1. adherence to moral and ethical principles; soundness of moral character; honesty.
2. the state of being whole, entire, or undiminished: to preserve the integrity of the empire.
3. a sound, unimpaired, or perfect condition: the integrity of a ship’s hull.
In the documentary* Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh, a health worker talks about the integrity of traditional people who inhabit the high Himalayan desert. The villagers, she says, take care of the land and water. They know not to throw rubbish in their waterways. In fact, there is no such thing as rubbish, because everything they gather is used to the fullest.
“See how good the villagers are?” she says, contrasting their lives with the decline of values (along with air and water quality) after this remote region of India was developed.
The film shows how the Ladakhis’ quality of life deteriorated after roads linked pristine “Little Tibet,” as the region is called, with the Indian plains. Ladakh had been a cooperative, sustainable society, based on traditional Buddhist values and the principles of interdependence. But once subsidized products, Western ideas/images, and tourism hit the region? It all changed rapidly.
Small farmers struggled to compete with lower-priced items trucked in from elsewhere. Villages dwindled as young people left their ancestral lands for paid employment. People began competing for scarce resources, where before there had been plenty for all, even with a brief four-month growing season and precious little rainfall.
With competition came enmity for “the other,” as insecurity became the new normal. Ethnic tensions, crime, and poverty, which had never before been an issue, began to taint the larger culture.
Then there were those waterways, which all became polluted around the cities and towns (where more and more people lived in housing developments completely disconnected from water sources.)
You could say it became harder to have integrity, both in terms of ethics and in terms of wholeness/soundness. And this is the state of much of the world, wherever global consumer culture has taken over.
What struck me about the film—even more than the clear contrast of Before and After documented by the venerable Helena Norberg-Hodge—was its demonstration of what human nature really is.
Were the villagers “good”—as in “better than” westernized society with its throwaway mentality and penchant for soiling everything worth protecting? Thinking this way puts such behavior on a pedestal.
But integrity is not some snooty, hard-to-reach thing involving self-sacrifice and personal pain. It is about wholeness, about choosing to act in ways that are aligned with our highest path and purpose.
Looking at footage of Ladakhi villagers laughing and singing as they help their neighbors harvest grain, you don’t get the sense that they are having hard time adhering to lofty principles. They’re simply acting in a way that makes total sense, that preserves life.
In other words, they live in a culture that nurtures alignment with true human nature, which wants to express itself through collaboration and interdependence—with other human beings and with the entire natural world.
Our culture is skewed to greed and self-interest, but this is not “human nature.” How hard is it to approach wholeness in a fractured culture? Really damn hard. You have to be willing to swim upstream, to pay attention, to make countercultural choices.
We have been taught to think that humans are inherently selfish. But voices like Norberg-Hodge challenge that notion, and tell us that we’re looking at humans in an artificially warped setting. Take away the subsidies, the dehumanizing images, the denigration of simple life with its wholesome collaboration, and something else might have a chance to emerge. Something based on a sense of belonging.
Until that day, we have to nurture a consciousness shift within ourselves and each other, toward alignment with our truest integrity.
*Note: See my earlier post about Norberg-Hodge and the need for relocalization.