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Helena Norberg-Hodge: Globalized Monoculture Is Consuming the Planet

Environmentalist Helena Norberg-Hodge discusses how the global economy contributes to today’s most serious ecological crises.

A rainforest is destroyed to make way for palm oil in West Kalimantan, Borneo, in a photo taken on March 22, 2011. The global economy contributes to today's most serious ecological crises. (Photo: Rainforest Action Network)

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Globalization is as old as capitalism itself, although the trend has intensified significantly in the last 40 or so years, promoting what is known as a “monoculture” economy with devastating effects for the well-being of many communities in the global South and the environment alike. Localization, in this regard, is seen by an increasing number of people as the counterweight to globalization.

A leading voice against “monoculture” and a passionate advocate of localization in the struggle for a just social and economic order and a sustainable ecology is the activist, author and producer Helena Norberg-Hodge. In this first installment of a two-part interview with Truthout, Norberg-Hodge speaks about globalization, localization, and her work to promote a just and sustainable future social order.

C.J. Polychroniou: In addition to doing extensive work at the grassroots level with communities in the global South, you have sought to raise Western consciousness about the urgent environmental problems facing humanity through your work as the founder and director of the International Society for Ecology and Culture. Tell us a few things about this organization and about the main obstacles facing environmental organizations such as yours.

Helena Norberg-Hodge: For almost four decades now, my organization, Local Futures (previously the International Society for Ecology and Culture) has been promoting a broad holistic vision for an “economics of happiness.” For us, this is shorthand for an economics of social as well as ecological well-being, which will come about when the globalizing direction of the dominant system is shifted to encourage localization. The term “globalization” has been marketed as a way to create a “global village” by bringing the world together through increased trade and global communication. However, the structures that underpin these changes are trade treaties that have given global corporations and banks increasing wealth and power, while destroying the fabric of village life around the world.

We have been raising awareness about the destructive effects of globalization while promoting “localization” as a strategic solution to our social, ecological and spiritual crises. Localization is about adapting the scale of the economy to be more supportive of local, place-based culture and enterprises, rather than global multinational corporations. This does not mean eliminating international trade or collaboration. It is about ensuring that business conforms to the needs of democracy and genuine sustainability.

“I am convinced that our major problem is a lack of vision, not innate greed.”

Our work has involved a range of grassroots initiatives in both the global North and South, including many hands-on projects — introducing village-based renewable energy technologies in Ladakh, India; Bhutan and Nepal, for example, and establishing farmers’ markets in Europe, the US and Australia. However, most of our activities have to do with what I call “education as activism”: books, films, conferences, workshops, public lectures, study groups and — even comic books — that can catalyze effective action from the grassroots in many different parts of the world.

This work is grounded in a conviction that we need to rebuild our deeper connections with other people and nature, while rethinking basic assumptions about “development,” “growth” and “progress.” The global economy destroys community and the relationship between people and the earth by breaking down interdependent local economies. To counter this, I believe that we need grassroots and political engagement in the form of resistance and renewal — resistance to further globalization, along with the renewal of localized systems in food, energy, finance and other sectors of the economy. I’m convinced that this is the most strategic path toward genuine sustainability.

Over the years, we have established an informal network of groups and individuals that are working on these issues. In 2015, we launched an initiative to formalize this network, called the International Alliance for Localization, which now has over 200 members. Werun a regular webinar series and a forum that allows people to connect with each other. Our goal is to build a more cohesive movement for change.

Social and environmental organizations that question the dominant system face a number of challenges. First of all, it is most important for us to recognize the extent to which our thinking has been enclosed. Big money has been funding the big ideas of our time and colonized virtually every source of vision and information — from kindergarten to university, and science, not to mention media and advertising. When we try to present information that threatens the mainstream, we generally get no airtime. In addition, there has been virtually no funding available either for the “think tank” type work that we need, or for practical projects that support genuine decentralization. On top of all that, we are pitted not only against a powerful system, but against one another to find enough funding.

Having said all that, I am heartened by the large number of individuals and organizations I encounter that demonstrate genuine goodwill and perseverance. I am convinced that our major problem is a lack of vision, not innate greed. Our work is all about encouraging single-issue groups to link hands to tackle the root economic causes of our crises. We also provide a grounded and realistic way forward.

Today, it is encouraging to see how many groups that previously were focusing on single issues — biodiversity loss, separate from income inequality, separate from deforestation — are beginning to focus on the economy. It is possible that we will see this movement rise up in the next few years and bring about broad systemic change.

