Distant Voices Still Live, Warn and Inspire

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Issue 300
January/February 2017
A Plea for Empathy

Reviews

Distant Voices Still Live, Warn and Inspire
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Cover: Artwork by Melvyn Evans www.melvynevans.com

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Stephanie Mills welcomes a new edition of a classic investigation. Ancient Futures by Helena Norberg-Hodge. Local Futures, 2016. ISBN: 9780692530627

Many a brilliant visitor came to the Sausalito, California offices of the Whole Earth Catalog where I worked in the late 1970s. The day Helena Norberg-Hodge arrived to narrate a slide show on her work in Ladakh was, though, most memorable. Ladakh, northwest of Tibet, was then one of the world’s last virtually intact subsistence economies. Norberg-Hodge, the first Westerner to become fluent in its language, brought captivating images and accounts of Ladakhi life. She spoke of the manual and animal cultivation of grains in comely irrigated fields, the summertime grazing of hardy invaluable cows, dzo, goats, sheep and yaks in high montane meadows, of the multigenerational households, the winter ceremonies and festivals, of polyandry and monastic celibacy and the finely tuned structure of land tenure that helped keep Ladakh’s population proportionate to its affordances.

This was far more than an ethnography or an exotic travelogue. Norberg-Hodge had encountered a venerable, predominantly Buddhist society where ostensibly rugged, yet highly evolved ways and means promoted everyday lives of joy and balance. Ladakh’s culture was already beginning to fray from the incursions of the globalised industrial economy, tourism among them. In 1975, when Norberg-Hodge arrived in that remote, austerely gorgeous country and was welcomed into its villages and households, the cooperation, equanimity and good humour that pervaded life there fundamentally challenged her assumptions about human nature.

Since then, Norberg-Hodge, her husband John Page, and their astute, courageous (and nowadays influential) Ladakhi colleagues have mounted strategic efforts to mitigate the ill effects of modernisation and globalisation. Appropriate self-help technology installations have made modest but genuine improvements in the quality of life in seemingly timeless vernacular dwellings. Inventive cross-cultural communication has helped counter the disparagement of “backward” agrarian life, and illuminate the adversities of consumerism and the monetised economy that rode juggernaut-like over the mountain passes.

First published in 1991 and just reissued, Ancient Futures is Norberg-Hodge’s heartfelt memoir of the society she met at a cusp, her systemic analysis of the relentless disturbance of its historic equilibrium, and programmes to temper the changes. For a quarter of a century the book has been a touchstone for advocates of decentralisation and relocalisation. With a foreword by the Dalai Lama, an afterword by the late Peter Matthiessen, and Norberg-Hodge’s new preface – a compassionate, clarion call to resist and relocalise – it’s a book to keep at hand for personal inspiration and robust arguments for agrarianism and subsistence economics.

Norberg-Hodge has sounded early, persistent warnings about the homogenising and ultimately destructive effects of world trade and megatechnology. The alternatives to globalisation, learnt from Ladakh and subsequent journeys, are not hypothetical, not utopian, nor outside of fundamental human capability, but can and will entail, as she puts it, “a rediscovery of values that have existed for thousands of years – values that recognize our place in the natural order, our indissoluble connection to one another and to the earth”.

Rereading Ancient Futures redoubled my admiration for its author. Although the parallels are not exact, I found myself thinking also of Peter Kropotkin. Both passionate and rigorous, they brought home revelatory observations from remote and difficult terrains. Ancient Futures, with its profound insight into the beauty and merit of the self-reliant, ecologically adapted way of life Norberg-Hodge beheld in Ladakh, and Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, with its eloquent testimony of myriad forms of cooperation throughout Nature, challenge the fundamental dogmas of progress. Both offer hope for humanity’s possible transition from a doomed and dooming global monoculture to reasserting naturally diverse ways of life that are simple in means and rich in ends.

Stephanie Mills is the author of Epicurean Simplicity and On Gandhi’s Path, a biography of Robert Swann. She lives in the Great Lakes Bioregion.

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