Were things better in the ‘good old days’?

Language helps us to reflect upon the past. And ever since we’ve been able to do so, it seems, we’ve been comparing it unfavorably to the present.

In 500 BC, the Ancient Greeks lamented the passing of the supposed ‘Golden Age’. Back then, ‘men lived like Gods’. And every generation since the year dot seems to think that the next generation is screwing everything up. But should we be taking a conservative view and looking towards the past? Or taking a progressive view and looking toward the future?

Learning from Ladakh

In a recent family discussion, I was recommended the documentary Learning from Ladakh. And I did learn a lot, and it was a thought-provoking view. Here, I’ll take a look at some of the documentary’s main points. But this analysis should be read as a general piece on documentaries about ‘traditional’ culture. (That is, separated from ‘the modern west’ in either, or both, time and geography).

Helena Norberg-Hodge, author of the (well-reviewed and presumably more nuanced) book on which the documentary is based, points out that looking at ‘traditional cultures’ (like that in Ladakh) can help us to ‘understand what is going on in the west’. The film opens with shots of breathtaking natural scenery. Villagers explain how things are changing – for the worse – thanks to ‘modernisation’. The breakdown of families and communities. Increased pollution. It’s a familiar story, not only of the Ladakh community, at this time (the film was produced in the 1990s). Instead it’s seemingly relevant right the way round the world, at every point in history.

I completely agree that looking at other cultures can help us to better understand ourselves. But I’m not convinced that there really was ‘no pollution, no crime’ before the ‘traditional culture’ of Ladakh was corrupted by the ‘modern western world’. Or that ‘people lived peacefully side-by-side for centuries, and there was an incredible joy to life’. At least not universally.

‘Traditional culture’

Terms like ‘traditional culture’ always make my ears prick up.

It’s a form of romanticising both the past, and cultures we view as less ‘sophisticated’ than our own. It’s essentially a form of ‘primitivism’ – the idealisation of supposedly less ‘modern’ cultures as more ‘authentic’, ‘natural’ or ‘good’.

The ‘appeal to nature’ is a form of logical fallacy. It’s an argument that simply claims something is either good because it is natural, or bad because it is unnatural. For example, you’ll hear people say ‘childbirth without pain relief is better (or even beautiful) because it’s more natural’. If you agree, you should also agree it’s better to lose your leg than have it reattached after it’s severed by a falling stone. It is, after all, ‘more natural’.

‘The Noble Savage’

In literature, we see the ‘noble savage’, a character who embodies the supposed ‘innate goodness’ of humanity. Many modern films romantically portray ‘exotic’ peoples in this way. While it may seem flattering, in reality, it is frequently flattening . The process reduces people to a stereotype by ignoring individuality and the differences between the people of any given culture.

We are all a lot more complex than ‘inherently good’ ‘savages’ or ‘inherently bad’ ‘westerners’. We all have allegiances to a number of groups. Our family, our gender perhaps, our generation, our friends, the people we work with. And these relationships are different to the relationships of other members of our community. Sure, we may have a lot in common with others of our culture or language group or whatever. But no one is as uncomplicated as the ‘noble savage’ suggests.

The Ladakh culture of the 1990s was a ‘modern’ culture. The people there may have been living differently to how people in ‘the west’ did. But that doesn’t mean they weren’t living in the 1990s. Not only were Ladakhis engaging in global trade. But they had long-standing ties to the enormous global religions of Islam and Buddhism.

Let’s take a look at some of the arguments advanced (not just in this film, but in discussing the past in general) about why ‘traditional’ cultures are better:

Was the world better when there were fewer people?

The narration informs us Ladakh is almost the same size as England, but supports a population of 100,000. Most of whom work as farmers in small villages. According to the film, ‘cultural traditions’ have ‘helped to limit population growth and ensure that the natural carrying capacity of the land is not exceeded’.