A main focus in your call for a “new economy” is a trenchant critique of the trend of the current global economic system toward the promotion of “global monoculture.” Can you explain what you mean by this term?

What we are witnessing is the homogenization of everything that we think of as culture. Around the world, the buildings we live in, the clothes we wear, the food we eat are virtually identically produced by the same companies. Even the songs we sing, the language we speak are being homogenized. This can be seen vividly in the extinction of languages — one disappears about every three months. As corporate-controlled media and Western-style schooling combine to spread a consumer monoculture around the world, unique individuals are being transformed into mass consumers, and diverse cultural traditions, into replicas of the “American Dream.”

When you want to market your products globally, diversity is inefficient. Different languages, different values, different ways of measuring are an obstacle to the profits for global banks and corporations. On the other hand, it is both efficient and profitable for multinationals if everyone speaks the same language and has the same tastes in clothing, food and gadgets. It’s no wonder most advertising has been geared toward making that happen.

Tragically, most development policies follow the same path — essentially attempting to westernize diverse cultures around the world. Schooling and corporate media bombard people in the “less developed” parts of the world with ideas and images that present the modern, Western consumer lifestyle as the ideal, while implicitly denigrating local traditions and land-based ways of life. The message is that the urban is sophisticated and the rural is backward; that imports of processed food and manufactured goods are superior to local products; that “foreign is good, local is crap,” in the words of an advertising executive in China. Global advertising expenditures exceeded $500 billion in 2014, with the highest rate of spending growth occurring in the less industrialized countries of the [global] South.

What specific developments in late capitalism have led to trends toward “global monoculture”?

Economic globalization is a process by which global trade and investment are deregulated, primarily through “free trade” treaties and agreements. These have helped fuel an explosive growth in international trade, which is now almost 32 times greater than it was in 1950. This tremendous growth has, in turn, stoked the expansion of the corporations that dominate the global economy.

“Focusing on reversing the process of global deregulation is the single most important and strategic way to turn things around.”

One of the earliest modern trade agreements, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), was established in the aftermath of World War II with the explicit purpose of reducing tariffs and so-called “barriers to trade.” Starting in the 1990s, the number of trade agreements began to increase sharply. The year 1994 was a watershed: The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) came into force, and the World Trade Organization (WTO), the supranational institution that regulates global trade, was created. Since then, literally thousands of regional and bilateral trade and investment agreements have been ratified. At the time of writing, there are still more agreements under negotiation, but by far the most far-reaching in terms of size and scope are the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). TTIP is being negotiated between the US and the European Union, while the TPP includes the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Mexico and six other countries. Combined, the TTIP and TPP could create “free trade” zones encompassing the vast majority of international trade.

What all of these treaties have in common is that they give corporations and foreign investors the freedom to move in and out of national economies in search of “favorable business environments” — where labor and resources are cheap, taxes are low, and environmental and social protection measures are lax or nonexistent.

One way the treaties create this “downward spiral of taxation and regulation” is by allowing any national policies — including domestic labor laws that mandate humane working conditions or rules that limit pollution of air and water — to be struck down if they are perceived to be barriers to trade or foreign investment. Many treaties include “investor-state dispute instruments,” which grant private corporations the right to sue governments if they believe that regulations will reduce their expected profits.

For instance, in 2012, Swedish energy giant Vattenfall launched an investor-state lawsuit against Germany, seeking 3.7 billion euros in compensation for lost profits related to two of its nuclear power plants. The case followed the German government’s decision to phase out nuclear energy after the Fukushima nuclear disaster. In another case, the tobacco giant Philip Morris has filed such a suit against the Australian government, which had required changes to cigarette packaging in the name of public health.

Most nations are now bound up in agreements that force them to acquiesce to the demands of big corporations and banks, or to engage in costly legal battles that take place in secretive, corporate-friendly arbitration tribunals outside of their own domestic courts. But this can be changed. Corporate rule has been brought about because of treaties signed and ratified over the last several decades without any meaningful democratic process. While seeking election, politicians address public concerns, but once in office, they are dancing to the tune of transnational corporations.

Focusing on reversing the process of global deregulation is the single most important and strategic way to turn things around.

One of the most interesting aspects of your analysis regarding contemporary global developments is the connection between the spread of “global monoculture” and ethnic violence in the global South. Can you elaborate a bit on this rather widely unknown or unsuspected connection for the benefit of our readers?

