The fundamental problem we have as modern societies is the scale and pace of the global economic system. Globalisation is transforming unique individuals into mass consumers and homogenising diverse cultural traditions around the world in service to the system.
I’m dreaming of a human-scale future – one in which most of my daily needs can be met within walking distance. It’s a future in which communities are strong: I can depend on friends, relatives and neighbours to lend a helping hand when needed. Men are more involved in the care of children and women have greater influence in politics and the economy. Our Earth is thriving.
Such aspirations have their foundations in my experiences living in more human-scale communities in Mexico, rural Spain, Bhutan and Ladakh, or ‘Little Tibet’. In these societies, the economic, social and cultural interactions essential to life were all accessible by foot, whether I was going to the post office or buying food. Returning to highly industrialised countries – to the super-speed and hyper-scale, to air-conditioned indoor spaces, to cars stuck in traffic jams or to the anonymity of the subways – I became aware of negative impacts on my well-being. Over the years it became more and more clear to me that disconnection – from others, from our landscape or from our food – makes us emotionally, as well as physically, ill. I also became convinced that reconnection can heal and that the Ladakh of my earliest remembrances can guide us in our search for deeper human connection and continuity.
The fundamental problem we have as modern societies is the scale and pace of the global economic system. Globalisation is transforming unique individuals into mass consumers and homogenising diverse cultural traditions around the world in service to the system. This has a profound effect on every aspect of our lives – even our sense of self. Many of us feel overwhelmed by a seemingly endless series of crisis. The climate is changing at an unnatural rate; conflicts rage around the world; the global economy may be on the verge of collapse. A sense of helplessness means that few of us are completely untouched by a pervading sense of isolation, insecurity and low self-esteem, all of which have negative consequences for our mental health.
In virtually every industrialised country, there is now what is described as an epidemic of depression, and developing nations are fast catching up. The World Health Organization predicts that soon depression will be second only to heart conditions in terms of the global disease burden. Carl Walker, in his book Depression and Globalization (2007), links the erosion of social capital and job security associated with the global economic system to rising levels of depressive disorders – a kind of ‘trickle-down’ mental health effect of global politics.
The systemic promotion of corporate growth, so instrinsic to the globalisation model, also necessarily destroys wilderness and biodiversity and creates an expanding stream of waste that the biosphere simply cannot absorb. Tinkering with the system – through shifting individual consumer preferences or other ‘market-based’ mechanisms – doesn’t alter its fundamental dynamic.
At the deepest level, the lessons from Ladakh are about ‘localisation’ or re-establishing human connections, our sense of interdependence with others and with the natural world. Because this connection is a fundamental human need, we actually increase our own well-being as we decrease the scale of economic activity.
Systems of organisation that are more human-scale require us to use our full human intelligence – which means our eyes, senses and feelings rather than just the narrow intellect – to inform our decisions. As we bring the impact of our actions closer to home, we are forced to appreciate the diversity and complexity of the living world, of the individual and constantly changing realities of living ecosystems as well as society. This prevents the simplistic reductionism characteristic of the modern world where one size fits all, whether it’s seed varieties, plant species or chemicals.
One of the most important factors contributing to a greater sense of wellbeing is living at a slower pace, with the inner peace and spaciousness it provides. In traditional Ladakh, time pressures were non-existent. Even at the peak of harvest season, work was done at a leisurely and gracious pace. There was time for laughter and celebration and constant song. In the West, on the other hand, the common lament of almost everyone I talk to is that they are too busy and too tired. We were not built to run at the speed of computers; the speed is contributing to a way of life that leaves us stressed, stupid and exhausted.
A human-scale and human-paced future recognises connection as the primary condition of well-being. Connecting to the people we depend on, the food that sustains us and the Earth that is our home is a fundamental challenge to the status quo of the globalised market. Localisation is a realistic — perhaps the only — solution to the many crises we face. Fortunately, it is a relatively simple shift to make – once we begin to work together. The economics of happiness is closer to us than we realise.