PCDForum Column #62, Release Date October 8, 1993
by Helena Norberg-Hodge
With promises of a bigger, brighter future, western development models impose psychological pressures on peoples of other cultures causing what can best be called a cultural inferiority complex. In case after case these pressures have led to the breakdown of societies that until recently were sustainable, self-providing, free of violence, and economically and emotionally secure. The process is demonstrated by the experience of the traditional villages of Ladakh, a trans-Himalayan region of Kashmir in India.
In traditional Ladakh to link happiness to income or possessions would have been unthinkable. A deep-rooted respect for each other’s fundamental human needs and an acceptance of the natural limitations of the environment kept the Ladakhi people free from misplacing values of worth. Happiness was simply experienced. Though not an easy lifestyle by western standards, people met their basic physical, social, spiritual and creative needs within the security of a caring, sharing community and an abundant agrarian subsistence economy and experienced evident joy.
Some twenty years ago the Indian government decided to open Ladakh, wholly isolated from the modern world until that time, to western-style development. One of the first foreigners admitted to the region, I have spent half of each year there since, watching with a growing sense of despair the process by which the resulting “development” has created a void in people’s lives, an inferiority in their self-perceptions and a greed for material wealth. Western tourists, media, educational models, and technical “conveniences” all have played their part in eroding an unprepared culture.
A western tourist can spend more in one day than what a Ladakhi family might in one year. Seeing this, Ladakhis suddenly feel poor. The new comparison creates a gap that never existed before because in traditional Ladakh, people didn’t need money in order to lead rich, fulfilling lives. Ladakhi society was based on mutual aid and cooperation; no one needed money for labor, food, clothing or shelter.
Ladakhis do not realize the exaggerated role money plays in the west as the basis for survival. Films marketed to the region sell the “American Dream” a glamorous life that looks clean and easy. Competition and domination over nature are shown to be the means to modernization and western-style “success.”
In contrast to these images, village life seems primitive, inefficient and insufficient. The one-dimensional and deceptive images of modern life conveyed by the media fail to show the social or psychological costs the stress, the loneliness, the fear of growing old. They fail to make the Ladakhis aware of the environmental decay, inflation, and unemployment that are also integral to western experience.
Education is supposed to be one of the unmixed blessings of modern development. However, western-style education, by promoting western ideas of development, teaches Ladakhi children to be ashamed of their traditions and thus robs them of their self-esteem. They are left in a cultural no-man’s land, learning western skills inappropriate for their region and failing to learn traditional skills required for survival.
In the traditional economy, Ladachis knew that they had to depend on other people, and that others in turn depend on them. In the new economic system, local interdependence disintegrates along with traditional levels of tolerance. In place of cooperative systems of meeting needs, competition and scarcity become determinants for survival. Passivity also develops, as reliance upon distant government bureaucracies increases. The more government becomes involved in village activities for the sake of “development,” the less villagers feel inclined to help themselves.
The Indian government’s effort to industrialize the Ladakh region has meant that men leave their families in rural areas to become wage earners in the city. Since the modern world recognizes only wage earners as “productive” members of society housewives, traditional farmers and the elderly suddenly become identified as “unproductive” in complete contrast to their roles in traditional Ladakh. The weakening of family and community ties increases individual insecurity, which in turn contributes to a hunger for material status symbols.
The traditional Ladakhi society emerged through a dialogue between human beings and their surroundings. Cultural adaptations evolved within a framework of compassion and profound understanding of the interconnectedness of all phenomena. Change occurred within a specific environmental and cultural context, not in reaction to imposed social structures and systems. I believe that as we confront the need to correct the dysfunctions of western industrial culture we have a great deal to learn from culturally rich traditional societies like Ladakh about a range of human possibilities that our own cultural experience does not make known to us.
Helena Norberg-Hodge is director of the Ladakh Project and The International Society for Ecology and Culture, P.O. Box 9475, Berkeley, CA 94709, U.S.A. Phone/fax (510) 527-3873. This column was prepared and distributed by the PCDForum based on her book Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1991) US$12.00.