Interviewed by David Barsamian, Boulder, Colorado, November 30, 1992
Helena Norberg-Hodge has examined and critiqued conventional notions of development. A linguist by training, and a native of Sweden, she was educated in Europe and the United States. She first went to Ladakh in northwestern India in 1975. Three years later she founded the Ladakh Project, with the goal of providing Ladakhis with the means to make more informed choices about their own future. Her work has received wide support and recognition. She is Director of the International Society for Ecology and Culture in Berkeley, California. She is the author of Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh.
You write, “Ladakh, or ‘Little Tibet,’ is a wildly beautiful desert land high up in the western Himalayas. It is a place of few resources and an extreme climate. Yet, for more than a thousand years, it has been home to a thriving culture. Traditions of frugality and cooperation, coupled with an intimate and location-specific knowledge of the environment, enabled the Ladakhis not only to survive, but to prosper. Everyone had enough to eat. Families and communities were strong. The status of women was high. Then came development.” It sounds so evil. What’s the problem?
The problem is that development has to be understood as a broad, systemic process whereby it is believed that we raise the standard of living and improve life on earth. In the West we have a view of development as being progress. Subconsciously it means that we’re removing ourselves from nature. There’s a linear path taking us to outer space. I’ve seen that development, as it is introduced into a nature based, ancient culture like this Tibetan culture, which is what Ladakh is, does literally tear people apart from their own ecosystem and their own resources. It lifts them up into an urban lifestyle far removed from their own resources. It could be a nice idea, if it worked. Perhaps people would prefer to live in an urban setting, completely removed from the natural world. But the fact is that it doesn’t work. This model of development was rooted in the West. It’s profoundly eurocentric. If we look at our historical development, when we started on this experiment of removing ourselves from our connection with the natural world, perpetually urbanizing ourselves, our populations exploded as a consequence. But we had the whole world to conquer. We sent our peoples out across the world, from Australia to South America as the populations exploded. At the same time we set in motion an economic system in which resources were coming our way and in which we were either forcing or educating people around the world to grow cash crops for us. This whole model is what is being exported in the name of development to the so-called Third World. They don’t have any colonies, anywhere to spread themselves to when their populations explode. The whole process is directly responsible for both the exploding population as well as the perpetual urbanization, lifting people away from the land into ever larger urban centers. So that Mexico City, Jakarta, Calcutta are a direct consequence of policies of planned change. I think we’d better hurry up and change those plans if we want to survive.
Do you see urbanization and development ipso facto negative?
I don’t see them in theory as negative. What I see is that the actual fact, what is actually happening, is absolutely destructive. It tears down communities and natural systems and robs people of self-esteem. I’ve seen the psychological as well as the social and environmental costs of this type of urbanization and development. I know that it cannot be sustained, neither can the biological systems. We need to understand that the process is reducing biological diversity as we speak. Inherent in this process is a destruction of biological diversity. Species are literally disappearing as we speak. We cannot live without that biodiversity. It’s not so much a question of preference as of survival.
You focus extensively on Ladakh and your many years in residence there as a kind of paradigm. I’m wondering if it’s not kind of artificial. Here’s a very small, isolated land high up in the Himalayas, never colonized, a small population, 100,000 people, mostly Buddhist, fairly homogeneous. How can you extrapolate from that onto the rest of the world?
In my book and in my lectures I talk about Ladakh, and yet it really is about development. This development process is monocultural. It’s inherently eurocentric. It is everywhere the same. What Ladakh provides is a baseline, something other, with which to compare the product of development. So in fact, what I’m writing about is the process of development which I have observed over eighteen years. I’ve seen the impact of development on male and female roles, on society and on human beings and also on natural systems. What Ladakh provides, because it’s so remote and because it wasn’t affected by colonialism, is a baseline, something that has not been affected by the process of development. It is very important that we realize that we have to go back to pre-colonialism to understand development. Colonialism is part and parcel of a process which then was later on called development. What it has been doing is pumping resources to the West, away from the so-called Third World.
There is a lot of discussion about human nature and what it is. You say that development is the root cause of environmental and social evils, not human nature. Who’s ascribing the root cause of these problems to human nature?
