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Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh.

In 1975, Helena Norberg-Hodge, a gifted Swedish linguist, visited the northern tip of India, an area on the Himalayan plateau called Ladakh, to learn the unwritten language and collect folk tales. But she soon found much more - a traditional village culture that wasn't explained by Adam Smith's economics or Sigmund Freud's psychology, theories that Norberg-Hodge, a member of "homo industrialis" had assumed applied to "all the Earth's people." Instead, she found a model of sustainability, the great buzzword of contemporary environmentalism, that she hopes will be a model for us all.

Ladakh lies in the Himalayan rainshadow, catching only four inches of rain a year while enduring eight months of winter, a recipe for a barren landscape that she nonetheless finds beautiful in her book, Ancient Futures: Learning From Ladakh: "In every direction are mountains, a vast plateau of crests in warm and varied tones from rust to pale green. Above, snowy peaks reach toward a still, blue sky; below, sheer walls of wine red scree fall to stark lunar valleys." Yet people have prospered for centuries in farming villages "set like emeralds in a vast elephant-skin desert." They irrigate their terraced fields with networks of tiny brooks fed by melting glaciers. They have learned to make the most of their stark surroundings by literally throwing nothing away and using almost everything at hand. "Virtually all the plants shrubs, and bushes that grown wild, either around the edges of irrigated land or in the mountains - what we could call |weeds' - are gathered and serve some useful purpose," she writes. Meanwhile, animal dung heats the homes, and human dung fertilizes the fields.

Western economists might attribute such thrift to poverty, since the Ladakhis live with almost no money, but Norberg-Hodge looks to their Buddhism instead. It's a faith that sounds much like the laws of ecology with its emphasis on the holistic nature of reality. Statues shaped like giant chess pawns called "chortens" appear in each village. "A crescent moon cradling the sun at the very top symbolizes the oneness of life, the cessation of duality, thus reminding passers-by that all things, even the sun and moon, which seem so far apart, are inxertricaby related," she writes. But even more appealing to her than the ecological balance in the villages is the emotional balance in the people. The women especially seem different. "One of the first things that struck me on my arrival in Ladakh was the wide uninhibited smiles of the women, who moved about freely, joking and speaking with men in an open and unselfconscious way," she writes. "Women generally exhibit great self-confidence, strength of character, and dignity."

In a new hour-long documentary film, also called Ancient Futures, the golden-faced Ladakhis steal the show. They sing to accompany each task on the farm, mix freely among family and friends, and actually spend much of their eight-month winters celebrating at wedding and religious festivals. "The most important lesson of Ladakh is that people need to feel connected, a realtionship with the place they live, the Earth under their feet," Norberg-Hodge says in the film. "And they also need to feel of a community a firm sense of identity they get through long-term relationships with other people."

But the future of Ladakh may not be its pasts. In 1974, Western tourist arrived, photographing Ladakhis almost as an exotic species, spending $200 in a day, an annual income to the local people. Suddenly the Ladakhi's frugality seemed like poverty. Norberg-Hodge recalls her first visit to a beautiful village. "I asked a young man to show me the poorest house. He thought about it for a bit and said, |We don't have any poor houses,'" she says in the film. "The same person, I heard him eight years later say to a tourist, |Oh, if only you could help Ladakh. We're so poor.'" About 70 percent of the 130,000 who live in Ladakh still live in traditional villages, but the capital city of Leh has been transformed. Once a small town with two paved streets and cow jams downtown, Leh survived on the natural wealth of nearby farms. But now the film shows fresh asphalt highways and diesel trucks groaning over the Himalayan passes polluting the thin air to deliver cheap government-subsidized grain. Leh has become an outpost in the global economy, complete with rubbish dumps, bazaars full of sneakers and watches, and food shortage when the passes close with snow. The self-sufficiency so important to Ladakhi culture has been undercut by economic powers beyond their control.

"The one thing you should learn from Ladakh is the value of the local - the local economy, the local community," Norberg-Hodge says in the film. "Around the world, the trend is in exactly the opposite direction. Everywhere the push is toward larger markets, larger societies. The globalization of the economy is making it impossible for the small shopkeeper or the small farmer to compete."

The film ends too patly with some words about the dysfunctional style of modern civilization and an MTV collage of urban glass towrs baking in a pollution haze, suburban houses lined up to the horizon and our own Buddhist symbol, the highway cloverleaf. But the book turns to the debate over intrnational development. "I am covinced that the Ladakhis could raise their standard of living without sacrificing the sort of social and ecological balance that they have enjoyed for centuries," Norberg-Hodge writes. "To do so, however, they would need to buid on their own ancient foundations rather than tearing them down, as is the way of conventional development" She now runs a small "counter-development" effort, the International Society for Ecology and Culture, with offices in California, England and Leh. It promots small-scale technologies like solar ovens, greenhouses and hydraulic water pumps that won't overwhelm Ladakhi life. And It teaches them not to be ashamed of their traditional way of life. In a drama performed in the villages, one character says, "In America, the most modern people eat something they call stone-ground wholemeal bread. It's just like our traditional bread, but there it's much more expensive than white bread." He adds that sophisticated Americans prefer fine wood homes and "pure wool" clothes, much like Ladahkis.

Back in Sweden, Norberg-Hodge finds the lessons of Ladakh taking hold in the rapid spread of "eco-villages": "Two hundred are already planned, all of them based on renewable energy and the recycling of waste." But the real lesson of Ladakh lies in taking a deeper look at our idea of progress. Norberg-Hodge refers to a nearby Himalayan country, Bhutan, which is like Ladakh. "People provide their own basic needs, and still have beautiful art and music, and significantly more time of family, friends and leisure activities than people in the West. Yet the World Bank describes Bhutan as one of the poorest countries in the world." With a GNP of zero, Bhutan looks no different on the charts than the homeless shelters of New York City. "As the king of Bhutan puts it, the true indication of a society's well-being is not gross national product, but |gross national happiness.'"
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Author:Nixon, Will
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Feb 1, 1994
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