The Mint:

Good day Helena. And thank you very much for joining us from Australia this morning to talk to The Mint.

Helena Norberg-Hodge:

Very happy to be here.

The Mint:

Brilliant. Well, what I’d like to start with is to talk about what a economy of care is, because I know this is an area that you’ve had a lot of interest in. What does an economy of care mean to you?

Helena Norberg-Hodge:

An economy of care means an economic system where we prioritise all the caring work and professions. And I often talk about the importance of looking at how we grow our food and how we grow our children. And in those arenas, the dominant economy has managed to turn them into shadow work, unimportant work in many, yeah, shadow invisible work. So, the caring economy needs to bring those back into the centre to prioritise those activities and to provide many more livelihoods in those arenas rather than supporting a path, which is continually replacing people with energy and technology, even when that technology is in the form of chemicals, whether agricultural chemicals or pharmaceutical chemicals, it replaces people. And we need to look at how we shift our subsidies and those mechanisms that push economic progress forward.

The Mint:

It’s interesting actually that here in the UK, I was noticing in the recent Labour Party Conference, that they’re talking, the shadow chancellor was talking about the everyday economy, and refocusing our thinking that actually most people are involved in the nuts and bolts, the everyday economy, which is the housing, food, care, public services, et cetera. Do you see other areas beginning to take more seriously this core economy that links us up and is the basis of our economy?

Helena Norberg-Hodge:

Well, first of all, I beg to differ with that minister because, in actual fact, most of us are not involved in those very important activities of how we feed, clothe and house ourselves. We’ve ended up as appendages to our systems often in work that’s very unproductive and certainly to the extent that it’s linked to food production, or the care of children, or healthcare, or education. It’s become so bureaucratized and so disembodied that most teachers and doctors now spend more time on the computer filling out paper than they do actually attending to their students or patients. So I think we really need a big picture analysis to understand what’s going on. And I think it is that there’s been this systematic replacement of people to do this very important work, because we basically ended up subsidising a financial casino and giant global corporations to create dependence. We are all becoming more and more dependent on those in very tiny and very specialised roles that feed and fuel this vast system.

The Mint:

So just, yes, picking up that issue of the education system and the health system, you’re saying that the actual basic relationship to people within the education and health system has been undermined by wider bureaucratic systems?

Helena Norberg-Hodge:

Absolutely.

The Mint:

And why do you think that’s happened?

Helena Norberg-Hodge:

Well, I’m glad you asked that because I think it’s very important that we look behind the government structures and understand that it really has to do with an economic trajectory that does go back several generations, and that has to do with the fact that our system from its very outset was about supporting global trade and global traders. And even in banking, we have seen, if we analyse it clearly, a systematic shift towards supporting the global at the expense of local regional and national businesses and banks. In the process, this has been systematically linked to what seemed to be cheap fossil fuels, which were never cheap, but they appeared in the market as though they were cheap because we were essentially hiding their cost, we didn’t have proper accounting. And so, with a lot of that cheap oil, people were driven away from the lands, so away from farming into the city, replaced by more and more machinery.

And right now, the UN is promoting a shift towards an even bigger takeover of jobs by drones. First of all, robots on the land linked to drones, linked to satellites, to monitor carbon. So we have a very big job now to step back and just look honestly at this, it’s not about blaming particular governments, or particular corporations, or anyone for that matter, it’s really about understanding that we’re heading in a very, very wrong direction. And again, maybe the two key things we need to look at is how we are often now without even recognising it. And I’m talking about even the ministers in the governments not recognising the end result, the big picture of what they’re doing, and certainly not the voter. So, we’re talking but, as I say, systematically subsidising energy intensive, resource intensive, technology-based development, to support more and more global players. And that’s why we also see this accumulation of wealth in the hands of few and fewer corporations and individuals that are operating globally.

In the meanwhile at the local and national level, businesses and individuals are heavily taxed and heavily regulated. So, another mechanism that we need to look at is that at the global level, we’ve had a process of systematic deregulation, meaning that global businesses are getting the freedom to move in and out of national economies without any constraints. On the contrary, they’re now constraining governments by forcing governments to sign ISDS clauses, in which the government say, yes, yes, we agree. We will not do anything that might reduce your profit-making potential. If we do, you have the right to take us to court, rather quiet courts. So I think it’s something that big business is not very keen to hear, but it’s really so important that they wake up to what they’re doing, because they’re threatening their own jobs, even if you are the CEO of Mobil, you are threatened by linking with Exxon. So then you have only one CEO instead of two CEOs. So it’s this crazy, crazy rat race.

The Mint:

Now, you’ve obviously covered a huge amount of ground there, which has slightly moved us away from the health system specifically.