I think that the vast majority of people today are doing that. It’s coming from many different directions, even from many religions, even Buddhism, to some extent, although Christianity is more guilty of having perpetuated this sense of original sin. But even in Buddhism greed and ignorance are seen as part of the human condition. The majority of people on earth today tend, consciously or unconsciously, to blame innate human greed and even innate human aggression as they see violence around them and the growing consumerism. What I’ve seen in Ladakh has shown me very clearly that we cannot generalize in that way. I suppose I can’t either generalize and claim that everybody was like the Ladakhis, but I do know that some people on this earth were not guilty of the same sort of greed and aggression that we find everywhere in the world where development has come. What I saw and lived for many years in Ladakh were the people. It was a fact that you had a majority of Buddhists living side by side with a minority of Muslims for five hundred years without ever engaging in any group conflict. Fifteen years after development arrived, they were literally ready to murder one another and engage in bloody conflict. I observed, year by year, the changes that led to that. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that this broad process, which we must understand very broadly to see what’s happening, and narrowly focused experts simply cannot make the sort of connections that I’m doing. I see the same thing in Bhutan, which is another little Himalayan kingdom where Hindus and Buddhists have lived peacefully for centuries. Again, after only a few decades of development, they’re engaged in bloody conflict.
And you attribute that directly to development and consumerism?
Absolutely. But we should probably look more closely at what we, or I, mean by development. We have to realize that it’s a fundamental change in world view away from one in which human life is seen as part of the natural world, part of a web of relationships, towards a world view which assumes that human life is separate from the natural world and also in a position to control and manipulate it to suit our own ends. On another level, it’s a combination of science, technology and an economic paradigm which operate together to transform society. The assumption is that it’s improving our quality of life and so-called “raising the standard of living.”
That’s the given.
Yes. And when one looks, as I do, at a society like the Ladakhi one–and I should add that it isn’t just in Ladakh. I’ve lived in many different European cultures. I’ve seen Austria, for instance, where I studied twenty five years ago in a little town called Innsbruck, which at that time was a very lovely town or city in balance with its surrounding environment: human-scale architecture, the air was clean, the mountains around were beautiful. That town now has sprawling suburbs, concrete boxes spreading into the valley. It’s completely covered by a cloud of pollution from the increasing traffic. The environmental and social problems there are dramatically greater than what they were twenty five years ago. In addition, at the same time, the local economy there, just as in Ladakh, has been destroyed by development. It’s almost impossible to find locally produced goods of any kind. What you find instead is a sort of supermarket economy of goods from all over the world, mass produced. Because they have to come from very far away, you have everything with double and triple wrappings, which of course greatly increases the problem with waste and rubbish. I’ve seen this process at different levels in other cultures. I grew up in Sweden, which is the socialist variant of industrialization, and there, too, the problems are the same. And they’re increasing very rapidly. Even the health care system is about to collapse in Sweden. The economy there, as everywhere else, is bankrupt. It is high time that we rethink, look at these unconscious assumptions that we’re making about progress. It’s a question of redefining progress.
How does the collapsing Swedish health care system connect with development?
Directly. I should add that when we call it development, we tend to be thinking about the Third World. We tend to be aware that it’s a product of planned change. But what’s very sad is that the same process is continuing in the North or the developed world, but there we call it progress. We treat it like some sort of evolutionary force beyond our control, that has nothing to do with us. We’re not aware of the fact that our taxpayers’ money is going towards developing us, and that development of us means forever more capital, energy intensive technologies, forever more and more specialization in terms of our educational system. That is supposed to be helping us to understand the world around us. But specialization has grown so narrow and so fragmented that no one is aware of the overall impact of what we’re doing. In health care we’re talking about the combination of specialization and ever more centralizing capital and energy intensive technologies. We’re creating more and more high tech, centralized medical care. It’s very complex. The centralization is both in terms of knowledge and power but also a physical centralization pulling people into ever larger urban centers. That means that the G.P. doctor who was in the small town or village is no longer there. More and more for your health care you have to go to a superspecialist in a large urban center, a very large hospital. The dehumanization and the loss of real knowledge of how the whole body operates, how the psyche, psychological influence cannot be separated from physical functions, all of that is lost. Human beings come to be seen as a machine. The quality of health care is going down, while our ability to manipulate particular organs and perform magic, high tech surgery is increasing. In terms of overall health the quality of care is going down. All the time it becomes more and more expensive and more and more difficult to provide health care to the vast majority of people.
