Consumerism Inspiration

The Dark Side of Consumerism: What Landfills and Nursing Homes Taught These Indian Villagers

Written by Sven Eberlein

Glamorized consumer culture has serious side effects—and to help people in remote Indian villages understand this, one filmmaker brought them to the West. Here’s what they thought of the dark side of Western lifestyles.

Nomadic Picnic.

Nomadic picnic, Khardung village, Ladakh, India. (Photo: Prabhu B Doss / Flickr)

This article was originally published in YES! Magazine, based on research and an interview I did with author and filmmaker Helena Norberg-Hodge, the founder of the International Society for Ecology and Culture (ISEC) that has sponsored villagers from the Himalayan desert region of Ladakh to go on “reality tours” to experience what everyday life is really like in the West.

Before the Indian Army built a road to Ladakh in 1962, residents of the Himalayan desert region known as “Little Tibet” had been little exposed to outside ideas. Making a living in one of the highest, driest, and coldest inhabited places on Earth was never easy: Rainfall is less than four inches a year, and in the winter the temperatures go below minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit. But Ladakhis have nevertheless lived an abundant agricultural life that allows them to thrive physically, culturally, and spiritually.

With the building of the road came a flurry of outside influence: material goods, centralized government, and tourism. By the time author and filmmaker Helena Norberg-Hodge first visited the region in 1975, Western pop culture and rampant consumerism were already making it difficult for Ladakhis to sustain the life that had nurtured them for so long.

“There was this romantic picture of Western consumer culture portrayed not only in media and advertising, but also in schoolbooks that made rural small town life seem backward and primitive,” Norberg-Hodge says, describing the shift in attitude among Ladakhis—largely fueled by media exposure—that was making people feel inferior about their modest traditional ways. While the appeal of a modern lifestyle full of instant gratification is understandable, Norberg-Hodge says that there was a clear lack of information, especially among Ladakhi youth, about the realities of life in the West. The underbelly of Western society was still largely invisible in developing countries during the pre-Internet and reality-TV era.

Norberg-Hodge says the visitors are most affected by people’s lack of free time, the social segregation of old and young, and the anonymity lack of interaction with neighbors.

For years, Norberg-Hodge had arranged month-long tours for Europeans to live and work on Ladakhi family farms, to help Westerners connect with what she describes as a less destructive way of life. She also hoped they would relay to the Ladakhis a more complete picture of the impact of conventional development in other parts of the world, such as the long-term effects of pesticides and chemical fertilizers on soil and agriculture. But after watching the transformation of Ladakhi society toward a more Westernized, glamorized lifestyle, Norberg-Hodge had another idea. Her nonprofit, International Society for Ecology and Culture (ISEC), began sponsoring Ladakhi villagers to go on “reality tours” of their own, to experience what everyday life is really like in places like Sweden, Germany, and the United Kingdom.

“I thought it was important for them to know that this fossil-fuel-based urban consumer culture, aside from its huge ecological cost, wasn’t making people happier,” she said.

In addition to experiencing firsthand the side of consumerism that rarely gets shown on TV, reality tours were the perfect catalyst to connect Ladakhis’ traditional cultural and economic values with growing alternative movements in the West. “We really wanted to show them how things like organic food, local community, holistic health care, and natural materials were valued in the marketplace,” Norberg-Hodge says, “because this is what the Ladakhis already had.” If they could see how their traditional ways were becoming not only more and more attractive and popular but lucrative in the West, it would drive home the message that rather than considering themselves backward and old-fashioned, they could play a role at the vanguard of a new global sustainability movement.

With the help of organizations like the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements, ISEC has been able to sponsor 50 “reality tourists.” Ladakhis stay with locals for as long as three months, visiting nursing homes, shopping malls, and garbage dumps, as well as local farms and solar energy installations. While they are astounded by the amount of stuff that is thrown away, Norberg-Hodge says the visitors are much more affected by people’s lack of free time, the social segregation of old and young, and the anonymity and lack of interaction with neighbors—even in densely populated apartment buildings. Some of their reactions are documented in Norberg-Hodge’s 2011 documentary, The Economics of Happiness.

“You’d be amazed—this way of life in the West is really not what we think,” Norberg-Hodge reported one woman saying upon returning to her village. “People live right on top of each other in a building and they don’t even know each others’ names. When someone comes to stay they make such a fuss over things like bed linen.”

As a growing number of Westerners are waking up to the social, environmental, and spiritual cost of unbridled consumerism and reacquainting themselves with localized, community-oriented economies, rural communities across the global South can be important models of the interdependent social fabric that has served people so well throughout history. Likewise, while the ethos of materialism continues to encroach on these communities, the exchanges that Helena Norberg-Hodge and ISEC have been facilitating for well over 30 years have shown some villagers that many of their traditional skills and ways of living are worth holding on to.

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Sven Eberlein wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media project that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Sven is a San Francisco-based freelance writer.

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Sven Eberlein

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  • I find this article very satisfying as I have long questioned the push for globalization. Yes, there are advantages of knowing about and trading with other cultures, but not when we risk losing our own. The video raises another angle: wisdom. I also question the push for education as means of global competition. Education’s first purpose should knowledge; useful, logical, meaningful knowledge; not a tool to beat someone else. As we turn up our noses at non-degreed people, we break the connection to grandmother’s wisdom.

    • Thanks Ruth, that is a really great point and goes to the heart of it all, which is the question of why we do what we do in the first place. I was always confounded by the use of college as simply a stepping stone to making money, but it’s pretty much become a self-fulfilling prophesy, as nowadays it seems like college is the only way people are told they can have a career. And I think in that rush to get everyone their diplomas we’ve forgotten that it could be a place where people are encouraged to think about deeper knowledge and wisdom, at least for a few years before going off to be a “productive member of society.”

  • Hi Sven…I was interested in reading what the Ladakhis brought back to their own culture after immersing themselves in ours. Their points about time and our general lack of knowledge of who our neighbors are resonated with me. I have often wondered how the West has evolved to prefer this over a more intimate experience of life? When I hear the latest time saving gadget being touted in the marketplace…I question what will we do with all that “saved”time…go for a walk…hang out with family and friends?

    • Hi Albertus, I think your very last line nails it as far as the Ladakhis and their “free” time are concerned: “hang out with family and friends”

      I think that’s pretty much what most people in the “developing” world choose to do with as much of their time as possible. And it’s probably not too far off from what most people in the West would like to do with their time, but paradoxically are held up in the pursuit of all the things that are supposed to make life easier and more convenient.