The Economics of Happiness (2011)

Film Review

The term “economic relocalization,” which has been around about four years, describes the global movement of loosely knit Transition Towns and other grassroots networks working to strengthen local and regional economies and systems of food and energy production. I myself was unacquainted with the term until I came across it in the promotional materials for the Economics of Happiness. Most of the last six years of my life have been focused on grassroots relocalization activities. For four years, I helped run a local mutual credit system (an alternative monetary system allowing people on a fixed income to purchase goods and services from each other). During the same period, I have been a strong and vocal supporter of New Plymouth’s farmers market, as well helping to start a local community garden. Along with a group of local energy engineers and other members of Grey Power, I also (successfully) lobbied New Plymouth District Council to promote and support locally produced “distributed” energy (for example local wind farms and grid-connect solar electricity) systems.

What I like best about Economics of Happiness is learning I am part of a global movement to strengthen local communities economically and politically. The 2011 film, narrated by Helena Norberg Hodge, is based on her 1991 book Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh and her 1993 film by the same name. The book and both films draw their inspiration from the nearly forty years Norberg-Hodge has spent living and working in Ladakh, a small Himalayan region in the India-controlled (and disputed) state of Jammu and Kashmir. The beginning of Economics of Happiness includes footage from the 1993 film. It also includes substantial documentary footage on the global economic crisis and the impending global ecological crisis, a consequence of runaway climate change and mass species extinction.

In addition to examining extreme weather events, mass unemployment, extreme income inequality and skyrocketing energy and food costs, the Economics of Happiness also explores “the crisis of the human spirit.” As evidence of this “spiritual” crisis, Norberg-Hodge examines the epidemic level of loneliness, alienation and demoralization that seems to accompany wholesale industrial globalization.

The Psychological Devastation of Globalization

The film opens with the same narrative Norberg-Hodge recounts in her earlier Ancient Futures film. We are shown the “before” image of Ladakh, a rich thriving culture in which residents live in large spacious homes, enjoy respectable amounts of leisure time and have no concept of unemployment. Then we have the “after” image where, thanks to globalization, cheap (government subsidized) food, fuel and consumer goods have flooded the region and destroyed most residents’ traditional livelihoods. Previously pristine communities face rising levels of air and water pollution, while Ladakhi teenagers are continuously bombarded with consumerist messages.

It’s heartbreaking to see the psychological effect of all this. Most young Ladakhi have come to regard themselves as backwards and poor, while the communities they live in face rising racial tensions, juvenile delinquency and epidemic levels of psychological depression.

The Destructive Nature of Urbanization

The film goes on to sketch the mechanics of globalization, stressing the deregulation that forces small self-contained regions like Ladakh to open their markets to foreign goods, which quickly supplant higher priced local products. Norberg-Hodge paints an even uglier picture of urbanization, an inevitable result of forcing millions of small formers off their land. In discussing the growing global scarcity of fossil fuels, water and food, she stresses that city life is vastly more resource intensive than rural living. All urban residents rely on food, energy and water transported from some distant source, while they burn up massive fossil fuel transporting their waste products to the remote countryside. Most city residents go along with the massive ecological and social devastation their lifestyle produces because they don’t see it. Most of the damage occurs somewhere else.

Rebuilding Local Communities and Economies

The solutions Norberg-Hodge offers for all these problems are similar to those proposed by an increasing number of “latter day” economists. First and foremost we must acknowledge that humankind has exceeded the earth’s carrying capacity – that the corporate drive for continual economic growth must end. Secondly people of conscience need to opt out of corporate economy to facilitate the creation of more efficient and environmentally accountable regional and local economies. In addition to transitioning to local energy and food production, people need to exert collective pressure to break up large investment banks and replace them with local retail banks and credit unions. State and local governments need to stop giving subsidies and tax breaks to large corporations and start supporting their own local businesses. Not only do small businesses create the vast majority of jobs, but they don’t pack up after a few years to move to overseas.

Norberg-Hodge sees this process of rebuilding local communities as the only way to address the “crisis of the human spirit.” The breakdown of community engagement that occurred in Ladakh is very striking because it occurred so suddenly. Yet no region of the developed or developing world has escaped it.

The film ends on an extremely optimistic note, with numerous examples of international and community organizations working at the local level to support people as they reclaim their lives from multinational corporations.


Dr Stuart Jeanne Bramhall is a 64 year old American child and adolescent psychiatrist and political refugee in New Zealand. She has just published a free non-fiction ebook 21st Century Revolution, which can be downloaded at Her first book The Most Revolutionary Act: Memoir of an American Refugee describes the circumstances that led her to leave the US in 2002. Her website is