You’re very critical of modern education. You write that “it not only ignores local resources, but worse still, makes Ladakhi children think of themselves and their culture as inferior. They are robbed of their self-esteem.” How does modern education rob Ladakhi children of their self-esteem?
On many different levels. We need to keep in mind that this is true everywhere, and it is a good example of why I’m saying that it is appropriate and relevant around the world. Just recently I overheard a Ladakhi teacher saying to her Ladakhi students, “Our best poet is Wordsworth. Now let’s read some Somerset Maugham.” The same thing is happening in Bali, Africa, South America. The fact is that Wordsworth is not their poet. The distance between this English poet and Ladakh or Bhutan or Bali buries their own history and heritage. It’s become so shameful that it isn’t even visible. It’s making their heritage and their resources invisible. It also robs them of self-esteem. Everything that they represent–and this is particularly true of earth-based or indigenous culture–is seen as primitive and backward. It inevitably is within this spectrum that we have created of progress, meaning away from nature, away from spontaneity, away from the uniqueness of individuals, of a particular culture and place. All the time towards a type of monocultural standardization which is inherently eurocentric. Interestingly enough, it isn’t just education itself, that is the schooling. At the same time the media operate to produce the same impact. Your sense of identity is being formed by stereotyped, very distant media images. All around the world they are literally Barbie doll and Rambo for little children. That Barbie doll bears no resemblance to who I am as a Ladakhi. Barbie doll is not who anybody is. So these distanced models are destructive for everybody, even in the West. No one can live up to those models. Anorexia and bulimia and a whole range of very serious disorders are directly related to this. So this alienation, trying to remove you into another culture that is completely alien to who you are, creates a deep sense of self rejection and loss of self-worth and self-esteem. It’s just heartbreaking to watch it.
In addition, the way that Western education robs people of self esteem is that this whole process is so alien that most students fail. When I say most, I mean ninety-eight percent fail. That means that overnight, when you introduce this Western schooling, you’re turning whole cultures, whole peoples, into failures. The sense is that you are stupid, inadequate, backward. I have people in the villages in Ladakh now saying that they’re like “asses,” a Ladakhi expression that says you’re really stupid, because they don’t speak English. The whole world is being made to feel inferior if they don’t speak perfect English.
In the traditional industrial society view of nature, it is viewed as something wild and savage that needs to be tamed. Its energies need to be harnessed and controlled. Does the Ladakhi/Buddhist world view encompass that?
Certainly not in the Western way. There’s an element of that, but it’s all the time tempered by a sense of interdependence. The most important and essential message of Buddhism is interdependency, the inextricable interconnectedness of everything in the universe. The reminder to people is that nothing has an absolute separate existence. That even means this I, this ego, is not a separate static entity.
What are the implications of that?
The implications are profound. It’s the single most important message. The implications are that your whole relationship to the universe changes. You feel a type of union and communion with the rest of life and with others. I would go so far as to say that I think that our human nature needs that sense of interconnectedness, that it’s deep within us, and that it’s the only way to happiness and even the only way to real love and compassion for others. The reminder in Buddhism and many spiritual traditions is the need to love and to cherish others as you love and cherish yourself. I think the implications of a world view based on this inextricable interconnectedness and interdependence contrasts starkly with the Western industrial world view that we can see rising with our industrialization, which has continued to emphasize the separate nature of reality, which in a certain way also is there. The Buddhist emphasis on interdependence is not saying that everything is one, in the sense of being one and the same, but is reminding us of this interdependence which is not always immediately obvious to the senses.
You contend that a “feminization” is required. What does that mean?
