A Conversation with Helena Norberg-Hodge (E21)

This is a conversation with the political thinker and activist Helena Norberg-Hodge. She had a huge radicalizing influence on my political thinking through her film Ancient Futures. By "radical" I don't mean the usual leftist politics. Helena is a tireless advocate for re-localization, the reclaiming of the commons, and the importance of direct participation in community. She is deeply insightful in linking these to global issues. Having spent decades in Ladakh, she is also one of the first to integrate traditional and indigenous world-views into a coherent critique of techno-industrial society, finance, and politics. Her work has been a great source of nourishment to me in unfolding a vision of a more beautiful world. I hope you enjoy this conversation we recorded in the fall of 2016 in England.



  1. Insightful conversation – thank you. I am interested in learning more about the earth as a living organism, and the earth’s nervous system (you mentioned whale song etc)
    With much gratitude

  2. I loved your book ‘The More Beautiful World’ and I’ve been following you since reading it last year. I remember too, reading Helena Norberg-Hodge’s book a number of years ago (in 2000, perhaps) and finding it very satisfying. And so I listened to this conversation with interest. I have to admit I was disappointed, even dismayed, by the answer to our present environmental /social/spiritual crisis that you came to, i.e. small self-sustaining communities tied to the land. While I can understand that it is not preferable to continue the current trend toward urbanization, this solution dismisses urban areas which represent more than 50% of the world’s population. How can we look forward to a future which eclipses such a large percentage of people? Are there truly no redeeming features of life in urban areas? How can such a solution even be envisioned when specialization of food production allows for people to live as artists, healers and intellectuals, all of whom contribute undeniably to the quality of life? What about the smaller footprint of life in urban areas, through its density? Just a few of the questions that came to mind after listening.

  3. at 18:59 HeLena says that ‘we must not confuse this man-made system, this techno-economic system, with nature itself. . . . .’ : I beg to differ: this ‘man-made techno-economic system’ IS nature. It is no less an outgrowth of nature and the biosphere than rocks, trees and mushrooms. This is the same kind of dualistic separatist thinking that is at the root of our delusional break with nature, that what is ‘human’ and ‘human-made’, esp. human civilizations and technology, is somehow completely ‘other than’ the biosphere/nature itself. I think what it represents is a failed evolution, an evolutionary dead-end for our species, unless the evolutionary process itself radically transforms us into humans that empathically sense inter-being and from that create a material civilization that models and respects empathic interbeing with all of life. I think that branch of evolution is also happening at the same time, but its a question of which evolutionary path we shall take. But this time we have the ability to make a conscious choice as to which evolutionary path we will take. Conscious evolution is the next stage of evolution for us; it is the evolution of evolution.

    • Dear Shaun,
      Trying to understand this, I think I see this the other way round: it is “our delusional break with nature” that is at the root of our “dualistic separatist thinking”. This “failed evolution” stems from this very break. At some point we started to create a new reality, an “artificial” or “man-made” reality apart from “nature”, which I would define as creation before the human mind/brain started to change it. We have removed much of the material world from its natural state, taken it away from its source of life. Does that make sense?
      All the best!

  4. It’s interesting how much discussion there was about the “best” way to respond to climate change. Much of this discussion seemed to have an underlying assumption that there was one most effective way to respond, an objectively better way to respond. This seemed to me slightly at odds with the discussion about other epistemologies or ways of knowing – surely a discussion of what makes our hearts come alive, our “bliss” as Joseph Campbell put it, is important to add to this discussion? Many solutions exist to the climate crisis, and it will take all sorts, following their own hearts and expressing their own gifts – for some this will be in direct action against carbon emitters, others will oppose trade deals, others will build community, others will grow food. Critical thinking is useful here, but so is inner knowing, and following our inner knowing will lead to diverse ways of effectively responding to the climate crisis.

  5. Wow! Shaun Bartone’s and Joan Backus’s replies articulate my unease with, despite it’s attractiveness “small self sustaining communities tied to the land” as the solution. In Ursula Le Guins novel City of Illusions begins with an example of one based on advanced technology.

    A friend of mine had some friends from high school visit for a meal . They are women in their sixties. My friend made a home cooked meal from healthy ingredients. Her friends response – nice food, but all the work you did, and what a mess in the kitchen! She then showed them her husband’s large vegetable garden and fruit trees. The response – what a lot of work and the dirt! My friend’s husband makes good money in the tech industry enabling them to make the lifestyle choice of living in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas at 3500 ft elevation in a nice home on acreage. He has a midwestern farm back ground so gardening, land management is in his blood. The wife is health and nutrition conscious, likes to cook. Our ancestors were forced to live tied to the land for survival, not as a lifestyle choice. Are we to hope for a mass life style choice change and the reversal of urbanization in America? Perhaps the ecomodernism folks have a point and and urban societies can be made to work ecomodernism.org

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