Land, unlike a bus or an elevator, does not have a ‘carrying capacity’. A small amount of relatively fertile land will be able to sustain far more people than a large amount of land with no water and poor soil. A small amount of land in a temperate climate will sustain more than a large expanse in a desert or tundra. And we need to consider who is sustained, too. An increase in human population may mean a decrease in other animals – and vice-versa. Then there are different farming practices to consider.

The film doesn’t mention what these ‘cultural traditions’ limiting population growth are. In the absence of modern, reliable birth control, population growth is usually regulated by death. Life as a subsistence farmer is tough, especially with limited health care.

‘Cultural traditions’

Information on Ladakh is scarce, but statistics from the French website Peoples of the Himalayas suggest that child mortality is very high and the average life expectancy in Ladakh is just 42 years.

But there is another method, too: According to the Ladakh Dekho website,

‘The younger brother has a right over his brother’s wife to limit the number of offspring. If the brother wishes to marry another girl then he has no claim over the ancestral property and has to settle outside on his own.’

This practice is rare nowadays. But I imagine it’s the practice of all brothers sharing a single wife the film is referring to. Since a woman can only sustain one pregnancy at a time, the population is kept down.

Was the world better when communities (and economies) were smaller?

The small-scale of the Ladakh economy gave people the security ‘of knowing that they can depend on one another’. This is certainly a major benefit of smaller communities. As the film points out, being part of a smaller community means it is easy to know that ‘helping others is in [your] own interest’. And this is something, I think, we can learn from Ladakh. We need to make it clearer that cooperating is better than competing with one another.

The ability to know and support one another becomes harder the more people there are to keep track of. Especially in the absence of technology. This is one of the reasons I believe in smaller class sizes at schools. But as anyone who has lived in a small community knows, there is an unfortunate flip side. If you’re different, if you don’t fit in, you will be ostracised. And it is much harder to find others like you in a small community. Having a sexual orientation other than straight, a desire to do something with your life other than farming, being an atheist or wanting to believe in another religion other than that accepted in your community, having a disability or a mental illness are all common reasons to be ostracised from small communities.

Was the world better when everyone had their own land?

The people of Ladakh, the documentary tells us, live in a close relationship with the earth. This is something reinforced by their religion (Tibetan Buddhism is specifically mentioned here). ‘The religion permeates all aspects of life. Almost every village has its own monastery. Most households have at least one family member at the monastery, and there is constant interaction between villagers and monks.’

This relationship is portrayed in a very positive light. But I have to question whether the same would be true if the film focused on the parts of Ladakh that practice Islam. Or, for that matter, if it were describing the parts of the United States which have crosses and monuments of the ten commandments.

According to the film, 90% of all Ladakhi families own their own land. This is indeed laudable, however, high rates of home ownership are not exclusive to so-called ‘traditional’ communities.

Romania, Singapore, and Slovakia all have home ownership rates higher than 90%. China and Cuba also sit at 90%. And Croatia and Lithuania are very close (89.7% and 89.4% respectively).

What do these places have in common? A history of communism or socialism.

Urban slum or countryside idyll?

The first part of the film closes with shots of basic dwellings the narrator describes as ‘graceful’. And in their own way, they are. I can honestly see myself being happy to live in one. But context is so important.

These are simple, mud brick homes, seemingly with no glazing or modern utilities. Indeed, the Peoples of the Himalayas site states there is no electricity or running water.

Viewed from afar, in the middle of sprawling flower-filled meadows, its easy to see these domiciles as idyllic. But transport them to a city, and I doubt the film makers would describe these houses in such glowing terms.

A lack of sanitation is a lack of sanitation. And cold is cold, wherever you are. How cold is it in Ladakh? It’s not mentioned in the film, but despite oppressive summer heat, in winter it gets down to minus 40 degrees. In the winter of 2004/5 there was 9 metres of snow in the valleys of Ladakh and Zanskar. This is a place for the brave.

It’s important to note that Ladakhi families own land along with their homes – an average of 3-4 acres. This much land is necessary, because there are few options for income other than farming in the region.

But would this be sustainable for everyone?

Estimates suggest that if we were to divide up all of the inhabitable land on earth, each person might receive a half to three acres. So we could, in theory, divide it all up and give everyone their own house and land.