It means that there’s a lot of evidence–and I’m becoming increasingly aware of it–that women feel that sense of connection more strongly than men do. That inherent even in their biological ability to bear children is that sense of union with others. My observations in Ladakh, and not just in Ladakh but all around the world, also, lead me to conclude that women’s sense of connection with the earth is also deeper and more fundamental. There has been a lot written about this in recent years in ecofeminist literature.
You say that “women emphasize and experience relationship as more important than men do.” How do you measure that?
It is difficult to measure, but on a very basic level, for instance, if you reflect on your own experience, and that’s another thing that’s a very important ingredient in all this, to respect experiential knowledge, is it not more often the mother and sister and aunt, basically the females, who even are aware of relationships even in terms of relatives? Remembering their names, their birthdays, what they are up to, being more aware of and concerned with other people and their emotions and lives, being more involved and feeling more connected to them. But I would go further than that. I think that there’s evidence, and there have been some studies by Carol Gilligan. There has also been a book by Deborah Tannen, You Just Don’t Understand. These studies show essentially a different way of being, a different way of seeing the world. So that remembering people’s birthdays and being concerned with them is on one level. I would go further than that and say that even in terms of the way our brains function there are differences. Some of these, it turns out, may well be biological. It gets very tricky here. People don’t want to hear that. They worry that that’s going to trap men or women into a certain position. But I think it is silly to deny the differences, if they are there. Those differences have to do with a female awareness of a broader spectrum, of context and relationships, than men. The male ability is one of focusing in in a much more narrow and concentrated way. But the men also have a harder time making the broader connections. Until recently, women have been considered illogical if they’d tried to communicate their experience of these broader connections. If they bring in the relationship between various phenomena or ideas, that’s considered as having nothing to do with the topic that is being discussed at present. I more and more see that this ability to make connections and to broaden out is actually what we need right now. It’s a more ecological way of looking at the world, a gift that we need to value and, generally speaking, traditional culture, certainly in Ladakh, had a dynamic balance between more male and female principles, ways of being, ways of seeing the world. That’s the way it should be. We need both. To a certain extent, we all contain those elements within us. Nevertheless, in males there’s obviously more of an emphasis on one and in females more on the other. It’s tremendously important.
Let’s talk further about the globalization of the world economy. You’re a peasant in Sumatra. You have a large family. You’re living on your land. You grow rice and you’re relatively self-sufficient. Along comes a trader, a merchant of sorts, and says, Look, if you grow coffee, I will quadruple your income and you’ll be able to buy VCRs and get that tractor you want and a car for the kids and a lot of other great material acquisitions. Would you be attracted to that?
I think anyone would, and they would be stupid not to be. Again, the need to broaden out and see things from a social point of view, from a global point of view, what will be the end result if everyone behaves in this way. From the point of view of the individual it would be literally stupid to say, No, I’m not going to have any of this. But from the point of view of policy choices, what we choose both out of concern for our children, but even in terms of what we choose for ourselves a decade or two down the line, that’s a very different issue. There we will see that the present trends in industrial agriculture towards ever greater monoculture is going hand in hand with an increase in transport, so that the globalization of the economy now means that whereas, previously in Sumatra you would have had produce and agriculture producing everything you needed to survive so that all basic needs were being met, you find that industrial agriculture has shifted through all sorts of incentives, including an investment in transport infrastructure, including an investment in very specialized scientific knowledge going hand in hand with the media, which then also comes in with advertising to advertise the new products that you should be buying. The end result is that agriculture everywhere in the world is in crisis. In some cases the yields are significantly higher. But in fact they’re also starting to drop. More significantly, the process of growing food is depleting soil and poisoning the drinking water, in many cases even poisoning the food. So that an understanding of what’s happening in agriculture and how it relates to transport and trade are among the top issues that need to be widely discussed today.
