As the protests continue about global capitalism and unfair wealth distribution, I am minded of a book I read and reviewed some time ago but that speaks to the world just as much today.
Ladakh (part of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir) is a beautiful part of the Western Himalayas. It used to be a synergistic society. That is, the economy was shaped by mutual aid or co-operation, not competition. This concept of sharing everything was seen in the conduct of all aspects of the people’s lives, from farm work to funerals, animal herding to partying. There was no waste; everything had a further use, all was recycled. Even human waste, mixed with ashes and earth, was spread annually on the fields. Money was scarcely needed, only being used for a few luxuries such as jewellery, salt, tea and a few metals for cooking pots. Otherwise the people were self sufficient, living a life of frugality in the true sense of the word, not being mean or stingy, but rather using scarce resources in a careful way, getting more out of little, being “fruitful.”
And most important of all, the people were really and truly happy. They shared a deep contentment, a strong self- respect and sense of their own individual values. Women had equal status and respect with the men, the old people had active and respected roles in their extended families, even the boys were brought up to help with the nurturing and compassionate care of the young and old alike, and this was in no way deemed to be “sissy” or unmanly.
Then in the mid 1970’s the Indian government opened the region up to Western tourism.
Over the preceding centuries changes had occurred, but at a pace whereby they could be absorbed into a gently adapting culture. Now the changes were rapid. The people were exposed to money and a seeming Western wealth that they could not comprehend; but of course they were tempted by what they saw. The youngsters saw the fun their Western counterparts were apparently having, with cars and consumerism. The adults saw technology they could not have dreamed of. And a “need” developed that they never knew they had before! And with that need came greed, and all the inevitable trappings of a global economy that relies on continuing growth and consumerism for its furtherance.
The problem was that neither side really understood the other side. The Western tourists only saw what they perceived as poverty, deprivation, lack of education, lack of “basic” conveniences. The Ladakh did not see the darker side of Western society, the aggression and stress, the cancers and heart disease, the pollution, the lack of respect for many of our old folk, left to stare at walls in nursing homes, unloved and lonely. This is the story of Ladakh, told in full by Helena Norberg-Hodge in Ancient Futures: Lessons from Ladakh for a Globalizing World.
How long is it going to be, the author asks, before we sit up and take notice of the damage inflicted on our world by our global economy, based as it is on unsustainable consumerism and material growth. Influenced by Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful, Helena Norberg-Hodge’s work continues within the International Society for Ecology and Culture, promoting locally based alternatives to the global consumer culture.
We can learn so much from the Ladakh story. When will we listen to our hearts not our minds?
It is to be hoped that we can somehow show to the rest of the world that we have gone wrong – that we have tipped the balance too far over towards materialism and consumerism and that our lifestyle is not working, that it is not as desirable as it may look from their perspective. It is to be hoped that we can somehow curb our excesses, drastically reduce our consumption, and meet the rest of the world halfway between our lifestyles and theirs, so that the whole world can live according to its needs, and within its means. “Live simply, so that others may simply live,” said Mahatma Gandhi.
My book Why Religions Work explores religious tolerance issues. It could not be more relevant at the moment with the world in its present state.
This blog has concentrated recently on the wonderful pilgrimages I have been on - to the Holy Land and to Turkey and more recently to Holy Georgia , Greece "In the Steps of St Paul" , Ethiopia and most recently my experiences in Iran.
"If I was allowed another life I would go to all the places of God's Earth. What better way to worship God than to look on all his works?" from The Chains of Heaven: an Ethiopian Romance Philip Marsden