At least, initially.

Problems arise when it comes to the next generation. And as people are constantly dying, being born, marrying, and divorcing, this is a major problem.

According to the film, ‘Landholdings are neither sold nor divided but passed on in tact from one generation to the next’.

The problem of inheritance

As ideal as this sounds, a number of questions spring to mind. What happens when an individual (or couple or thruple or whatever in this polyandric system) has no children? When they have multiple children (since most cultures have traditionally passed property only to the oldest male)? Or if all of their children are female?

Referring again to the Ladakh Dekho website, we can get a little more information:

‘The practice of heritage by primogeniture, ‘fraternal polyandry’ and the withdrawal of the older members of the family as soon as the eldest son is grown-up enough and prepared to take care of the family and able to handle family responsibilities, are all examples of the same. According to the Ladakhi customs, the eldest son inherits the father’s property that gives him complete authority over the land ancestral property without any dispute. The younger son cannot claim the portion of the acquisition and they have to accept the authority if they wish to live under his guidance.’

So what happens when the younger brother decides not to share his brother’s wife? Or live under his brother’s authority? When he is ten forced to set up elsewhere? If none of the lands are ever sold or divided, must he conquer new lands?

Things just used to be better…

It’s pretty clear that, like any culture on earth, the traditions of Ladakhi culture might be more desirable for some than others. Pretty much every culture on earth has a poor track record when it comes to treating its citizens equally. But in this case, simply by virtue of your sex or your position in the birth order, you may be excluded from ever owning your own home. Choosing your own spouse. Or deciding how many children you would like to have. (When researchers asked women what they want, they found that 69% of women in Ladakh were in favour of birth control. Including permanent measures, despite being made to feel guilty about it by religion and family. Just 9% were opposed).

Decisions in the Ladakh community are made by a council of representatives of groupings of households. Unsurprisingly, these representatives are men. Again, this is not an issue specific to Ladakhi society. In many ‘modern’ ‘western’ countries, women have the right to participate in politics and lawmaking on paper, but are woefully underrepresented in reality. The film continues:

‘Although most of the formal decisions are taken by men, women in Ladakh enjoy a remarkably high position. Almost all of the important decisions affecting people’s lives are taken at the household level, where women are at the centre.’

This sounds remarkably similar to some of the arguments I studied on women’s role in Japan in the 1990s. That it didn’t matter women didn’t have adequate representation in the world of politics or economics or pretty much anywhere else for that matter. They made the ‘real’ decisions in the domestic sphere. Doling out pocket money to their husbands, or determining what to have for dinner. If we can see that this doesn’t cut it in an industrialised country such as Japan, we should be able to see it’s not fair in Ladakh either.

… at least, for some

In the ‘traditional society’, the film claims, ‘people were largely in charge of their own lives. Nowadays, more and more decisions, even decisions affecting everyday life in the village, are made in distant offices.’

The centralisation of power and disenfranchisement are real and pressing issues. But I take issue with the claim people were in charge of their own lives. By my calculation, only around 9% of the population in this system had any real control or self-determination. (That is, the eldest males of the family who got to rule over their brothers and shared wife. At least until they got too old).

While I won’t go into the specifics of this calculation here (that would be a whole other blog post!) it does call to mind another question. What happens to all of the ‘excess’ women? The ones who aren’t wives?

(Maybe not women)

It’s difficult to find information on Ladakhi women in particular. But the Peoples of the Himalayas site provides one hint. It seems the women (and children) are used as workers: farming ‘labor is mainly done by the women and children from an early age. At these high altitudes, an important part of farm work is carrying heavy loads. This brings on premature aging.’ Certainly images of Ladakhi women show many of them stooped over carrying enormous loads of produce. Many of the people in the documentary look far, far older than in their 40s despite this being unlikely.

According to the film, ‘the position of women’ has suffered since Ladakh’s modernisation. ‘Now, typically, the man of the house will go off to work in town, leaving his wife to spend the day at home, alone, cut off from the centre of the new economy’.