When you see that, if you’re in America, apples or lamb or whatever from New Zealand or Chile outcompete local produce, you really have to stop to think for a minute: How is this possible? How can something that has traveled thousands and thousands of miles be able to compete with local produce? If we were paying the full price for that transport, the full price of fossil fuels, we would have very different agriculture and very different economic interactions. What we would find is that we would be trying everywhere, whether in Colorado or in Sumatra or in Ladakh, to produce as much as we could locally, while importing things that could not be produced locally. So we would have some surplus in certain crops or products. That would make sense, to turn things around so that we produce what we could locally to reduce transport and trade for only those goods which cannot be produced locally. The problem is that as soon as you start talking about this many people think you’re saying that there should be no trade at all, which has never existed. Even in Ladakh there was trade. It was part of human life on earth since the beginning.
To think in terms of balance between trade and local production is going to be the only way of real economic recovery, the only way of preventing an increasing unemployment like we’ve never seen before. If we continue on the present path–the path at the moment of all governments, who are panicking because they almost without exception are bankrupt, and they see globalization as the solution. What they’re doing is sacrificing their own labor force, natural systems, culture, community in this gigantic leap. It’s as though there’s some giant pie floating in the ocean that suddenly going to solve everybody’s problems. It cannot and it will not. This super-globalization can only happen the way it’s conceived now with a super increase in transport, which is going to mean more pollution along with all sorts of other problems. So that is, as far as I’m concerned, the number one issue of the day.
Let’s say you are the CEO of a major multinational corporation. Your job is clearly to maximize profits for your stockholders. What can I tell you that would persuade you to change your economic practices, which are so obviously destructive? It’s not in your interest, and if you pursue those new practices, you’re out of a job.
I could argue that even the CEO might act in a more enlightened way. But I would say that he’s going to be the last one to listen to what I’m saying. However, governments should be listening. It is not in governments’ interest, not of the state nor the vast majority of the citizens. There I hope that one would have an audience. Globalization is already at a level that means that governments are losing power. You cannot centralize economic power without centralizing political power. What we’re doing now is very frightening. We’re handing power over to multinational corporations that are absolutely beyond democratic control. They’re invisible amoeba. They’re forming, in effect, a new type of world government.
What impact do World Bank and IMF policies have on the South?
If you look at where the vast amount of money goes, it goes into this infrastructure. I hate to use such a long, ugly word describing a big and ugly reality at the moment. The present infrastructure is based on ever larger-scale energy installations, a massive world network, Western-style schools, Western-style hospitals and media and mass communications. Those are the basic elements of an infrastructure which these large agencies fund as a priority. What they do with that infrastructure is to totally transform societies around the world in this Western, urban image. It all operates to lift people away from their own resources and from the land, whether they’re local fishermen or nomads or farmers. Above all what we’re talking about is the systematic destruction of the farmer. Remember that this is also being done while we’re speaking. On the other hand, the same powers that be talk about the increase in population and the need for biotechnology to feed everybody. It’s so frightening to me that so few people are talking about this and realizing what’s going on. It’s Orwellian, a terrible manipulation of what’s actually happening. So systematically we destroy the small farmer and pull people into urban centers.
Something we haven’t touched on enough with education was that we talked about how people’s self-esteem is lost, but more important, perhaps, their self-reliance is also destroyed through education. So we put children in schools, whether in Ladakh or Sumatra, and give them a poor imitation of the same education that a child in New York gets. That means that first of all, during your entire schooling, you are robbed of the knowledge of how to survive with your own resources. You’re not taught anything about how to grow barley in Ladakh at 12,000 feet, how to use yaks, how to make houses out of the mud that is available there. Not a word about any of the activities that you need to make yourselves self-reliant. Instead you’re studying Wordsworth, mathematics and Western history. So when you finally graduate from that school you do not know how to survive in your own environment based on your own resources. You do know how to survive as a clerk or a specialist in an urban center, but those jobs are very few and far between. It’s a prescription for unemployment, for larger and larger numbers. Also, interestingly enough, the more education you get, the further away it pulls you from your local resources and environment. So if you’ve just had some schooling, you might still stay on in your region. If you have more education, you’ve got to go to New Delhi. If you have even more education, it’s off to the West. This is the brain drain, which again is a direct consequence of policy and planning.
You’re talking about location-specific knowledge.
