26.5.2014 Ancient Futures

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May 28, 2014 at 08:40 #12865

Reply to Nisa’s reflection by Kristina Berglund
Nisa, I agree this is neither an easy nor a small question… However I think you did a great job in reflecting on it! You seem to be quite skeptical towards that we in fact can avoid the same condescending discourse and imposed ideas that were initiated by the western development projects that Helena is criticizing. I agree with you that indeed, we cannot avoid as ‘westerners’ being a part of our history and imposing the ideas and cultures we bring with us. It is often (and for sure has been) the case that these projects are ill-suited for the specific context and bring with them patronizing attitudes, which is not justifiable. As the case with the imposed education system that was not adapted to the Ladakh community and their needs. But I do think we maybe shouldn’t be too fast to dismiss all initiatives either, since they can be of good too, especially in recent years when I think this problematic questions has been raised more frequently than when ‘Ancient Futures’ was written in the 90’s. As Anna’s question concerned, maybe by being too afraid of idealizing, some of the actually helpful initiatives and ideas get rejected a bit too fast. Helena’s localization idea I think is not meant to be a panacea, but instead be dynamic to the voices of the community member’s ideas and wills. And even though there are many things to criticize with her project, there are also things to commend. I often ask myself if we should ‘intervene’ in other people’s lives and cultures at all or if we should meddle, as you phrased it, just because it is impossible to avoid our history and our positions as white, western Europeans. But if we shouldn’t restrain ourselves from engaging it is important to acknowledge where we as ‘outsiders’ come from, why we are doing what we are doing, our attitudes and how we do things – transparency will help shine light on many of the hidden agendas.

May 28, 2014 at 09:13 #12866

Erika, I think you raise some really interesting points in your response. Critical thinking is obviously a very important component of research; being able to deconstruct narratives and question their premises enables a more nuanced understanding of the world we live in. However, getting caught up in criticism for it’s own sake can hinder attempts to move beyond discussion and into action. But distinguishing between constructive and ineffectual criticism is very difficult, and I would argue moves us into an ethical gray zone.
Personally, I don’t think that academics should be discouraged from discussing their emotional connections to their fields of study, and openly acknowledging personal sentiments leads to a more honest understanding of knowledge creation. This reflexivity is something anthropologists have embraced as a means of analyzing the process of “writing culture”.
Norberg-Hodge does discuss her role in as a member of the international development community (NGO founder), and her writing style makes it very apparent that she embraces a sort of Ladakh indigenous nobility.
Erika I think you are probably right that Ancient Futures shouldn’t be read as an ethnography of Ladakh or a critique on the global economy, but as a primary resource. I still feel that Norberg-Hodge relies too much on a convenient system of classification between the West and the ancient isolated Ladakh, and it is unfortunate that she substitutes this for a more nuanced discussion. Yet perhaps this is necessary as Norberg-Hodge is a practitioner and is trying to solve the immediate problem of globalization in Ladakh whereas academics value outputs that are open ended, and iterative.
Maybe what I will take away from reading Ancient Futures and this discussion is how can academia be encouraged to offer more useful critiques of development, and how can development practitioners engage with academics without inciting skepticism?

May 28, 2014 at 12:37 #12869

Reply to Anna from Maria
I find Anna’s reply and view very interesting, but it was not really a reply to my question, which was about small scale/local production versus organization and management for sustainable utilization of resources in megacities. I did not readl all the chapters in Helena’s book, but my reflections come mainly from the video that we saw.
Scientists from different disciplines believe that more and more people will move from the countryside to find their livelihood in big cities. This is of course what Helena finds very disconcerting. She argues very strongly for local farming and production of food, but really does not say how the logistics should be managed. I think there are different rules for different farmers markets regarding distance between production and sales market, and for demand on ecological farming. At least in Sweden, some of the farmers drive 250 km to sell their products. How close is local? What about farming communities far from the opportunity to get fish, various kinds of grains etc.? To my mind it would be very backward to say that people should only live of what you can grow themselves more or less. However, I do not advocate that everybody should have the right of all types of exotic fruits and vegetables all year round.
What I was thinking of with my question was that issues of logistics and transports need to be solved even with small scale production, when people live more spread out, rather than closer together, as in cities. Experts, scientists, laymen and other people involved in the civic society have good opportunities to meet, discuss and exchange ideas in megacities where education and research institutions are concentrated. Furthermore, food need to be stored in different ways; apples are for example very sensitive to shocks, certain products need to kept cold etc. Helena does not give any idea about what to do to work out these important questions as rational as possible. I very much would have liked her talk also about these issues. Still, I think her work and information about her experience is very important and open the eyes for other ways to think and act. A balanced combination of old and new experiences and knowledge could hopefully make a difference for the future.

