Transcript: Helena Norberg-Hodge on The Economics of Happiness at TEDxEQCHCH conference

Helena Norberg-Hodge is founder and director of Local Futures, previously known as the International Society for Ecology and Culture (ISEC). Here is the full transcript of Helena’s TEDx Talk titled ‘The Economics of Happiness’ at TEDxEQCHCH conference.

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Helena Norberg-Hodge – Founder and Director of Local Futures

I am very happy to come after Christie Walk because what I have to say is very similar. As we all know, everything from global warming to the global financial crisis is telling us that we need a fundamental change in society. And I am going to be arguing that for all of us around the world, the highest priority, the most urgent issue is fundamental change to the economy. And from my point of view, the change that we need to make is shifting away from globalizing to localizing economic activity.

Localization is a solution multiplier that offers a systemic, far-reaching alternative to corporate capitalism, as well as communism. It’s a way of dramatically reducing CO2 emissions, energy consumption of all kind, and waste. At the same time, as adapting economic activity, localizing economic activity, can restore biodiversity as well as cultural diversity. It’s a way of creating meaningful and secure jobs for the entire global population, and perhaps the most important of all, because it is about rebuilding the fabric of connection, the fabric of community between people, and between people and their local environment: it’s the economics of happiness.

I first had my eyes open to this, I was forced to see this connection between the economy out there and our inner well being, our happiness, when I was thrown into a situation on the Tibetan Plateau, in Ladakh, called Little Tibet, about 35 years ago. This area had been sealed off from the outside world, and it was suddenly thrown open to the outside world, to the outside economy. And I saw with my own eyes how subsidized food, coming in on subsidized roads, running on subsidized fuel, how that food and other goods brought in from thousands of miles away destroyed the local market. And almost overnight, this led to unemployment, this in turn, led to friction between people who lived peacefully side by side for generations. After a decade, Buddhists and Muslims in Ladakh were literally killing each other.

I also worked in Bhutan between ’84 and ’89, and I saw exactly the same pattern there. There, it was Buddhists and Hindus who were killing each other. So, I became very motivated to try to bring this message out to the rest of the world. I started speaking and writing about it, and in the process, I’ve come in contact with economists, environmentalists, anthropologists, people from every continent who are basically saying the story of our country, of our place is very similar to the story of Ladakh.

What we have seen is that worldwide there is a trend towards a split between government and the interest of their people, and that governments are pursuing an economic model that is simply outdated, that has been carried far too far. It’s a model that says: more trade, more production for export, and more foreign investment. That’s the formula for creating prosperity. This formula is not working.

Why are governments worldwide so impoverished that they have to cut, cut, cut, for our needs while spending billions and trillions for a global infrastructure in transport, trade, and weapons? Why is this happening? From my point of view, it’s fundamentally about that distancing, the globalizing of economic activity. It’s led to what I call a ‘drone economy’. You must have heard about the drones, the unmanned aircraft that are now being manipulated from Las Vegas as people are bombed in Afghanistan. We cannot carry on warfare without ever seeing the people we kill, without hearing the screams, without being there risking our lives. That long distance creates a blindness, a heartlessness, and basically, an impossibility in terms of ethics. It’s very similar to the ability for someone to sit in New York and speculate on the Valley of Wheat and not seeing what is happening to those farmers on the other side of the world.

How can we be ethical, how can we be kind and compassionate when we don’t even see our impact? It is as though our arms have grown so long that we don’t even see what our hands are doing. Whether as a CEO or as a consumer, we really need to open our eyes to what’s happening. And when we do, what we will see is that around the world there is a movement towards localization that is about shortening those distances, and that movement is demonstrating the multiple benefits; the most powerful and the most inspiring and heartening of all is The Local Food Movement, which consists of literally thousands, if not millions of initiatives around the world, from permaculture to edible school gardens to more urban farms to farmer’s markets.

It’s all about shortening distances, and you talk to farmers as I have — because we’ve helped to stimulate and catalyze these initiatives on many continents — and you can talk to farmers that were previously going bankrupt, that were depressed, and as one farmer said to me in Australia, “I’ve been a farmer all my life and I felt like a serf; constant pressure to reduce the cost and to standardize the products,” and he was producing only two things. “Now,” he says, “after we started a farmer’s market, it’s like entering a new galaxy,” and he beams as he says that. He is now producing about 20 different things and he has contact, weekly contact, with the consumers. This shortening of distances is far, far more fundamental than we realize and is absolutely essential in terms of all our basic needs: the need for food, clothing, and shelter.

When we realize that in the modern economy this pressure to produce for export, this pressure to encourage foreign investment, when we realize that this means that worldwide farmers are being pressured to produce more and more standard products, larger and larger monocultures, in the long distances, you can’t say, “Well, you know, today, some of my basil is ready to be harvested, but I’ll have some more tomorrow and I’ll also have some blackcurrants, or some apples, and some milk from my cows.” Impossible. Larger and larger scale monocultures are not only the same product, but the same size. The size that fits the machinery, the harvesting machinery, the machinery that washes, the machinery that loads it onto the supermarket shelves.

