Saturday, August 31, 2002

Books I Want to Read:
Ancient Futures, Helena Norberg-Hodge

Reviewer: Pam Hanna (see more about me) from Thoreau, New Mexico United States
The first half of *Ancient Futures* will delight and amaze you; the second half will break your heart.

In the 1970s, the Ladakhis of Little Tibet were a happy people. They had a sustainable traditional economy based on trade and cooperation - not money. One person's gain was not another person's loss. There was plenty of leisure, no hunger or poverty, very little sickness or disease, everyone was valued, there was no pollution and nothing was wasted. They got along fine with their Muslim neighbors and they kept their population stable through marriage customs based on land use. Almost every family had a celibate monk or nun. Buddhist monasteries and people had a mutually beneficial economic, social and spiritual relationship. Ladakhis are a naturally contemplative people with a great deal of spiritual awareness. "Schon chan" (one who angers easily) is about the only insult in the Ladakhi lnaguage. "Lack of pride is a virtue, for pride, born of ego, has nothing to do with self-respect among these Buddhist people." The author says that it took her two years of living among them to realize that the people were genuinely and joyfully HAPPY. Then the world beat a path to their door and all that changed - in fewer than two decades.

It's like a little piece of cultural time-lapse photography. What took western culture more than four centuries to do to the Native-Americans took only twenty years here. Ladakh has become a cautionary tale and a monument to western greed and stupidity.

Now there is poverty and unemployment, stress-related disease, women are devalued, the people are ashamed of their "backward" culture, there is little leisure but a great deal of pollution and waste as well as dispute between Muslims and Buddhists and the population had increased markedly. ("Interestingly, a number of Ladakhis have linked the rise of birth rates to the advent of modern democracy. "Power is a question of votes" is a current slogan, meaning that, in the modern sector, the larger your group, the greater your access to power. Competition for jobs and political representation within the new centralized structures is increasingly dividing Ladakhis.")

Chiildren are trained to become specialists in a technological rather than an ecological society. They no longer have time to learn the superb survival techniques of their families. Western culture is creating artificial scarsity and inducing competition.

Now I understand the mechanism better. A culture that has a heavily subsidized infrastructure invades a traditional self-sustaining culture and creates artificial "needs." So they go to the city to earn money which they never needed before, leaving their farms and women, who are immediately devalued because they're not wage earners. The people are no longer planting, irrigating, spinning wool, gathering seeds, harvesting, playing music and singing and telling stories, having seasonal parties, marriage parties or funeral watches - together.

Time has become a commodity. It has become uneconomical to grow one's own food, make one's own clothes and build one's own house. You have to pay your neighbors for the work that the whole community used to do for free.

The men are in the cities earning money and the women are producing tourist commodities with the wool they used to spin for their own use and the food they used to grow for their own families. Now they grow cash crops for strangers so they can make enough money to buy polyester clothes and walkmans and jeans for their kids and food grown hundreds of miles away and fuel trucked in from afar.

The Yak and the Dzo, uniquely suited for high altitudes of Ladakh gave rich milk but not as much as western cattle. So what did the conquering culture do? They imported cattle that can't make it at such altitudes, so more land has to be relegated to planting crops to feed the cattle, thereby upsetting the balance. And they call this progress.

Why can't we just leave people alone - especially when they're doing FINE without us?

"When one-third of the world's population consumes two-thirds of the world's resources," says Norberg-Hodge, "and then in effect turns around and tells the others to do as they do, it is little short of a hoax. Development is all too often a euphemism for exploitation, a new colonialism."

All this would be a dismal tragedy comparable to Columbus's complete genocide of the Tainos if not for a "counter development" movement generated in part by this author. Since the Ladakhis can't go back, they can at least go forward. Instead of importing expensive fossil fuels (previously they had used yak dung and kept warm) they can have solar houses and greenhouses, which have worked very well and given them one benefit that they have previously not had. That's something. Information is another plus. The people are being made aware that westerners pay more for whole grains, organic vegetables, pure water, natural fibers, and natural building materials - things these people have had for a thousand years without money. This is something so-called third-world people are generally not told about.

Once in a while a book comes along that changes one's perspective forever. *Ancient Futures* is such a book. I haven't been the same since.

One of the reviewers on this site said he ended up buy copies for his friends. So have I. This book is a must-read for every person who is concerned about the preservation of our planet and our species.

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