Helena Norberg-Hodge:

Sorry. Yeah.

The Mint:

We’ll move with it. And there are two different, maybe two different issues here, obviously that you talk about the problem of the global and in a way, the solution at the local level by freeing up and supporting the local level. Can we focus on the latter actually, because in a way maybe if people had more of a vision of what the local would look like and how it could work for them, they’d be more willing to desert the global, if you like. So have you got examples of areas that have gone more local? I know food is the one that you always jump on, but that’s, to some extent the easiest one, isn’t it? Because your food can grow locally, but there’s obviously lots of other parts of the economy. What other emerging examples of localization happening, and to give an idea what that might look like?

Helena Norberg-Hodge:

Yeah, but I do want to stress that food is the single most important sector in the sense that there’s nothing else that human beings produce that every human being needs every single day. So to have policies where our governments are separating us further and further from the source of that food, through these policies that support global trade, which leads to import and export of identical food means food is being flown across the world to be processed and flown back again. The global food system is the biggest main contributor to climate change, to also to biodiversity loss, to toxic pesticides, et cetera, to the mountains of plastic. So focusing on a shift in food is so fundamental and there we have splendid examples around the world of where people have intuitively just reacted to the craziness has started rebuilding more localised systems. They’ve realised that if they want fresh, healthy food, they need to shorten the distances.

When you shorten the distance between the farm and the market, the market pressures for diversification. The local farmer’s market or shop doesn’t want tonnes of straight carrots. In fact, in that market, people are perfectly happy if some carrots are big and some are crooked and even if they have some blemishes, because it’s a sign that they have not been, first of all, produced to look good, produced for transport. And it’s not a supermarket system where sometimes half of them have been thrown away or burned because they didn’t fit the machinery. So this is a tremendously important issue.

The Mint:

But can I just take the issue of, we obviously have farm markets extensively and farm market shops in the UK, but they tend to be, I would say a middle class activity, expensive and whereas the big problems of food insecurity that we have, of course, and bad diet, et cetera, is happening amongst people who would not be able to afford to go to the farmer’s market.

Helena Norberg-Hodge:

Yeah. And this is where it’s so vitally important that we look at the economic policies that as I say, even within the government, things are so systemic now and this absolute faith in global trade, global trade, global trade, and any of us subjected to propaganda for these years over Brexit, where are we going to get the better trade deal, the better trade deal. So people have been brainwashed into believing that global trade is the way to grow the economy, is the way to make sure that I have a job, that I’m able to pay the mortgage, but what we have to understand is that the consequence of this is that local becomes more expensive than global product. And that’s why around the world, I’ve seen it in Kenya, I’ve seen it in Mongolia, I’ve seen it literally all around the world. Food from thousands of miles away, generally cost less than local food, why is that? That’s where we have to look at fresh economic thinking.

The Mint:

But isn’t a key factor their economies of scale.

Helena Norberg-Hodge:

No, absolutely not.

The Mint:

Why not.

Helena Norberg-Hodge:

See this is, I would say the most important perhaps point in fresh economic thinking, we have to fundamentally understand the ecological realities of the real economy. The real economy is the living earth, the living earth is diversity and it’s not only diversity in terms of different plants and different animals, we’re talking about realities that are constantly changing. Now, what we have created are systems that impose monoculture and that’s why we have turned lush land into deserts and so on. So when it comes to all the primary production of fishery, forestry, farming, we need to completely turn thinking around to understand that because local markets demand diversity, they are fundamentally ecological markets, they will help restore ecosystem. Small diversified farms are actually even today producing something like 80% of the food that’s because in the global south is still mainly peasant agriculture.

The Mint:

But this is an important part because there is a huge difference, isn’t there? Between somewhere like the UK where the vast majority of food is through a centralised national international system, through supermarkets, huge quantity and so on and the rest of the world. And you were telling me earlier that one of the things that have given you a different perspective on the world is going out to the grassroots around the world. So would you say that actually the rest of the world who have not been taken over by these international food systems have a better chance of survival under climate change, more resilience, and are actually going to be the future?

Helena Norberg-Hodge:

In some respects yes, but what’s very frightening is that in those rural communities of the so-called third world, or south, so much has also been destroyed and is continuing to be destroyed through huge corporate land grabs, through mining, and many of these farming communities were already marginalised through slavery and later on colonialism, but still, I would say if there were an emperor of the world who said as of tomorrow we’re all going to survive of our own skills and our own resources. Absolutely. In the third world, people would be a lot better off than we would be in the Western world.