In the process, tons of food is being thrown away because it’s not of the right size. But far worse than that, in the process, we are eradicating biodiversity. Not just agricultural biodiversity but wild biodiversity as well. As you shorten the distances, you’re suddenly creating a market where it is in the interest of the farmer and producer to diversify. He can actually make more money and do better if he starts building up a more diversified farm. This is what’s happening. This is what is happening.

As a consequence of the diversification, what we can see is that you can produce more food per unit of land. This is perhaps the most important thing about understanding that if we want to make change to the economy, if we want to make change to the world today, we have got to start looking at food production, at the interface with the natural world which is our real economy, and I’m afraid that I find that most economists are simply ecologically illiterate. They don’t distinguish between growing potatoes and apples, and creating rubber balls or plastic toys.

There is a certain economy of scale when you are producing standard, petrochemical, industrial products, but when it comes to the natural world, the adaptation to the diversity, the nurturing of diversity is how we can get more out of each unit of land. Many studies show ten times more food from small diversified farms provide plenty of jobs. We can see this in traditional systems, and we can see it in the new farmers’ movement, of young people, many of whom have studied architecture, law, medicine, are actually deciding that they prefer farming. As part of the local food movement, they have access to a local market, they are earning a very good salary because when you shorten the distances, we cut out all that waste of the energy, the packaging, the refrigeration, the irradiation, the advertising, and above of all, all those preservatives and waste of making food appear fresh when it isn’t.

When you cut out all of that so called “value added activity”, what you find is an economic system, a free market, where the farmer earns vastly more, and the consumer pays less for fresh, healthy food. In the longest and supermarket economy, generally speaking, the farmer gets 10% of what we pay or less. In the farmer’s market, they get 100%. In the local food co-op, in the local shop, they can get 50%, 60%; 40% significantly more. This is like a magic wand. We are talking here about increasing productivity while reducing the ecological footprint because as you restore diversity, they’re starting to reduce the dependence on imported, expensive, toxic chemicals, and you’re starting to create more space for wild life as well. So, it’s a magical thing that we can increase productivity, and increase profits simultaneously to the farmer.

What I’m saying here applies to fisheries, applies to forestry, applies to the production of our basic primary needs for food, clothing, and shelter. When we adapt to the local climate, to the local area, we are actually going to be increasing prosperity while reducing our ecological impact. This is, as far as I’m concerned, the real elephant in the room, that the global economy with the long distances is responsible for poverty, for a widening gap between rich and poor in every single country. You will not be able to find me a single country, including my native country of Sweden, where the gap between rich and poor isn’t widening in an unacceptable way. You won’t find a single country in the world where people are not more and more frustrated with their governments, swinging back and forth from left to right and beginning to realize that left and right is not the issue; the issue is global versus local.

I want to make it very clear that localization, economic localization, is about a shift in direction, particularly from primary production and basic needs. It’s not about ending international trade, it’s not about some kind of isolationism, where we don’t care about what is going on on the other side of the world. On the contrary today, because of our global problems, we need global collaboration more than ever before. Localization is actually going to come about on a large scale, once we look up and see the bigger picture, and we link up internationally to collaborate, to bring about this transition. It’s beginning to happen.

There’s a worldwide movement that is not just about food, it’s also about business and banking. In the U.S., in the last 18 months, 7,600 credit unions have outperformed the big banks. In the United States, in 130 cities, there are 30,000 small businesses that have linked up into business alliances, local business alliances but many of these are becoming part of a network, like the BALLE network, The Business Alliance for Local Living Economies. The farmer’s markets and the localization movement is also beginning to have some money for research, because it’s become so successful.

One of the things that is being stressed is that in the local economies we are seeing the revitalization of community, the reconnection between people. For instance, studies show that when you shop in the farmer’s market, as compared to a supermarket, you have ten times more conversations with people. These are demonstrations of the fact that small, slow, and local is the way to go, and structurally fundamental to that is the shortening of the distances.

It might seem like a very difficult thing to do, to take on the big captains of industry, but just to remember that in terms of globalizing, the actual initiative to further deregulate global finance and trade, these initiatives have been taken by less than 1% of the global population. One percent is 60 million people. Well, I would estimate from having studied this process for 30 years, that probably less than 10,000 people have been actively promoting globalization. The rest, more than 99% of us, who are not benefiting, have not been looking at this process, have not been aware how fundamental it has been in escalating energy consumption, the breakdown of community, the breakdown of real democracy. So, 99% are being marginalized, the middle classes throughout the world are not benefiting. We’re not getting richer from this. Look at our bank accounts, look at our debt; our national debt, our personal debt. It is really high time that we wake up to this.

So, we have a situation where 99% are being marginalized and even the 1%, from my point of view, are not doing this out of ill-will. There’s not a nasty little group of people you know, in dark boardrooms. It’s not about good guys and bad guys. It’s about structures, it’s about blindness. The drone economy doesn’t let us see what’s going on. The shortening of distances can. And this localization, this shortening of distances is not an abstract ideal, is not some kind of pipe dream. It’s actually happening.

Countless, thousands of initiatives around the world are demonstrating, actually, they are demonstrating the benefits, showing us that’s possible to increase productivity and diversity while reducing energy consumption and waste, increasing, maybe most importantly of all, the deep connections between people at the local level, increasing those connections, and increasing our deeper connection to the natural world. This is the economics of happiness.

Thank you.


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