralization, pure and simple. Mechanical centralized structures, while efficient and scalable, also tend to expand and control from the top down. In contrast, organic de-centralized networks, while inherently messy and redundant, also interconnect and diversify to the horizon. Which approach is more resilient? Which responds best to the vagaries of climate change? Which one integrates with nature and each other rather than separates and isolates?
Yes. Are you a centralist or a de-centralist? That is the question. And usually, we don’t see it, so preoccupied are we with what type of centralization will work best.
C.J. Polychroniou: Given the global reach of capitalism, under what terms and conditions can local, decentralized economies thrive uninterrupted by the destructive impact of the market-based organization of economic life?
Helena Norberg-Hodge: The key to strengthening local economies is to encourage a rethinking of basic assumptions. Since the dawn of the global capitalist system, we have been encouraged to believe that premodern life was akin to hell on earth. Before my experiences in Ladakh and Bhutan, I myself shared these beliefs. However, as I describe in my book, Ancient Futures: Lessons From Ladakh for a Globalizing World, I was forced to reconsider.
After several years of witnessing firsthand the contrast between the traditional economy, based on land and community, versus the modern economy, based on fossil fuels and technology, it became crystal clear that we are heading in the wrong direction. Of course, we can’t go back to the past, and an economy based on land and community may sound like an impossible dream. However, I’m absolutely convinced that the vast majority of people would agree with our position if they had access to enough information to understand the direction we are heading in.
“Localization rejects the idea of imposing a single economic system.”
Primarily because of ignorance — both at the grassroots and at the top of our power structures — societies are hurtling toward a situation where robots and computerized algorithms determine the value of our seeds, of our water, of our so-called democracy. There is no doubt that we need to shift direction toward a scale that allows for societal oversight. We need to create systems that provide feedback loops, so that we can perceive our technological and economic impact on natural (as well as social) systems.
We are not proposing a return to some localized utopia, where we all live on the land, off the fruit of our own labor. However, we need to find a balance, and the fact is that it is Mother Earth that provides everything that we use in the modern economy. The difference between tradition and modernity is scale, and the ability to see the impact of our actions on others and on nature. The destruction we’re seeing today — environmentally and socially — has to do with the scale of the economy. The deregulation of corporations and banks has created a system that is inhuman in scale, and inherently wasteful and destructive. But as it turns out, breaking down interdependent social structures and distancing populations from the natural resources upon which they depend is the perfect recipe for generating ever more profits for global business.
It’s easy to get caught up in dichotomies of capitalism versus communism or socialism. But these were all top-down, centralized systems that were incapable of respecting biodiversity, cultural diversity and genuine individualism. Localization rejects the idea of imposing a single economic system. Rebuilding local economies is about adapting economic activity to ecological and cultural diversity. Bringing this about will require a global perspective and global collaboration, not isolationism.