And so they still have, they are more skills, a bit more diversification, the food a little bit closer, and also a little bit more of the intergenerational community fabric, where there is this support within a, what I say a generally caring economy where the elders are not shoved off into an institution, but are actually very often involved in childcare, and so that most mothers have many carers for every child and is often non-commercialised, because of all of that is a wealth that is fundamental to human health and wellbeing, and yet is not paid, it doesn’t register in our account sheets. So very often the poorest of the poor, like in Bhutan or Ladakh where I have worked are actually among the wealthiest people in the world in real-times.

The Mint:

Yes, we’ve now moved interestingly back into the health space which is great. Do you think there is a connection there? If we move to more local food economies here, if we could build those local food economies, do you think that can have a spinoff effect in terms of relationships.

Helena Norberg-Hodge:

It does, you see, it does. It’s so wonderful to study it, if people hear this and maybe start looking, they’ll see it, they’ll see the difference between shopping in the farmer’s market and shopping in the supermarket. They’ll see that in the farmer’s market, people often go and spend time because they enjoy it. There’s actually space for children. There is an atmosphere of human connectedness and interdependence. In those markets we are magically paying farmers much more than they get in the supermarket system. In many cases they’re getting virtually a hundred percent of what we pay, whereas in the supermarkets they’re getting roughly 10%. The consumer is also paying less for genuinely healthy, fresh food that is produced in a way that is supportive of reducing climate emissions, reducing plastic and restoring wildlife. So if I could just say one more thing about diversity, if you took any two plots of land, a square metre, a square kilometre, if you diversified on one and use monoculture on the other, you would always be able to produce much more through diversification.

I don’t think most people have to be too ecologically literate to understand that. And it’s particularly true when you have more mixed farming, where you even have some animals like some of the fields in Asia, ducks that eat weeds and the rice patties, and then you have the fertiliser, you have weeding and you get protein, but I also just want to add that you were saying, what about beyond food? And beyond food there is a localization movement that particularly as we promote it in local futures is building on that fundamentally ecological economy of diversification and the focus on food and farming, but is also building to support human scale localised businesses, more human scaled financing. And we can show how the money circulates when you have investment from the community, for the community, you get a completely different picture from what you get when you have an outside investor who always will want to extract more wealth than they put in. So in terms of a circular carrier economy, we need to look at localising.

The Mint:

So what are you talking about local currencies, or community investment mechanisms?

Helena Norberg-Hodge:

No, I’m not talking about local currencies, we’ve been promoting localization for more than 40 years and we actually started local currencies and they ran for maybe 10 years, that was in America, our main office is in America. And we’ve seen, even my friend, George Ferguson, who was the mayor of Bristol helped to launch a local currency there. And I thought, well, maybe now it’s going to really work when you have the support of the local government, but in a system where our government are so heavily subsidising the global, where we have through that financial casino that is able to create money out of thin air, that’s what’s happening. And after 2008, the whole world knew that this casino is dangerous, it’s playing with our lives. We need to regulate it. There needs to be some oversight. That however didn’t happen. So we’re in a very dangerous situation because we are creating this supposed wealth at the top that is not able to sustain life. It can only operate to support vast monocultures, top-down structures.

So a local currency is not now the most strategic way. The most strategic way for communities to get active is to set up local funds. Some of which are happening with individuals just donate a hundred pounds or so on, some of which are happening right here, where 20 people put $50,000 each and create a million dollars to support local business. That kind of subsidy from local community members. And before you were saying about local food being mainly middle class, right now we should be demanding that the middle classes really start taking action because to ask the youth, to ask marginalised people, to ask the most desperate and stressed members of our community to lead the way is ridiculous. But the middle classes who have a little bit of time, few resources, are actually creatively helping to subsidise a healthy caring economy, and that creating models that then hopefully will be, their information about them will be dispersed more widely so that we can see real policy change.

The Mint:

What specifics of the models in terms of the mechanisms to make them work?

Helena Norberg-Hodge:

Well, one of them is to prevent the political correctness that in America is undermining a lot of very good initiatives. For instance, there was a business alliance for local living economies started by a friend of mine, which is making huge strides that it’s been undermined by the idea that it should only be led by and focused on the most marginal and impoverished people. Now, there are certain agendas there, there are certain corporate think tanks that are helping to put these ideas out. And it’s very unfortunate. I really feel we should be demanding of the middle classes that they take action. We have a huge responsibility because we are in a position, as I say, to have just that little bit of financial security and time, and we are hurtling in a really disastrous direction if we don’t wake up to the economic systemic underpinnings that have created the climate crisis, that have created a complete breakdown of democracy, epidemics of depression, et cetera, we really need to, to wake up and deal with this economic transition.