May 28, 2014 at 12:47 #12870

Reply to Ellen’s answer

Ellen, thank you for your take on the issue of methodology in Helena’s book, you have indeed answered my question in a very satisfying way. I agree with you on many points, especially regarding her rather naive and patronizing “primordialization” of the Ladakhi people, who have been living the same way “for thousands of years” (her words exactly). It is the typical trap of Orientalism that many researchers fall into and I wanted to bring this issue up, since as global environmental historians, we will be tempted often to do the same and I think it is important to reflect your theoretical and ideological stance and lay it bare to your readers. And as you said Helena did neither, thus her book lacks theoretical persuasion. Regarding the linguistic approach: I have a background in lingustics and philosophy and all I can say is that linguists also have to present their theoretical apparatus and must rely on rigorous argumentation and painfully detailed reconstructions (in case of historical linguistics). Helena is not trained in ethnographic methodology and I think the book in question could have benefitted if she had employed some insights from the ethnographic discipline. In this case, the book reminded me of pioneering colonial linguists who wrote impressions in their diaries. But on the other hand the sentimental undertones might be just the thing we need in academic discourse, since its rigidity and strict referencing discipline make it a jargon unable to convey some things. But in the end, if you do this, you must take a critical stance towards it, because if simply claiming “these people have lived the same way for thousands of years”, comes off as unprofessional and irresponsible and a good bit arrogant too.

May 28, 2014 at 13:23 #12871

Erika Kriukelyte
Reply to Kristina Berglund

In the first part of your reflection, you synthesized Helena Norberg-Hodge ideas and offered your own evaluation of her text. In this part, I would like to focus more attention to your mentioned, as well as author, one-way notion of development, linear progress path. This perception of the world leads to unification of the systems, which develops the same agendas for the desired outcome and in the same time it depends to have constant growth. However, the natural world does not fit in these frames of similarities and unstoppable augmentation, because it has its own laws that cannot be tamed. Thus this created the alienation between expected outcome and the real results. In some point, Helena’s attention to global and local visually expresses this gap and she considers this to be the reason that caused the problem created by unification. I believe it is important to understand that unification does not bring equality and equity, but on the contrary it caused gentrification.
In the second part of your reflection, you tried to make sense of my question that was designed rapidly and not thoughtfully, so sorry for this. However, after reading through your answer, I would like to discuss some arguments you are using in the text. You are speaking about urbanization as something that transforms humans’ values: from family towards individuals and so on. I cannot fully agree with this kind of view. As the human population is expending every year and till 2025 it is expected to reach 9 milliard inhabitants on the Earth, cities became solution in questions like decrease of pollution and population growth control. If we investigate family as phenomena, we would find out that it changed meaning. In the past creating a big family and being member of it, was necessary for survival, for security, for food production, but right now it is not necessary to have this kind of safety circle. Women want to be more independent from house environment and families as the units focus more not on quantity of the children, but on having fewer children with better breeding and further education.