I do not wish to downplay the isolation that can accompany being a stay-at-home parent or housewife. But I find it interesting the film only problematises the position of women in relation to this ‘western’ culture. Women were cut off from the economy in the ‘traditional’ culture, too. Why idealise one and demonise the other?

‘Real’ economics

None of the above means there is nothing to learn from Ladakh, or from this film specifically. One man comments that ‘real’ economists are those who take care of resources, rather than trying to increase production endlessly. I couldn’t agree more – in fact, that’s what ‘economise’ means.

Was the world better before money?

The narration claims ‘In the new money economy, traditions of cooperation have lost their meaning, and are fast disappearing’. Government official Dr. Mohammed Deen describes how previously, people depended on one another, and that’s why they stayed close. Now they have money, they don’t need each other.

It’s easy to view this as sad – but on the other hand, what sort of relationship is based primarily on need? Imagine a man withholding all finances from his wife on the basis that if she had her own money, she wouldn’t need him. Most people would (rightly) be unimpressed by the strength of such a relationship, and many would even term this ‘abuse’. Or think of a religion, forcing adherents to hand over all their money, on the basis that if they had money, they might leave the faith. Most people would (rightly) be unimpressed by the strength of these people’s belief, and many would even term this a ‘cult’.

Why is this any different?

Relationships that exist absent of need are deeper and more meaningful, based on mutual respect and enjoyment rather than a tit-for-tat game. Yes, cooperation and charity are absolutely vital ingredients of any society, but they aren’t the only ones.

Real problems have occurred. There is a gap between rich and poor. There is an issue of homelessness. And irresponsible or insensitive tourism has also caused issues. Negative stereotypes of women as sexual objects and men as violent are present in imported films.

This culture, Norberg-Hodge argues, of racing around on motorbikes and images of fast cars, is ‘teenage boy’ culture: ‘it appeals to teenage boys, but no one else’. She is not incorrect. But, as I think I’ve shown above, the traditional way of life also privileged young men. Ladakh is in no way unique in this regard. No culture is perfect, nor should we expect it to be.

Was the world better before modern education?

Education is one of the biggest threats, Deen continues. I do have some sympathy for this point. The film points out the fact that there is a big gap between what children are learning, and what they will have an opportunity to actually use. The types of jobs they are training for are scarce. This is absolutely a problem, not only in Ladakh but around the world.

As the economy changes, we need to move away from training people to be workers – mere cogs in the machine, whether that be agricultural, industrial, or corporate, and towards being better citizens.

The children’s writing letters to Japanese penpals is held up as example of the ‘terrible’ education system. I find it hard to understand why people learning about other cultures is a negative. Indeed, it is ostensibly what we’re supposed to be doing in watching this very documentary!

Child labour

Back in Fiji, I remember being struck by the number of posters children had drawn highlighting the importance of education, and the impact of child labour.

A woman in the film complains life is much harder now that her children are at school. Without them, she must herd the livestock alone. Her husband is a teacher. Two of her children are at school in the 8th and 10th grades, and another is studying to become an engineer. She has to look after the farm, and her youngest child.

It’s easy to feel sympathy, and one should. She has a mammoth task to undertake. But at the same time, it’s easy to imagine another narrator telling this tale quite differently. Forcing children to learn things that will not be of benefit to them in future is undoubtedly wrong. But so, I would argue, is child labour. I’m not suggesting kids shouldn’t help out around the home. But a system in which a teacher cannot make enough to support his wife and four kids is a broken one. And yes, that includes much of the ‘modern west’. In other words, I don’t believe education in and of itself is a problem here. Rather, it is the nature of the education, and the lack of a living wage for parents.

Education and culture

Another issue raised by Deen is the fact that various faith-based groups run the schools. Children from Buddhist, Islamic, and Christian backgrounds are segregated. This is something I have railed against in the past – whether segregation is occurring for economic or religious reasons. But it is not as if this is a new concept. Right at the beginning of the film, the narrator informed us that Ladakh has Muslim regions and Buddhist regions. And in the Buddhist regions, pretty much every family has someone in the monastery. It doesn’t sound like much intermingling was going on back then either.

