A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

A Life of True Surplus

In India, a people who share their work, lives and their resources

By Margaret Campbell

In the house my grandfather built on Cape Cod in 1904 there’s a box under the sink filled with little balls of string. My mother never threw out a piece of string and so there they are, long after her death, mutely standing by to perform a useful service. We never threw out gift wrap or shoe boxes. That was embarrassing to me at one point in my life, but then I lived in India for a year. Nothing useful is ever wasted there.

Once when I was wandering my small town looking for a nail, a kind shopkeeper rummaged around in boxes at the back of his store and came up with a handful of rusty bent ones, and, beaming, handed me four. I carry one in my change purse as a touchstone.

In July, my husband and I visited Ladakh, a region of India at more than 12,000 feet of elevation and in the Himalayan “rain shadow,” so that rainfall amounts to less than four inches a year. This extraordinary geography resembles nothing if not the moon, yet the Ladakhi people lack for nothing. They grow a surplus of food, and have for hundreds of years.

The air is as thin as tea in Leh, the capital of Ladakh. Simply walking to our cottage had us gasping. The clarity of the sky turns one’s thoughts to the imponderable and magnificent, and huge prayer wheels whirl their wishes to the wind.

Although summer nights are cool, as soon as the sun makes its appearance the earth warms, nurturing enough barley for the long winter, with enough excess to brew chang, the local beer. Squinting at a neighborhood in Leh, you might think you were in a prosperous suburb of Atlanta, with commodious homes surrounded by greensward.

Surplus through stewardship

How do they live like this? Because of stewardship. They carefully marshal slender resources. Irrigation comes from glacial snow melt – there is no ground water and hardly any rain. They painstakingly dig and maintain ditches to channel water according to a shared agreement about whose fields are due for irrigation. Nothing is wasted. Farm animal and human waste is composted to make fertilizer. Plants are employed for food, medicine and building materials. Goat, sheep and yak hair is hand-spun, woven and sewn into clothing and blankets. When fabric is too worn to be patched further, it’s used to chink holes.

Perhaps the most impressive surplus is time. How would it feel to work hard only four months of the year? Although the climate and terrain are harsh, there is no rush in the day’s activities, even during the critical growing and harvest times. Work is accompanied by song and there is time for play and conversation. When was the last work day you spent without any hurry? For me? Never.

Frugal is fruitful

Helena Norberg-Hodge, in her excellent book Ancient Futures: Lessons from Lakakh for a Globalizing World, points out that the word frugal has its origins in the Latin word frux meaning fruit, produce or value. The sense of the word evolved from “useful” or “valuable,” to “profitable” or “living without waste” to its current whiff of stinginess. Can the history of our attitude toward our world be summed up in this transition? What once was “valuable” is now “not enough?”

We loved the ability to make do that we saw everywhere in India, but we despaired over the garbage. A culture that wastes nothing doesn’t need waste management. But when you add the powerful marketing and distribution systems of global products companies, the winds of change sweep plastic bottles and packaging into dunes of garbage.

A unique culture

Globalization has had less influence in Ladakh because of its isolation, ruggedness and self-sufficiency. What can we learn from this unique culture? Ladakh is uniquely unspoiled largely because it was closed to tourists until the 1970s. But traditional ways are being replaced by more consumer-oriented ways of living, and the way Ladakhi people think and talk about themselves is shifting, especially among the young. Whereas before, their fortunes might fluctuate with good harvests and bad, there was no sense of being impoverished. Now many who interact with the wider world consider Ladakh backward; they want what Americans have.

“But what Americans have will mean life changes that could undercut the Ladakhi culture: longer hours, constant production, and, perhaps, a lot of wasted string. But perhaps Americans could adopt some of the Ladakhis ways as well: cooperation, and sharing their lives and resources. I’m going to try to start the balling rolling myself. After all, I have plenty of string.”

To learn more about Ladakh and efforts to preserve traditional culture there, visit:
The Ladakh Ecological Development Group
The Economics of Happiness
Images of Ladakh