Ancient Futures is an intriguing title for a book about development and, indeed, this is an unusual book. Norberg-Hodge raises the possibility of learning from indigenous sustainable cultures by describing a journey through Ladakh in time. The narrative jumps from descriptions of Ladakhi life to the maturation of the author’s own views about Ladakh over her 16 years of visiting and sharing with Ladakhi friends and mentors. Her style switches from eulogising the dignity of the noble savage and pointing fingers at thoughtless maldevelopment wrought by the bureaucratic powers that be, to an attempt at understanding the complexities of Ladakh’s uneasy status at the periphery of the global economic network.
The book has three parts: Tradition, Change, and Learning from Ladakh. In the prologue, Norberg-Hodge denounces her Western heritage which she sees as rooted in an industrial culture that promulgates centralisation, technology, a money economy, and suffers the pressures and stresses that accompany it. In contrast, traditional Ladakh is depicted as “a society in which there is neither waste nor pollution, a society in which crime is virtually non-existent, communities are healthy and strong, and a teenage boy is never embarrased to be gentle and affectionate to his mother or grandmother.”
The section begins with an account of Ladakh’s unique landscape, high, remote and cold, where the pattern of life is dictated by seasons which alternate between scorching summer sun and winters in which rivers and land are frozen solid for eight months a year. The reader travels with Norberg-Hodge and her Ladakhi friends to field, village and monastery, ´catching glimpses of agricultural work and festivals. The key to survival in this harsh environment is thrift, not in the sense of miserliness but in the frugality that comes from the careful allocation of limited resources. Indeed, caring for the needs of others is an essential and integral part of traditional Ladakhi life.
Ladakhis come alive for the reader as a joyful people whose culture finds ample means of expressing well-being, vitality and high spirits. Men, women, the aged, andchildren live a stress-free existence, eat wholesome, local, organically-grown food, rely on the Tibetan system of medicine (as practiced by local doctors, known as amchi) and believe that conflicts should be avoided at all costs. Above all, the Ladakhi life is fashioned by its Buddhist religious heritage — there is no better way to please the Buddha than to please all sentient beings.
The second section of the book, “Change”, aptly begins with the arrival of Westerners. Significant con tact with the outside world began after 1974, when India opened Ladakh to tourism. Western-style development initialed by the Indian government consisted primarily of building up infrastructure, especially roads and the production of energy. And tourism was an integral part of this development package. The most disturbing impact of tourism was on the Ladakhi self-image. To a Ladakhi, tourists not only speak a strange language and look even stranger but they appear to have inexhaustible wealth, infinite leisure time and no responsibilities.
Norberg-Hodge acknowledges that money played a minor role in the subsistence economy, but she adds that “in a day a tourist would spend as much as a Ladakhi family might in a year. Ladakhis did not realise that money played a completely different role for foreigners, that they needed it to survive. Compared to these strangers they suddenly felt poor. The tourists, for their part, think Ladakhis are backward; implicitly or explicitly…” While this is undoubtedly a biased view—not all tourists are so dumb, and certainly not all Ladakhis so simple—there is truth in this perspective.
The opening of Ladakh to the outside world brought not only tourism but also Hindi/Western films and television. “For the young Ladakhi the picture they present is irresistible and by contrast their lives seem primitive, silly and inefficient.” The move away from traditional learning patterns begins with the government schools which provide Western-style education. This is perceived as “synthetic and divorced from the living context.” Enamoured with the material culture so vividly portrayed by tourism, television and partly by development programmes, young Ladakhis are rejecting their traditional way of life. They willingly exchange a rich heritage for an esoteric ideal, without really knowing, or choosing to ignore, the reality of what development has brought to other countries.
For Norberg-Hodge, commercialisation, the provision of infrastructure and the alien tourist television introduced culture arc the cornerstones of a systematic transformation of society. It has, for example, made it difficult to remain a farmer, increased the gap between the rich and poor, slapped a monetary value on time, and pushed people further and further apart. The pressures that lead to cultural breakdown are many and varied, but the most important elements spring from the fact that most individuals do not and cannot have an overview of the development process, while they are in the midst of it.