May 28, 2014 at 14:39 #12874

Reply to Yaqi Fu’s answer to the question: “Why was the Ladakh society so vulnerable by Western culture?” from Wenzel

I think that you did a very good analysis of Helena Norberg-Hodge’s intentions when you link her rethorics of localisation, strengthening social bonds, preservation of traditions and critical education towards western cultures to the aim of promoting the “economics of happiness”. I can also understand that you perceive her approach as slightly backward oriented and almost preservativist. This is very important to consider when answering my question.
The term vulnerable I used in my question implies a problem where there might not actually be a problem. It is true, and important to point out, that many cultures are susceptible to influences of other cultures and that this mutual influence is a natural thing. It can benefit a culture, as you said, by broadening their scope of the world and opening them for new technologies, two processes which go hand in hand and facilitate each other. This development poses big challenges to those experiencing it and forces them to quickly adapt and restructure their life and behaviour.
The problem I see is, that many of these changes are new and might appeal fancy to many people, but their effect on social life and individual well being is too negative to be worth the effort. The Ladakh people had most of the things a human being needs for happiness. And they treated nature in a sustainable and caring way. They were resilient to most natural threats known and self-sufficient to a high degree. They had adapted widely to the surrounding systems. The sudden change of these systems and a promise of more however led to an arbitrary development that didn’t really benefit anybody except for those who entered their stage. I think that this was possible because the youth of the Ladakh people was, as youth typically is, especially susceptible for change and new opportunities, as soon as they were there for the taking. Young people are important agents of change.
My question is now, why do we always have to adapt to a new, changing world, when we actually are its agents ourselves? What is the point of it? Can’t we critically look at to what extend something new really benefits the greater part of the world? Whats the point of adapting to the environment of, for exeample, a big city, with concrete sealing almost every single spot, smog, injustice-driven criminality, waste overproduction, overconsumption etc.? Why would I adapt to that? I am a human being, and the world around me has to adapt to my basic needs, not the other way around.
I think that the changes we are seeing are too speedy for a single human being to understand and follow. I think we need to shift down and learn driving, before we might go back on the highway of life.

May 28, 2014 at 15:33 #12875

Reply to Maria
From Yaqi Fu

Thanks for your reflection that answered to my question very well. From your reflection, I have got a feeling that your opinion is a little different from Helena’s. You think the modern education would be much helpful to the local people. As you argued, to my understanding, the benefits would mainly lie in the theoretical knowledge which modern education can provide the local people while other kinds of tradition may not or can not. The scientific methods are also useful in solving problems like finding medicine, using resources.

However, Helena believed the Ladakh community should be cautious to the modern education and try to preserve their local culture. She thought that the modern education has no much help with the local affairs. You can receive modern education, but the knowledge from school would not help you contribute to the local community, and it alienates you from the local life.

For me, what I reflect is that modern education would help in creating facilitation in daily life, but would be hard to create or improve the relationship among people and the relationship between human and nature. What the shaman method provides is not only the cure of a disease, even it has, but a relation between nature and your body. The people in the local community can have only 4 months work but 8 months fest. Fest is not something facilitates life, but rather an enforcement or signature of relation among things and people’s life.

May 28, 2014 at 15:52 #12876

Reply to Sabbath
Thanks for answering my question!
I agree with you that social networks are one important aspect of a sustainable and happier life for the individuals in a community. The word network means things that are connected to each other and both you and Helena bring up the connection to the nature and the local conditions as something crucial for a sustainable life. A large part of Norberg-Hodges theory is, in my view, precisely about the contrast between connection and disconnection to our surroundings, even our families. The latter one, disconnection, came with globalization according to Helena. The same goes for her other point about diversity in relation to monoculture. What come to mind for me are Tim Ingolds theories on connection and paths in the local landscape known for people living there in constant relation with things like trees and animals for instance.
Helena describes as shift towards more violence in the globalized society and violence comes from the opposite of happiness. Hence a violent society is not a happy one and also not a sustainable one. It is easier to define what happiness is not then what it actually is.
If I address your example on what sustainability is from the Bruntland definition I think you are right in that it goes well with Helenas thoughts, but form me Helenas narrative is a bit naïve in her description of the happy people of Ladakh, that is not to say that she isn´t right about that we can learn lessons from it. I also think Norberg-Hodge is arguing for some kind of middle path at the same time – we can´t go back- but we can learn from how “it was” before, thus she recognize benefits with the new technology, for instance when it comes to child mortality. I just can´t accept that it was in a certain way before, it is too simplistic,; the Ladakh community was of course not fixed in history; it was as complex and in constant change as any other society.

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