Author, film maker, linguist, and pioneer of the new economy movement
Helena’s story is a remarkable one. Born into an international family, and educated in Sweden, Germany, Austria, England and the United States, she specialized in linguistics, including studies with Noam Chomsky at MIT. In 1975, when she was living in Paris, she was invited to accompany a film team to the remote region of Ladakh, or ‘Little Tibet’. The area had been sealed off from the outside world and had only recently been opened.
“I joined the film team, thinking I would be there for six weeks. But in Ladakh I encountered the most vital, joyful people I had ever met, and I ended up staying a lifetime. The experience turned my Western worldview on its head.”
Helena became the first Westerner in modern times to master the Ladakhi language, and gained deep insights into the workings of one of the few cultures that remained untouched by the modern world.
“As I saw the encroachment of the modern economy and consumer culture into Ladakh, my eyes were opened to the devastation caused by conventional ‘development’ and ‘progress’. I saw the advent of unemployment, abject poverty, environmental decline, and epidemics of depression and social divisiveness – issues that I, like most Westerners, had assumed to be inevitable facts of life.”
In 1978 Helena founded the Ladakh Project, which countered the romanticised images of the Western consumer culture while strengthening traditional organic agriculture and introducing renewable energy as an alternative to fossil fuel-based development. This work garnered international respect. Ever since, Helena has been invited to speak at major institutions and universities around the world (including Harvard, Oxford and the World Bank) and has had meetings with prominent policy-makers from the White House to the European Commission.
Helena’s broad international experience forced her to question some of the fundamental assumptions of the modern economy.
“Seeing these changes across the globe, it became clear to me that many of our social and environmental problems are in fact the consequences of a global economic system which erodes local self-reliance and cultural self-respect. I started identifying the unchecked power of multinational corporations as a root cause of so much that is going wrong, and calling for a revision of conventional ‘development’ and globalising policies.”
Helena became a pioneer of the new economy movement, encouraging social and environmental activists to move beyond treating symptoms and to focus on the need for fundamental change to the economy. In 1992, she brought together leaders from the Global North and South to co-found the International Forum on Globalization (IFG), which challenged the global economic system.
“Even as our governments have subsidised and supported globalization, a counter-trend has been growing from the grassroots. From permaculture to slow money, from local food projects to community mutual aid networks, I have witnessed the emergence of what is in effect a worldwide localization movement. Localization demonstrates the potential for social and ecological healing through rebuilding place-based relationships. It is thanks to my ongoing contact with this grassroots movement that I continue to have much hope. The countless initiatives that comprise it point to the goodwill, perseverance and collaborative instinct of humanity.”
In 1983, Helena founded the international non-profit group Local Futures, which she still directs. In that role, she has initiated localization movements on every continent, particularly in South Korea, Japan, the UK, and Australia, and has launched both the International Alliance for Localization (IAL) and World Localization Day (WLD). She also co-founded the Global Ecovillage Network (GEN).
Over the decades, Helena’s work has attracted support from such prominent figures as HH the Dalai Lama, Jane Goodall, HRH Prince Charles and Indira Gandhi. Her unique contributions to international environmental and social movements have been recognised by numerous awards, including the Right Livelihood Award (aka the ‘Alternative Nobel Prize’), the Arthur Morgan Award and the Goi Peace Prize.
Almost fifty years since her journey began in Ladakh, Helena is still committed to raising awareness of the need for systemic change. She continues to collaborate with thought-leaders, activists and community groups across the globe.