The problems and stresses of economic transformation are especially visible around Leh, the capital. Urban overcrowding and lack of amenities have begun to become serious. Pollution and waste are rampant, and the modern economy has begun to “play havoc with common sense.” In Leh, building with mud — a traditional and freely available resource — is becoming prohibitively expensive whereas the imported style of building with its attendant negative aesthetic impact is mushrooming. “This is a good example of how Western-style development operates to undermine local systems.” In lamenting the direction of change Norberg-Hodge writes that perhaps the most tragic vicious circle she has witnessed is “the way in which individual insecurity contributes to a weakening of family and community ties which, in turn, further shakes individual sell esteem… A gap is developing between old and young, rich and poor, men and women, Buddhist and Muslim.”
Development scientists would be most interested in the third section of the book, “Learning from Ladakh”, which tries to link change here with global processes. One gets the impression from Norberg-Hodge” change of tone that this section was written in the latter years of her relationship with Ladakh. She acknowledges that “my description might well seem exaggerated, as though I have seen the traditional life through rose-tinted glasses and painted the modem much too black … much of what I have described in the old Ladakh is positive and most of my description of the new looks at negative changes. This is because I have primarily dealt with connections… to describe the shape and feel of two contrasting way of life rather than focusing on isolated factors.” But surely a person from the developed world could not help but look at Ladakh -with different .eyes, “whatever her or his intellectual viewpoint.
Norberg-Hodge admits that many aspects of traditional culture were far from ideal: there was a lack of basic com forts, such as heating during freezing winters; limited communication with the outside world; high illiteracy and high infant mortality. But, she says, Western yardstick can be very misleading. Much of what Westerners would consider hardships are part of daily existence for Ladakhis. Although development has its plus points — money and medicine have brought subs tantial benefits—there is a broader perspective to consider. “It becomes clear”, Norberg-Hodge says, “that the traditional Nature-based society, with all its flaws and limitations, was more sustainable both socially and environmentally … By comparison, the new Ladakh scores very poorly; the modem culture is producing an array of environmental problems that, if unchecked, will lead to irreversible decline.”
But does development inevitably destroy? Norberg-Hodge is optimistic. “I am convinced that the Ladakhis could raise their standard of living without sacrificing the sort of social and ecological balance that they have enjoyed for centuries. To do so, however, they would need to “build on their own ancient foundations rather than tearing them down, as is the way of conventional development.” As one of the last subsistence economies to survive virtually intact to the present day, Ladakh has a unique vantage point from which to observe the whole process of development.
This brings us to the central point of this section. To counteract maldevelopment, Norberg-Hodge proposes what she calls “counter-development”. Its primary goal would be to offer people the opportunity to make informed choices about their future. Counter-development would employ all forms of communication to spread the message that modern capital — and energy-intensive trends are simply not sustain able. Ultimately, the aim would be to promote self-respect and self-reliance, thereby protecting life-sustaining diversity and creating the conditions for locally based, truly sustainable development. The steps needed to stem the rush towards unsustainable development can and should be taken on a massive scale and should be implemented immediately. To combat the rapid spread of the monoculture, we need to meet it on its own terms: global, top down, fast-paced and capital-intensive. Such analysis prompted Norberg-Hodge to start the Ladakh Project in 1980, which seeks “to encourage a revisioning of progress towards more ecological and community-based forms of living.” In 1983, the Ladakh Ecological Development Group, “LEDeG”, was formed. Its aims are to develop and demonstrate a whole range of appropriate technologies such as Trombe walls for space heating, solar cookers, and hydraulic ram pumps, apart from supporting cultural activities.
The book ends on a note of optimism, “new movements are springing up, committed to living on a human scale, and to more feminine and spiritual values. These trends are, as Ladakh has shown in an important sense, very old. They are in fact a rediscovery of values that have existed for thousands of years — values that recognise our place in the natural order, our indissoluble connection to one another and to the Earth.”
Ancient Futures is worth reading. It is liberally sprinkled with nuggets of wisdom gleaned from the Ladakhi way of life, which is depicted as the epitome of simple living and high thinking. Norberg-Hodge’s compassion and deep regard for the Ladakhi people shine through, despite unwitting overtones of arrogance. Though some of the analysis seems simplistic and more than a trifle naive, the book makes important observations and suggestions. But if only story telling were kept in its place. Although perhaps intended as a means of emphasising important points, such tales interrupt the flow of the book and its arguments and would be better placed in glossy travelogues.
Chaterjee is a Delhi-based social scientist who has lived and worked in Ladakh.