If you’re familiar with linguist and activist Helena Norberg-Hodge and her work among the people of the Himalayan kingdom of Ladakh, it is likely that you will welcome the arrival of her new film, The Economics of Happiness. If you are already a fan, though, chances are you are already waking up to many of the economic realities discussed in this documentary. In that case, be sure to invite some of your less-informed neighbors over for a viewing.
Norberg-Hodge is the author of Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh, a book that gives a gentle and passionate insider’s perspective on the impact of modern economics on traditional cultures. The export of Western consumer culture into previously unexposed parts of the world is like unleashing a viral disease on a population without developed resistance. Like smallpox, consumerism has ravaged indigenous, traditional people throughout the world. The Economics of Happiness introduces heart-rending examples of change by demonstrating the ill effects of Western economic and cultural forces on the relatively innocent and unsuspecting culture of Ladakh.
Moving beyond the borders of Ladakh, the film presents “Eight Inconvenient Truths about Globalization” that constitute a careful look at the economic forces negatively affecting the world at large. Economics is a primer in going native again, as it paints a picture of the unique happiness of sustainable, indigenous life ways, then presents a grim reality of our present economic system’s destructively dysfunctional qualities. Ultimately, the message evolves into a down-to-earth agenda for reclaiming our native self by fighting globalization with vigorous localization. My favorite amongst Norbert-Hodge’s closing recommendations? Plant a garden. My second favorite? Withdraw your money from corporate banks and invest in your local credit union.
The film is, for the most part, a very effective educational tool. Norberg-Hodge’s narration is reinforced by the commentary of community leaders from around the world who echo well-documented ill effects of globalism. One of those voices is the charismatic philosopher-activist Dr. Vananda Shiva, who waxes eloquent on the West’s divide-and-conquer mentality when it comes to marketing strategies used against the developing world: “[Western capitalism] is basically a system that criminalizes the small producer and processor, and deregulates the giant businesses.”
Another strong voice throughout the film is that of Andrew Sims, of Britain’s New Economics Foundation. While discussing the seventh “inconvenient truth,” Sims states that “leveraging international financial agreements and world trade agreements levers people, often against their will, into a beggar-thy-neighbor, dog-eat-dog global commodity market in which speculation is king and real people and local communities are an afterthought.”
Although it is hard to disagree with the film’s conclusions, the viewer familiar with the issues of worldwide predatory consumerism and its impact on peoples living in both developed and developing societies may find The Economics of Happiness a bit heavy-handed. After passing through the dire, bleak imagery of the middle section, the film then shifts into a light-filled and hopeful conclusion (with an upswell of guitar accompanying the transition). Sadly, this viewer felt a bit of emotional manipulation going on.
Overall, though, I feel that The Economics of Happiness is a film worth seeing. It’s also a film that will hopefully be shown in classrooms throughout the English-speaking world. It is a primer for conscious relationship to the Earth and argues powerfully for a celebration and honoring of local cultures. I recommend it, and will be sharing it with my students.