The Mint:

But sometimes I suppose the middle classes can be seen to be lecturing aren’t they? And telling the poor, you don’t know how to eat and no wonder you are obese, or unhealthy, or whatever.

Helena Norberg-Hodge:

This is what the corporate global media want us to think. What’s actually happening on the ground is that middle class people are setting up local food systems where those who can afford it subsidise people in the community who cannot afford to pay as much so they can afford to have healthy, organic, genuinely nutrient rich food. And throughout Japan, after COVID especially, mothers realised we need to protect our seeds, which were threatened by trade treaties, that the Japanese were not going to be able to protect their own rice varieties. So they’ve created a whole movement of seed saving pressuring local governments, and there is some policy change reaching to the level of local governments that’s very interesting, for instance, in American now in numerous states, people who have food stamps from the government will get twice as much value if they buy from the local farmer’s market instead of the supermarket. So they’re simultaneously supporting the poor and healthy agriculture. So there are these very significant small scale initiatives growing, but they need help because as you know, we’re facing very serious crisis.

The Mint:

We are. And just to move into a slightly different sphere, at the moment I understand at the international level there is a big conflict in terms of perspectives happening, in terms of UN meetings and account of people’s meeting on the food front. What’s happening there?

Helena Norberg-Hodge:

Well, what’s happening there is that tragically, the UN, which is, of course, just appointees from national governments. So national governments around the world have just fallen and prey to this belief that if we don’t go along with this change, if we don’t support, and they still, and I eagerly believe that they’re supporting their supposedly national multinationals. And that means that trade treaties need to be negotiated in secrecy. Very naive. Mitsubishi said to Japan a long time ago, sorry, we’re not really Japanese anymore because when you’re producing in Brazil and selling in China, what makes you Japanese? So we really, this wake up is so urgently needed, again, without any blame and with the recognition of both left and right governments of this political flavour within the industrialised world have been pursuing the same policies.

So it’s really now at the level of the UN, that means that this conglomeration of national governments are also going along with corporate pressure. And in the food world as I said earlier, the FAO is promoting replacing farmers with robots, arguing that they’re going to be spraying more efficiently, arguing that young people don’t really want to farm, they like to be on the screen, we’ll give them a screen, and then they can just tap on the screen and the robots will do the work. They’ll be linked to drones, linked to satellites to monitor carbon. Carbon as the currency of climate is a corporate invention, again, not probably through bad intentions, but when global corporations have the right to determine how to frame the climate issue, they’re not going to see their own shadow. They’re not going to see, it doesn’t make sense to fly fish from Norway, England, America, Australia, to China, to be deboned and flown back again to those respective countries. That shouldn’t be allowed.

The Mint:

So this international technical solutions approach has taken over. What about the counter group? The fight back, which you, I think are involved in, what are you doing?

Helena Norberg-Hodge:

Yeah. So the counter movement consists of collaboration between several different groups. One of the most important is La Via Campesina, which started in 92 in opposition to the trade treaties. These were small farmers from all around the world, particularly starting in South America, who were saying, please, please, please, this free trading means you’re dumping food on us and destroying our market. Please don’t destroy our farming. Don’t destroy our right to feed our own people, our own country first, but their voices haven’t got up, now a little bit more, but of course, in the summit, even though there were groups there representing hundreds of millions of farmers, there’s been very little in the media. I think I saw one article in The Guardian. So the big, big task today is, for me, the big activism is to help share this bigger picture information.

And it’s a very positive picture. Once you understand that there is so much positive at the level of the grassroots, demonstrating the multiple more localised human scale structures, understanding that we’re all unique individuals, every single tree, every single thing that lives is unique and changing. How can we run an economy where we respect that diversity, respect that even genuine individualism and where we’re able to be more responsive and actually far more efficient in terms of what life demands? So the vast monocultural systems and imposition is leading to a lot of anger at the grassroots, particularly now in COVID with many people only look into the level of government and with great anger assuming that everyone in power is completely conscious of how they’re destroying our life, and they have hidden agendas, the conspiracy theories, the anger is multiplying very rapidly. So it’s so important to try to get a more honest analysis out of what’s going on and how and why we find ourselves in such a mess.

The Mint:

Well, I totally support and salute you there. And I wish you the best with trying to raise awareness of this counterculture because it is true, isn’t it? That the technical narrative has become so dominant. And thank you very much for talking to me. And I look forward to talking further in the future.

Helena Norberg-Hodge:

Thank you very much. I really appreciate the opportunity.

 

2 Comments on “Interview transcript: Helena Norberg-Hodge – A view from the top”

    1. Hi Chris, it is a transcript rather than an article and we don’t have resources to edit those….

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