Local hero wins peace prize

Author and filmmaker Helena Norberg-Hodge at a local farmers market. Photo Jeff Dawson

Local author and filmmaker Helena Norberg-Hodge has just been named the 2012 recipient of the prestigious Tokyo-based Goi Peace Award. She is the first female winner, joining prominent international figures including James Lovelock, Bruce Lipton, Deepak Chopra, Oscar Arias and Bill Gates. The citation refers to Helena’s ‘pioneering work in the new-economy movement to promote a more sustainable and equitable world’. Helena is the producer of the award-winning documentary, The Economics of Happiness, and the author of the bestselling Ancient Futures. Peter Thompson talked to her about the thinking that underlies her work.

Peter Thompson: What does it mean to you to win this prize?

Helena Norberg-Hodge: For me, it’s a sign that economic localisation – which is an amazing win-win solution to so many of our problems – is being taken more seriously. Time is running out… I hope the prize will help to get the message out more loudly and clearly.

PT: What’s so great about localisation?

HNH: It’s the structural path to social and economic stability. Going local doesn’t mean eliminating global trade or going back to the Stone Age. But it’s about shortening the distances between production and consumption to strengthen diversified local and regional economies. And that means reducing the power of giant corporations and banks.

The recent financial crises have made it clear that the centralised system we have today, with its one global market, is unstable and unsustainable. Governments around the world are falling over themselves to subsidise, aid and abet the giant banks and corporations – using taxpayer funds to do so. And now the international credit agencies are effectively telling them that the needs of the banks must come before the needs of the people. The end result is a downward spiral in which smaller businesses, post offices, hospitals – whole towns – are dying. In the process, the vast majority are increasingly impoverished while a tiny minority prospers.

By localising economies, we level the playing field and give smaller businesses, family farms, and other locally based enterprises the chance to flourish. That’s the economic side of the argument. But purely as a matter of ecological survival, localisation is essential. The global economy is all about monoculture – about eliminating difference, whether of nature or of cultures. And monoculture ultimately means death. Localisation is the opposite; it’s about positively celebrating diversity. And that means celebrating life.

PT: I know that you’ve helped to start farmers markets around the world, including here in Byron. Are they really making a difference?

HNH: They are small examples of what we should be doing more broadly at the policy level, and their impact is far greater than most people realise. As farmers move away from producing a single product for a central market, they not only increase diversity on the farm but also reduce the need for chemical inputs. What’s more, they are able to increase their profit margins while providing healthier, fresher food at reasonable prices.

Every person in the world needs food every day – and the fresher it is, the healthier it is. Yet we have an economic system that separates us farther and farther from the sources of our food. And if that isn’t bad enough, all the subsidies and other hidden supports for agribusiness (including massive funding for research into pesticides and biotechnology) have the effect of making local products more expensive than products from the other side of the world. I’ve seen this from Mongolia to India, from Spain to Australia.

This has nothing to do with efficiency; larger factory farms are not more productive. In fact, studies have demonstrated that small-scale, diversified farms have a higher total output per unit of land than large-scale monocultures.

PT: Wouldn’t there be victims in the transition to a localised economy? So many people rely for their living on the system as it exists.

HNH: But there are millions of victims right now. And continuing along the current path would create far more victims. Right now, even the middle classes in the industrialised world are being marginalised. The path I’m advocating means more jobs and more meaningful work. The majority – the 99 per cent – would be better off.

PT: Do you seriously think that the system can be turned around?

HNH: I’m convinced that it can and must. To continue in the present direction is simply not an option. It is ecologically, socially and even economically suicidal. We simply have to change direction. And the sooner we start the process, the better. The fundamental challenge is to change the way we think in the face of relentless corporate misinformation. However crowded the planet, however entrenched the global economy, however big the challenge – we have no alternative.

And localisation is already happening. Last year alone, the number of farmers markets in the US jumped 17 per cent to more than 7,000, while local business alliances have formed in more than 130 cities and now count some 30,000 businesses as members. On 1 July, the New York Times quoted a former Microsoft manager saying, ‘The future is local’. When it’s in the New York Times, you know it’s arrived!

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