I’m talking about the fact that education robs you of that and that previously, in all traditional cultures, you had location-specific knowledge, which means that it was different from place to place. I’ve seen that in a dramatic way in Ladakh, even from one village to the next there were slightly different resources, even in terms of building a house. Different types of mud. In one area you needed to add some straw, in another area you didn’t. This location-specific knowledge was adapted to the living world. It was in a very fundamental way far more efficient than teaching children in Ladakh how to use cement and steel to build their houses, which don’t exist locally and which are now imported over high Himalayan passes, travelling about five days in lorries, using up all that fossil fuel. When it arrives, building buildings which are much less appropriate for the climate and environment.
You echo E.F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful, appropriate technology.
Appropriate technology which is adapted to specific circumstances and places. I do want to say that I’ve seen appropriate technology undermine and essentially destroy, not necessarily by conscious forces. But the people who were promoting appropriate technology were not aware enough of the need to have it be part of an entirely different development model. They just tried to do the technology a bit differently. They didn’t realize that if children are learning how to build houses out of cement and steel, and if they get an engineer’s training they’re learning how to use fossil fuels and high tech, it’s not possible to have appropriate technology fit in that system. So what we are working on in Ladakh is an entirely different development model, where we’re also trying to influence what happens in education at the same time, as we work to develop technologies that are suited to the local conditions. They’re entirely based on renewable energy. We find that there is tremendous potential. It is exciting what can be done. What’s so tragic for me is that so few people understand this and so there is very little going on generally in the world at large. There is very little psychological support for these efforts.
Psychological support where?
Anywhere. What becomes so important is what’s happening in the West. Twenty years ago even in America there were a couple of institutes that were working on appropriate technology. When I could take pictures from what they were doing and show them in Ladakh, it had a real impact and made people feel that this was not something backward and primitive. When they felt that there was real interest and support for this around the world, it helped to support appropriate technology. In the meanwhile, in Ladakh we have managed to do a fair amount. People are beginning to see that it works, it will cost less than the conventional technology. So there is still interest there.
Along with that shift in attitudes, has there been a change in the role of elders in the culture?
The traditional culture was first of all a continuum in which wisdom and experience really counted, the older people had something to teach and it was relevant to the present day. In the modern sector things are changing so rapidly that the old are completely lost. But also what’s happening in the new economy is that you are having a splitting off into nuclear families, and the aged are no longer a part of the family or the community. This separation between generations, this splitting off into the nuclear family is one of the most tragic changes I’ve seen. I think we in the West are so locked into our narrow perspective. We really do tend to think now that the nuclear family in the norm, even though we’re also increasingly realizing that it is becoming dysfunctional. But we’ve come to accept as almost part of the human condition that you spend most of your life trying to get over your relationship to your mother and father. It’s so frightening to see how myopic we are and how everyone from Freud onwards doesn’t look outside of Western industrial culture to understand what’s going on. It’s become very clear that the nuclear family is fundamentally unhealthy. It produces an intense relationship between just one man and one woman which brings with it a prescription for failure.
Because of the competition?
It’s really because you are forcing individuals to derive their sense of connection and nurturing from just one individual. No one individual can bear all that weight. Put another way, if you look at the relationship between mother and child, which also becomes a bipolar relationship, even on the practical level, if the child is ill it’s the mother who has to stay with him for twenty four hours. In an extended family you have ten or twelve people sharing that burden, taking turns, carrying the baby. All the time the child is carried and has that human warmth, and it isn’t just one person, the one mother, who does it. That changes very dramatically her relationship to a child. This broader group, an extended family, and in connection with much closer community links, so that your family, in fact, is several hundred people who know you and whom you know and you feel that your sense of identity is derived from those relationships. This is dramatically different from what has happened under industrialization, where we’ve broken down those community connections. We’ve broken down also the economic interrelationships between those people. We’ve broken down the family to just this tightly knit unit. We have these few individuals who are intensely dependent on each other, and this leads almost inevitably to an intense attachment or guilty rejection. It’s too difficult to cover in this short time. I see us reinforcing ideas and unhappiness in many conscious and unconscious ways which reinforce a sense of isolation. Just recently a friend of mine was saying that she wouldn’t want to move to the same town that her grandchildren lived in because she wouldn’t want to interfere in their lives. These attitudes have become pervasive in our society. A woman is taught, from the moment she gives birth, that she’s going to have to let go, cut off those connections, that it is unhealthy to keep the connections through a lifetime. With the intensity of connections that we have in the nuclear family, that may well be true, but these much broader, healthy connections in community and extended family clearly give rise to a sense of being nurtured and feeling connected to a whole group of people. I want to stress that this does not diminish it. It’s exactly the opposite. The security of those relationships, where you feel unconditionally loved, produces a deep sense of security and self-esteem, which in turn makes you a much more lovable person, makes you much more capable of loving and giving. That is directly connected to a tolerance of differences. What I’ve seen happening now in Ladakh and increasingly in the West is that as people become insecure and lose self-esteem, that’s when their intolerance of differences rises and they lose the capacity to reach out and to love and to experience themselves as part of something larger than themselves.