The rise of violence and civil disorder around the world is a predictable effect of an economic system that imposes monocultural stereotypes while simultaneously heightening economic insecurity. This economy is creating what can best be described as a “cultural inferiority complex.” Everywhere in the global South, economic pressures are reinforced by the media and advertising, whose images consistently portray the rich and the beautiful living an exciting and glamorous version of the “American Dream.” Satellite television now brings shows like “Sex and the City” to the most remote parts of the world, making village life seem primitive, backward and boring by contrast. Young people in particular are made to feel ashamed of their own culture. The undermining of cultural self-worth is an implicit goal of many marketers, who promote their own brands by imparting a sense of shame about local products.

Around the world, the one-dimensional media stereotypes are almost invariably based on an urban, blonde, blue-eyed Western consumer model. If you are a farmer or are dark-skinned, you are made to feel backward and inferior. Thus, advertisements in Thailand and South America urge people to “correct” their dark eye color with blue contact lenses. For the same reason, many dark-skinned women throughout the world use dangerous chemicals to lighten their skin and hair, and some Asian women have operations to make their eyes look more Western. These are profound acts of capitulation to a global social and economic order that offers material and social rewards to those who come closest to the corporate, commodified standards of beauty.

For the vast majority around the world, the attempt to live up to this artificial ideal proves impossible. What follows is often a profound sense of failure, inferiority and self-rejection. In this state of being, people are far more susceptible to fundamentalist influences and likely to lash out at a perceived enemy.

“The global consumer economy doesn’t just feed existing tensions; in many cases, it actually creates them.”

But it is not only psychological pressures that lie behind increased divisiveness and friction. The economic forces that destroy self-esteem are also destroying livelihoods. In the global system, education, technology and development work together to create unemployment. In traditional, place-based economies, where food, clothing and shelter were derived from the land, there was no such thing as unemployment. But modern schooling — usually seen as an unequivocal good — actually trains the young for jobs in fossil fuel-based urban centers in an unsustainable economy. In many places in the global South, there are often thousands applying for a single position. In fact, the majority of people in the developing world are being educated for jobs that simply don’t exist.

It is important that we highlight the fact that, even in the West, people are being squeezed economically like never before. Unless you’re working in finance or the tech industry, it is likely that you are seeing the costs of living — housing, food, leisure, continuing education etc. — rise far faster than income. People are working harder and longer hours than ever before, which is just one more way the economy breaks down relationships and our mental well-being.

The loss of self-esteem, along with intense competition for increasingly scarce jobs, leads to deep social divisions. As people become trapped in a demoralizing system of cutthroat competition, there is an all-but-inevitable escalation in prejudice, racism, hostility toward immigrants and tensions between ethnic groups.

The rise of divisions, violence and civil disorder around the world is a predictable effect of the attempt to force diverse cultures and peoples into a consumer monoculture. The problem is exacerbated when people from many differing ethnic backgrounds are pulled into cities where they are cut off from their communities and cultural moorings and face ruthless competition for the basic necessities of life. In the intensely demoralizing and competitive situation they face, differences of any kind become increasingly significant, and tension between differing ethnic or religious groups can easily flare into violence.

Despite the connection between the spread of the global monoculture and ethnic conflict, many in the West place responsibility at the feet of tradition rather than modernity, blaming “ancient hatreds” that they believe have smoldered beneath the surface for centuries. Certainly ethnic friction is a phenomenon that predates colonialism and modernization. But after four decades of documenting and analyzing the effects of globalization on the Indian subcontinent, I am convinced that becoming connected to the global consumer economy doesn’t just feed existing tensions; in many cases, it actually creates them. The arrival of the global economy breaks down human-scale structures, destroys bonds of reciprocity and mutual dependence, and pressures the young to substitute their own culture and values with the artificial values of advertising and the media. As I have stressed earlier, this means rejecting one’s own identity and rejecting oneself.

Children bear the brunt of this process, with drug abuse, violence and suicide steadily rising in the under-18 age group in many industrialized countries. Meanwhile, the World Health Organization (WHO) has reported that “globally, more than 350 million people of all ages suffer from depression,” which is now the leading cause of disability worldwide. Perhaps most alarming of all, in 2010, the WHO found that global rates of suicide had increased by 60 percent since World War II.

Stay tuned for the second installment of this exclusive interview, which will be published by Truthout on April 5, 2016.

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