Reply To: 26.5.2014 Ancient Futures

Author Replies # Posted on May 27, 2014 at 08:36

Reflection, Helena Norberg-Hodge, May 26, by Kristina Berglund

Yesterday’s discussion seminar dealt with Helena Norberg-Hodge’s book “Ancient Futures”, a story about the Ladakh society; how their traditions and ways of living was thoroughly changed by Western tourism and development ideas in the late 20th century. Helena Norberg-Hodge puts forward a convincing case for learning from traditional societies like Ladakh to direct our societies towards a more socially and ecologically resilient economy, going from global to local by shortening distances and steer all aspects of our economies (e.g. food production) towards localization. I find it difficult not to agree with her critique of the ‘Western’ traditional notion of ‘development’ as a one-way, linear progress path, the prevailing economic system with its lack of consideration for social and environmental wellbeing and negative implications of globalization. However, there are also things to be skeptical about, such as her description of the traditional Ladakhi society as somewhat idealized, and her localization strategy as too simplistic. The question is whether her proposed strategies are complex enough and do not fall in to the same imposed development idea that she so heavily criticizes.

The question got in my hand to answer in this reflection was “how important is it as environmental historians to consider societies’ awareness of the environment when doing research”?
This question I think touches on the ‘nature-culture divide’ that we have discussed frequently in the environmental history program. People’s alienation to nature, and maybe also to other people, is in some ways increasing as ‘modern society’ sweeps along. More and more people move to city centers though an ever increasing urbanization, family becomes less important as we become more individualized and career-and-material focused. Technological advances such as internet and various machines makes us ‘closer’ to the global world but it also distance us from it, as our personal encounters and relations decrease. When you can Skype or email you do not need to actually meet people, and I think this is also one of Norberg-Hodge’s points from the book, that modern society in many ways remove us from our ecological surroundings and also from our fellow people. In that sense, I do agree with her argument that we must decrease the distances between ourselves and the production of food, clothes and shelter. As of today, many children who grow up in the city might not even know that their food is grown on trees and plants, often by farmers in a different continent who live completely different lives. This is a bit frightening. However, as discussed in class, the scale of localization and its generalizability might differ from place to place, and I also think that we are seeing a reaction towards the global in many places too, with local food-cooperations and urban gardening, for example. However, globalization is not something one can stop. So yes, I do think it is important for environmental historians to consider these aspects. Above that I also think it is equally central to discuss what we mean when we talk about ‘awareness of nature’ or ‘closeness to nature’, even ‘nature’ as well! It is important, and interesting, to explore what value people include in these concepts and what relation they have to them, in different settings.