What are your views on the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, or GATT?
I have very strong views on that. For the last year and a half I’ve been trying to alert people to what’s going on. What is happening is that international trade agreements are being made that will outstrip governments and regional and national regulations that groups have worked on for decades, if not longer, to protect labor, the environment. What’s happening is that GATT is essentially the embodiment of this globalization of trade. It consists in effect of multinational organizations that are trying to reduce any of the existing restrictions on trade. They include tariffs and what’s called “protectionist” measures on the part of nation states to protect their own interests. What’s frightening is that we are seeing major media campaigns that all the time present this as a step towards peace, that this is seen as a way of having countries get along together. What we are being told is that it is primitive of governments to be concerned about the interests of their own people. This is isolationist. It’s very nasty. You should really not be concerned about your own citizens. It’s understandable how people can buy into this. Above all what I see happening is that people in the North, or the industrialized world, think that this is something that’s going to benefit the Third World and that we, by keeping tariffs and protecting our own economy, are hurting the Third World. From my almost twenty years of experience in the Third World, this is absolutely not true. The present pressures towards internationalization of the economy are going to have just the opposite effect. They are as harmful for the vast majority in the Third World as they are also for the vast majority in the North. Essentially what we are talking about is removing any restrictions on corporations to move to where the labor is cheapest. There are advertisements paid for, for instance, by American taxpayers’ money to advertise to corporations the availability of cheap labor in El Salvador, talking about Rosa Martinez, who’s been trained to produce wonderful machine stitched clothing. She does a superb job, she’s very industrious.
And she’ll work for ten dollars a day.
She’ll work for $.33 an hour. One of the big problems is that we really need to have people in the North understand that this is not in Rosa Martinez’s interest to sit as slave labor in a factory in an urban center somewhere producing garments for us. Until we understand that we all need to diversify and strengthen our own economies, so that first of all El Salvador is concerned with producing food for itself rather than being dependent on imports, we’ll continue to think this is development, this is helping the Rosa Martinez’s of the world. It is not. This dependence on imports is also what’s destroying agricultural in the South. You hear when there are famines in Somalia and other parts of Africa, about the problems of distribution. Distribution only becomes a problem once you have pulled people away from a regional, diversified self-reliance in food production. Making food security is the number one issue. That’s what we need to be doing. Then even industrial production should first of all be satisfying the local and regional markets, instead of producing things at low prices for us in the North. So this entire global economy has become extremely exploitative. We can see everywhere over the last few decades that aid in the South has produced debt and famine and worse and worse poverty. We can see that globally, whether it’s in India or Africa or right here, that the gap between the rich and the poor is widening dramatically. The GATT negotiations are going to be a formalization of the global economy, which is going to dramatically increase the gap between rich and poor, dramatically increase the tremendously wasteful transport of goods back and forth across the planet.
The geographical separation of producer and consumer is in nobody’s interest, except the middleman, the multinational corporation. Neither the producer nor the consumer benefits. Bringing them closer together, which in a really traditional situation, like in Ladakh, where producers and consumers are one and the same, where you are so self-reliant that you are producing for yourself. That may not be the most efficient or desirable way of living. It may well be that a certain specialization is desirable. But not to this absurd point that we are bringing it today. We need to get back to understanding these systemic relationships and to think of balance.