Yet, education may also allowat least some young people to get to know people from other backgrounds. One PhD student from Ladakh interviewed by The Better India commented, ‘Growing up in Kargil, my parents compelled me to study the Quran, even though I wasn’t particularly interested in it. At home and school, it was my Muslim identity that took precedence. But when I stepped into Delhi for college, all that changed, and I was clubbed alongside my fellow Buddhists from Leh and North-easterners because of my ethnicity. Although things tend to get a little heated between students of both religious communities in Chandigarh and Srinagar, I got along very well with my Buddhist friends from Leh. When I return to Kargil for the holidays, however, it’s more of the same’. Other young Ladakhis people from Ladakh are now looking to reinvigorate some of the region’s sustainable traditions of building.

The trade-offs of modernisation

The narrator concludes that ‘modernisation is no doubt bringing some short-term material benefits’. This characterisation ignores the enormous boosts in literacy and health. The region in which Ladakh exists has more than doubled its literacy rate from 26% to 67%. While hospitals in the region are still some of the most neglected, patients can access lifesaving treatments via army helicopter airlifts in situations previously fatal.

One of the interviewees claims Ladakhis posses a wisdom that is unique in the world. One which permits them to see what is going to be ‘useful for your future, regardless of how advantageous it is now’.

‘Unique’ is another word I’m skeptical of. Everything is unique – and therefore, nothing is unique in that regard.

It simply cannot both be true that the ‘modernisation’ of Ladakh has been, and will continue to be, mostly harmful and that the Ladakhi people are exercising a special wisdom that permits them to see what is going to be best in the future.

Ladakhis have participated actively in this modernisation – even through manipulation by global market forces. If they are doing so because they see it as their best course of action, and the film is right they posses a particular wisdom to know this, then the film must be wrong in its portrayal of the modernisation as mostly harmful.

Alternatively, if the film is correct in portraying the modernisation as mostly harmful, either the Ladakhis are not utilising their special wisdom, or, like the majority of people in the world, they find it difficult to resist the allure of cheap foods, high tech consumer goods and fashion.

It doesn’t have to be one way or the other

I consider myself as both a social and economic progressive. But I do not believe we need to choose between the ‘old’ and the ‘new’, the ‘traditional’ and the ‘modern’. Considering everything that is old inherently good, and everything that is new inherently bad is not only intellectually lazy, but ultimately harmful.

I believe our goal should be to evaluate our current predicament. Look at what has worked in the past, discard what hasn’t, and think about what might work best in the future. That is true progress. Not new for novelty’s sake. Not old for the sense of ‘tradition’ it gives us and nothing more. But a true sense of working towards something together.

Money doesn’t bring happiness. But neither does poverty.

Another interviewee admits that life has become more comfortable and luxurious. ‘But these things don’t bring happiness’ he says. And he is not wrong. But discomfort, disease, and poverty don’t bring happiness either. It’s a fantastic quote, but it’s not the whole picture. Babies dying of diarrhea are not happy – nor their grieving parents.

The film concludes that we cannot go back to living like the Ladakhis. But, it says, we should find a way of living that is more connected with each other, and the earth. I totally agree.

A vision for the future

One of my favourite books is Your Money or Your Life. Chapter six of the original 1992 edition, free online, outlines an interesting vision for the future:

Roger has a vision of young men and women going to the city for five years or so, achieving Financial Independence and then returning to their rural homes with a secure cash flow and a high quality of life.

I’ve written a little more about how this could be a reality elsewhere on Enrichmentality. It’s one way , I think, of having the best of both worlds. And really, why shouldn’t we?

Why settle for a ‘traditional’ way of life with its short life expectancy? (I imagine many of my readers, if they lived in the ‘traditional’ ways of Ladakh would already be dead or close to it. As well as unable to read this in the first place owing to a lack of literacy and electricity).

Equally, why settle for a ‘modern’ way of life with decreased community ties and environmental consequences?

What do you think?

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