Under the present GATT negotiations, if labor unions have struggled to care for labor, including health care and good wages, it’s all going to be undermined.
It’s not just cheap labor. There’s also the issue of the environment. In many of the countries of the South there are few or no environmental protection laws. That would attract capital in the industrialized North to shift to the South not just for the cheap labor, but for the ability to operate without these so-called “constraints.”
And not only that, but it’s going to mean a lowering of environmental regulations in the North itself. The regulations that are being talked of are a lowering to the lowest common denominator. We need to realize that GATT is a global manifestation of this. On regional levels the same thing is going on under NAFTA and the Common Market in Europe. Corporations are trying to squeeze different nations and regions into one economic unit. A good example of how destructive it is is for example in Denmark where environmental groups have worked for a long time to have returnable bottles, not to have all that waste, or the plastic bottles which are so environmentally destructive. But now as part of the EC they had to take it to the court in Brussels. Finally the verdict came down, saying, OK, you can have your returnable bottles. But now you’ve got to return them to Italy and Greece and Spain and England. So by expanding the economic arena in this way, expanding transport, you are vastly increasing waste and terrible dislocations in production. To think that even at the level of the Common Market there’s going to be a group of bureaucrats in Brussels determining agricultural policy is a totally absurd notion. Anyone who’s closer to the land is aware of the differences and the need for being attuned to specific ecosystems. I’ve seen already in Spain the impact of Common Market policies on farmers. Farmers have been growing olives for centuries, and they’re now told to pull their trees up and grow sunflower seeds instead. This control of the market from Brussels, which then means that you get olive oil from Greece in Spain, and you can’t get local olives nor local figs, but you can get cheap Danish butter. What I’ve seen is that this mass production and the transport that it involves again and again destroy the local economy. The way that it operates needs to be studied very thoroughly. Nobody’s doing it right now. Among economists there’s no understanding or willingness to look at this phenomenon.
Noam Chomsky describes these aid programs that are funneled through the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund and other agencies as a system in which the poor in the rich countries give money to the rich in the poor countries.
Exactly. And what we’re doing is creating an elite in the poor countries which then supports the elite in our country. It’s frightening to see how we’re supporting the rich but we also have to remember that these development projects are actually creating the poverty and the wealth, widening the gap between rich and poor. To really understand that process it’s very instructive to go all the way back to the beginning, the baseline, the one that I found in Ladakh. So many of those changes started with colonialism.
You’ve described a litany of problems plaguing Ladakh and the rest of the world. What can people do?
I think the number one thing we should do is to educate ourselves on these issues. We have an office in the U.S., and we’re setting up study groups. If anyone wants to contact us, we will help to do that. “Study groups” is not the right word, they’re more like communities of empowerment, people getting together in groups to look at these issues from the point of view not of themselves as individuals and, What can I do from today to tomorrow? But to look at these issues in a broader, more historical context. It is a different view on history, on progress, understanding progress in terms of our relationship to nature and to others. Once we understand how destructive the present economic paradigm has become and also the very narrow pursuits of an overly specialized science and the highly centralized large-scale technologies that they produce, once we understand these interactions better it’s quite clear what we need to do. It includes things like the emerging links between producers and consumers that are starting to happen in many regions and communities in the world where, for instance, farmers’ markets are being started. I know it sounds strange, but that’s one of the most effective ways in which we can reverse the present trend towards a mass culture and a mass economy where people are so anonymous and also don’t see the impact of their actions. We need to bring things home to a scale where we can see the impact of our actions. It’s not some romantic idealism or unrealistic. In fact, another way to put what I’m saying is simply to lobby for fossil fuels costing the price that they should cost. That would immediately bring with it enormous benefits throughout the entire socioeconomic spectrum. But in order to understand that we have to do a bit of study first. At the moment, most people fear a rise in the price of fossil fuels because we as individuals are so dependent on them. I’m talking about policy changes that would be of benefit to all of us.
How may one contact you?
The name of our organization is the International Society for Ecology and Culture. The address is P.O. Box 9475, Berkeley, CA 94709.